A Toronto Sun Columnist and the ‘Real’ Story on Bo Bichette

Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons penned a column today entitled “The Fight to Bring Bo Bichette to the Blue Jays.” 

Normally, I don’t tend to bite when a Toronto media guy who usually covers hockey dangles a bit of clickbait, but this article is not much more than a thinly disguised Shatkins pile on.

I won’t even get into Simmons’ bizarre Phil Kessel hot dog story.  At best, this is some revisionist history.

The main premise of Simmons’ piece is that new Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins (and, by extension, Pres/CEO Mark Shapiro) didn’t want to draft Bichette with their first of two picks in the second round because a high school position player didn’t fit their drafting preferences, and they wanted Ole Miss OF JB Woodman:

What Shapiro and Atkins didn’t want — and were adamant about it — were high-school players. They especially didn’t want high-school position players.

While the Indians, Shapiro and Atkins’ former team, did show a preference for selecting high school Pitchers (Brady Aiken, Triston McKenzie, Justus Sheffield) in the years just prior to their arrival in Toronto, they did select a HS SS from Puerto Rico by way of Florida HS in 2011 named Francisco Lindor with their first pick, a feat they matched two years later when they selected Georgia HS OF Clint Frazier.  Since coming to Toronto, they’ve taken a HS C in the 2nd round (Hagen Danner, 2017), and a HS SS with their first pick last year, Jordan Groshans.  Yes, college players tend to be easier to evaluate because of the larger and longer body of work they’ve produced, but there isn’t a lot in the drafts Toronto and Cleveland have had under the supervision of Atkins and Shapiro to suggest that’s a hard and fast rule. That wasn’t exactly hard to look up, but why let facts get in the way of a good narrative?

I’ve talked at length to Blue Jays amateur scouting director Steve Sanders several times, and while he has mentioned a number of boxes that players have to check before the team selects them, he hasn’t mentioned such a draft preference.  Maybe that would be the sort of card he would keep close to his vest, but anyone can check BA’s or Baseball Ref’s database to get a sense of what their draft priorities have been.

We get a sense of where Simmons is going with this article with his second paragraph:

The Blue Jays’ second pick in the 2016 major league draft is 24 years old and already out of baseball. He was taken 57th overall.

JB Woodman, I can agree, was seen as a safe pick with the first of those two second round choices.  An all-around athlete, he led the strong SEC in Home Runs in his draft year – he had some difficulties with the wood bats in the Cape League the summer before, but he made sufficient decent loud contact after that in his final college season to give teams some hope that he could tap into his power as a pro.  Baseball America‘s draft report on Woodman:

  Woodman has a good pro body at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, and at least average speed that could allow him to stay in center field in the short run. He has enough arm strength for right field and checks a lot of the same boxes as former Ole Miss outfielder Seth Smith, who’s had a long big league career. He’s hit lefthanders well this spring and his performance could push him into the first three rounds.

Even though he finished his first pro season in the Northwest League with 72 whiffs, BA thought enough of him to name him their 6th best NWL prospect.

That, of course, would be the highest status the toolsy Woodsman would attain as a prospect.  Sent to Lansing for 2017, Woodman’s swing was, in the words of someone close to the team, “a mess,” and had too many people both inside and outside of the organization trying to help him correct it.  Likely frustrated and overwhelmed, Woodman fanned 157 times in just over 400 PAs, and the Blue Jays shipped him to the Cards in the Aledmys Diaz trade after that season.  After just 68 games with the Cardinals’ High A Florida State League affiliate in 2018, Woodman retired.  The tools were there for Woodman; apparently the make up wasn’t, and it’s probably not a coincidence the Blue Jays have put a premium on that “sixth tool” in their subsequent drafts.

As for Bichette, teams were definitely in on him, but there were some concerns, as Sportsnet’s Arden Zwelling outlined:

Bichette still had his doubters. While there’s a case to be made that he was the best hitter in his class — and he’ll make it for you, if you’d like — many teams expressed doubt about his size (he’s listed rather generously at six-foot, 200 pounds), how his violent swing would translate to pro ball, and whether or not he can stick at shortstop. Bichette also had strong opinions about the type of organization he wanted to join, telling some clubs not to bother drafting him because he felt they didn’t have a track record of encouraging individuality in their player development.

Simmons, of course, makes no mention of any of these potential red flags, only that the front office was concerned about having to go over slot to sign Bichette, which just about any MLB front office would factor in.  According to Simmons:

This wasn’t an easy conversation. Depending on who you speak to about this, there were  levels of contention here.

Welcome to the MLB draft, Steve.  Teams have their draft boards and their war rooms, but very few picks are consensus slam dunks.  Disagreements are common, and most decisions are reached by consensus, and only after considerable debate.  The scouting director, along with senior management, tend to have sway over the top picks, but as you go deeper into the draft, the cross checkers and area scouts become more influential in the process. Some have suggested that since amateur scouting director Blake Parker, a holdover from the Alex Anthopoulos regime, was let go after the 2016 draft, he must have led the charge against Shapiro and Atkins to make that pick.  We’ll never know for sure, of course, but it’s not unusual for a new administration to clean house, and Parker’s departure may have been nothing more than that.

A common draft strategy when teams have two picks in an early round is to take a “safe” pick with the first, and a more “high risk/high reward” selection with the second.  The Blue Jays have done that as recently as 2017, when they took North Carolina SS Logan Warmoth with their first pick at 21, and a fireballing, helium rising RHP from Florida with a screw in his elbow in Nate Pearson.  Taking Woodman with their first of two in the 2nd round and Bichette with the second appears to have been a similar strategy.  Take the safe guy with the first, roll the dice with the second.

Simmons demonstrates with this paragraph that he essentially doesn’t understand the job of an area scout:

  Those who know this story best call him the star of the Bichette story, other than the player himself. He got to know Bichette. Got to know his habits, his high school, his parents, almost everything you could get to know about the young shortstop. Bishoff watched him play high school games, play in off-season all-star tournaments, watched him work out at times with Troy Tulowitzki and Josh Donaldson.

Simmons is referring to Blue Jays FL scout Matt Bishoff.  There is no doubt as to Bishoff’s skills, he’s highly regarded in the industry, and the Blue Jays have shown their faith in his ability by giving him one of baseball’s richest talent fields to assay.  But the duties Simmons describe above are exactly what area scouts do.  They just don’t sit at ball games, take notes, and file reports; they get to know their players inside and out, often following them for years.  With all due respect to Bishoff, his input and legwork were definitely important factors in the drafting of Bichette, but Simmons elevates him to near mythical status for really just doing his job.

If a guy really doesn’t understand the scouting process, it’s tough to put much stock in his evaluation of it.  At the time of the draft, most teams probably had Woodman ranked higher on their draft boards than Bichette.  Woodman’s failure to develop as an MLBer was not a developmental W for the Jays just the same.  The story goes deeper than ‘they drafted a guy who was out of pro ball two years later.’

And look, I get it – Simmons has obviously talked to people, or talked to people who talked to people who were close to the Blue Jays draft war room that day.  But the whole process was not as simple as Woodman was worthless/Bichette almost didn’t become a Blue Jay because, well, Shatkins.

But Postmedia is not all that big on facts, verification, and nuance to begin with.    Hot dog, anyone?

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