There were some ups and downs last year, but the Blue Jays farm system continues to be one on the rise.
The amateur scouting department has added some top-flight talent in the past several drafts, the international scouts continue to come up with top prospects, and the high performance staff is expanding its reach throughout the system. Director of Player Development Gil Kim has added some top-notch minor league staff, many of whom have extensive coaching and teaching backgrounds.
On the negative side, several pitching prospects stumbled last season, a number of prospects (an MLB-leading 7 in all) tested positive for banned substances, and after several seasons of relative health among their minor league Pitchers, four underwent (or are about to undergo) season-ending throwing arm surgeries this spring.
President/CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins have a well-known preference for scouting, drafting, and development. With new Amateur Scouting Director Steve Sanders added to the mix, the Blue Jays have quickly re-stocked their system by adding college players with proven track records on day one of the MLB draft, and those whose draft stock fell, as well as toolsy-but-raw high schoolers on the following two days.
That approach has landed them likely future MLBers like T.J. Zeuch and Bo Bichette in 2016, as well as Nate Pearson, Logan Warmoth, and Riley Adams last year. In addition, promising players like Josh Palacios, Kevin Smith, Ryan Noda, and Chavez Young (who has reached full season ball this year after being selected in the 39th round in 2016) have been added.
International Free Agents
Shapiro and Atkins were indeed fortunate to have inherited Vladimir Guerrero Jr, whose $3.9 million signing bonus may become one of the greatest bargains in baseball history since the Red Sox all but donated Babe Ruth to the Yankees.
The team was limited in the bonuses it could offer in 2016 in the wake of going over their limit after signing Guerrero, but they picked up where they left off last July 2nd, signing the top-ranked IFA Pitcher (Eric Pardinho), and the top-ranked bat (Miguel Hiraldo), landing 5 of the top 40 ranked prospects in all. And they’re linked to Dominican SS Orelvis Martinez, who is expected to be one of the highest-paid IFAs this year.
The High Performance Department
He has not said so publicly, but having the resources to put together this group must have been a huge factor in persuading Shapiro to move to Toronto.
Long a staple in Olympic and European club sports, the HP group oversees every aspect of the team’s player’s nutrition, conditioning, and sleep. They have added diet specialists to each minor league affiliate, and are very involved in evaluating draft candidates. Concepts such as mindfulness have been introduced to prospects, as well as the importance of recovery. Other clubs may be getting on board, but the Blue Jays are still very much at the forefront of this development, and may have the best-staffed department in the game.
The impact of the HP department won’t be seen overnight, but if the success in other sports are any example (Britain went from one gold at the 1996 Olympics to 2nd overall in the standings in 20 years thanks largely to a sport science-based approach to training and development), the Blue Jays may have a competitive advantage in this area, which should manifest in better developed prospects by 2020.
Today’s players don’t necessarily respond well to yesterday’s coaching. As veteran minor leaguer Maxx Tissenbaum said in an interview with us earlier this year:
….it’s no longer good enough as an instructor to go in there and teach stuff and scream and yell. You really have to be a manager of people, especially with the younger guys. You can’t connect with 17-18-and 19 year olds if you’re constantly raining down, “This is what you have to do.”
With that in mind, the Blue Jays revamped their minor league staff last spring, bringing on board a number of coaches with extensive coaching and teaching experience, particularly at the college level. Director of Minor League Operations Gil Kim has also indicated that the club has built its staff with the diversity of its players in mind:
We aim to provide these players with the best resources possible, and that very much includes the people that these players will work with and learn with. We’re a diverse and multi-cultural game. We have players in this organization from different backgrounds and from all over the world, so it’s an advantage to also build a diverse and multi-cultural staff as well.
Baseball America ranks the Blue Jays farm system 7th in the game, while MLB Pipeline has it 9th. ESPN’s Keith Law is not as high on the organization, however, ranking the Blue Jays 17th. In Law’s view, Guerrero and Bichette (who Law says, “plays as if his hair is one fire,”) skew the rankings, and cover up concerns like Anthony Alford’s injury history, and the struggles of the AA rotation last year – his suggestion is that once you get past the top guys, things get a little thin.
The struggling Fisher Cats starters
Sean Reid-Foley, Conner Greene, and Jon Harris all entered 2017 with high rankings. SRF and Harris gave up a fair amount of hard contact, while Greene failed to miss many bats for a guy with his heat. Entering this season, Reid-Foley and Harris are repeating AA, while Greene was shipped to the Cardinals in the Randall Grichuk trade.
Zeuch missed much of 2017 with injury issues, but did redeem himself with a fine Arizona Fall League showing. He will repeat Dunedin this year, at least until the northeastern weather warms up.
As a result, Pearson has become the top Pitching prospect in the organization – in fairness, he probably would be the top one in most other systems, but his ascent after a rather limited pro debut (20 IP) does point to the struggles of the other arms.
The Blue Jays have quietly been at the forefront in implementing technology to help protect the arms of their young pitchers. After 5 Blue Jays prospects underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 (not counting 1st rounder Jeff Hoffman, who had it before he was drafted), the team has had relative success in that area, with only three Pitchers requiring it since them.
2018 has not been as kind. Eliesier Medrano fanned 26 in 23 innings for the GCL Jays last season, before being shut down at the end of July. He had Tommy John in the off-season. Southpaw Grayson Huffman had elbow issues all spring training, and was saying as April approached that he was headed for the operating room. And as spring training closed, word came out that Canadian Tom Robson, who had a successful season after being converted to a relief role at New Hampshire, has torn his UCL again, and will need a second Tommy John.
Justin Maese became a Pitching prospect on the rise after a standout 2016 season, but struggled with his command at Lansing last year, and spent time on the DL. Shortly afer spring training began, he had surgery to correct a shoulder impingement, and is likely done for the year.
7 prospects connected with the Blue Jays Dominican complex tested positive for PEDs in 2017. In March, we learned that LHP Thomas Pannone, acquired in the Joe Smith deal with Cleveland, had a positive test as well. Say what you will about the judgement (or lack thereof) of their players, this does not reflect well on the Blue Jays as an organization. The players may have taken the substances, whether they were aware of what was in them or not, but it’s up to the team to provide the education to make informed choices.
In Guerrero and Bichette, the Blue Jays have two of the top 10 prospects in the game. Toss in Alford and Pearson, and you have 4 of the top 100. Danny Jansen, Richie Urena, and Ryan Borucki all appear to be destined to join the team at some point this season. Warmoth and Pearson are on the way, with Pardinho behind them, and a decent draft pick (12th overall) awaiting the team this June.
The goal of the Blue Jays front office is to build a farm system that continually produces waves of prospects to challenge and supplement the 25-man roster. Shapiro told Sportsnet’s Jeff Blair that it was a point of pride that the team did not sign a minor league free agent position player this off-season, such was the depth in the organization, and that overall, he’s pleased with the direction the system is headed, but there’s room for improvement:
“We’ve made progress, but we need to have waves of talent. Not just good talent, but impact talent. We need to not just talk about [Vladimir Guerrero Jr.] and Bo Bichette, but we need to be able to reel off [several] names. [It’s] a really risky proposition [to] pin your hopes on two guys.”
The Blue Jays have pursued a different drafting and development philosophy than they did under former GM Alex Anthopoulos, but for those who are critical of AA, keep in mind that Guerrero, Alford, Borucki, Jansen, and Urena were all signed during his tenure. With those players are on the brink of MLB jobs, and a growing supply of players behind them, strong minor league instructors, and a staff of sport scientists devoted to their training and development, the Blue Jays are poised to reap the benefits of a strong farm system.