It is a book with an ending, but not a conclusion. It has taken two years of compiling what assistant general manager Tony LaCava describes as being “bits and pieces” of wisdom and analysis to finally put together the Toronto Blue Jays’ player development manual.
It is all words and intentions to go along with an extra short-season team in Bluefield, W.Va., for all the young talent and a pile of breathless spring training dispatches and laudatory articles from Baseball America. Everybody loves the Blue Jays’ minor-league system once again, and general manager Alex Anthopoulos hopes they’re right.
“The truth is, we haven’t won anything and we don’t even know if what we’re doing is going to work,” Anthopoulos said, stopping just short of being the same kill joy he was at the winter meetings when he made his attendance and payroll link. “Don’t get me wrong: We believe it will and we hope it will, but it would be a little arrogant and presumptuous of me to start talking about how great we are.”
Rating prospects is still a mug’s game. Noah Syndergaard is regarded by Baseball America as the Blue Jays’ eighth-best prospect, yet when the Oakland Athletics spoke to the Blue Jays about a trade for Gio Gonzalez they had Syndergaard at the top of their list. Still, given the Blue Jays’ focus on accumulating compensatory draft picks and their financial commitment to the amateur draft, it stands to reason that depth would be impressive.
The Blue Jays forked out $11-million (all figures U.S.) in the 2011 draft, despite not signing first-round pick Tyler Beede. That was just shy of the club-record $11.6-million spent in 2010, when the Blue Jays had nine picks in the first three rounds and landed pitchers Deck McGuire, Justin Nicolino, Aaron Sanchez, Asher Wojciechowski and Syndergaard.
The Blue Jays were no less aggressive in the 2009 draft, giving third-round pick Jake Marisnick $1-million despite an off-year in his senior season in high school and major concerns about his swing, and going over slot to sign right-hander Drew Hutchison, a 15th-round pick, for $400,000 – essentially, a major-league-minimum salary. Since 2010, the Blue Jays have also handed out seven-figure bonuses to four international free agents, including a $10-million deal to Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. He’ll be in Toronto on an everyday basis in some capacity in the 2013 season.
Sal Fasano gets to do more than read about all these players. He saw them all spring at the Bobby Mattick Training Center and he managed some of them to the Double-A Eastern League title with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, including top-ranked prospect catcher Travis d’Arnaud and the organization’s lead-off hitter of the future, Anthony Gose.
D’Arnaud and pitcher Kyle Drabek were acquired as part of the booty for Roy Halladay. Gose came along in a trade with the Houston Astros for Brett Wallace, who was acquired from the Athletics in a trade for another minor leaguer acquired in the Halladay deal, Michael Taylor. No wonder LaCava says that the Blue Jays “jump-started our minor-league system with the Halladay deal.” “What we have now is a group of interchangeable parts at the minor-league level,” Fasano said. “One guy goes, somebody else is promoted.”
It is the levels of talent that are impressive. D’Arnaud, McGuire and Drew Hutchinson (numbers eight and nine) and pitcher Chad Jenkins are lined up behind Drabek and knocking on the door for 2012 if needed. They will at worst be September call-ups. Gose, rated No. 2 by Baseball America, will push the envelope by cutting down on his strikeouts.
Behind them are two other groups, including two Canadian-born outfielders who have blossomed: Mississauga native Dalton Pompey (a 19-year-old and 16th-round pick in 2010 who was name-dropped by manager John Farrell in a spring training conversation around the batting cage) and Michael Crouse, a 6-4 beast from Port Moody, B.C., who was drafted in the 16th round in 2008 as a crude, power prospect and who took a big step up at Single-A Lansing in 2011.
Anthopoulos and LaCava do not deny there is now a prototypical player and pitcher that will catch the Blue Jays’ eyes at draft time. But they won’t go any further.
“What I’d say is that more and more in the past couple of years, I realized how much I like athletes,” Anthopoulos said. LaCava isn’t all that forthcoming, either, beyond saying the player must be athletic, “a good size,” and be projectable: meaning a scout can make a case the player has a high ceiling that will not be maximized early in his development.
“Basically,” LaCava explained, “our goal is to give Alex as many internal options as possible to fill needs at the major-league level. That includes trades.”
Gose is one to watch in 2012. He increased his walk rate in 2011 as well as his power numbers, but his contact rate dipped as he struck out 154 times in 587 plate appearances. But there’s a story behind those numbers: Drafted in the second round by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008, he was taught to chop down and use his speed. The Blue Jays overhauled his swing and want him to go gap to gap, channelling his natural power. Then, as Fasano said, they “took the handcuffs off” in Double-A.
As Anthopoulos said, it made no sense to overhaul Gose’s swing and then take the bat out of his hands. The results were predictable, and the Blue Jays hope a season at Triple-A Las Vegas, where he’ll see more crafty off-speed pitches, will be a necessary next step in his development.
“I know I need to improve my two-strike approach,” said Gose, whose personality arrived in the majors two years ago. “I need to battle more. It was never about that last year; it was about swing mechanics.
“The rest of the stuff? Leading off ... being closer to the majors ... that’s all hearsay.”
Music to Anthopoulos’ ears, no doubt.
10 TO WATCH
Jays prospects, according to Baseball America, with their estimated time of arrival in the majors
1. Travis d’Arnaud, C, 23 (ETA: 2012)
2. Anthony Gose, CF, 21 (ETA: 2013)
3. Jake Marisnick, CF-RF, 21 (ETA: 2014)
4. Daniel Norris, LHP, 18 (ETA: 2015)
5. Justin Nicolino, LHP, 20 (ETA: 2014)
6. Aaron Sanchez, RHP, 19 (ETA: Sept., 2015)
7. Noah Syndergaard, RHP, 19 (ETA: 2015)
8. Deck McGuire, RHP, 23 (ETA: 2012)
9. Drew Hutchison, RHP, 21 (ETA: 2012)
10. Asher Wojciechowski, RHP, 23 (ETA: 2014)