FBJ Interview: Joe Sclafani

Joe Sclafani photo

We caught up with Blue Jays Assistant Director of Player Development Joe Sclafani recently. The former Dartmouth and Astros minor league player has largely taken over the day-to-day operations of the farm department with Director Gil Kim having added MLB coach to his portfolio.

As with everyone in the industry, Sclafani has had to make numerous adjustments due to the pandemic. At this time of year, he’s normally on the road several weeks out of every month, checking on staff and players at the Blue Jays minor league affiliates. This year, he’s at home in Florida, doing the lion’s share of his work through Zoom and other online means.

In a half-hour conversation, we talked about the progress of Jays prospects both at the alternate site in Rochester and across the continent…….

FBJ: Tell us how things have changed – and we know that you’ve added some new responsibilities to your job description – from say a year ago at this time.

JS: I’ve been lucky enough to work under some great people – some former farm directors, and I’ve worked really closely with Gil over the past several years, and we’ve really grown with the department together, so I felt somewhat prepared….although you can really never be prepared for all the added responsibilities, but Gil and I stay in touch all the time, so that any questions I have go through him. In a typical year we’re travelling a lot, and checking in on the affiliates – not only the players, but the staff there, see how everything’s going. The starkest change has been being at home, and only seeing people 2-D through Zoom calls. The challenge is trying to stay as connected with everyone as possible during this strange time – that everyone in the industry is dealing with – but it’s definitely a weird world without baseball. You’re used to dealing with 6-8 minor league games every day, plus the big club. We’re trying to take care of our kids the best we can from home. We have a lot of guys up with the big club now, so it’s been fun watching that, but we take for granted how great it is to follow games, story lines, and players on a day-to-day basis.

FBJ: When it comes to the minor league players, we’re talking about two perspectives here – the top guys at the alternate site, and the rest of the players spread across the continent. Let’s focus on the first group to start – how are things going at Rochester? We understand Ken Huckaby is doing his best to replicate game situations for the players.

JS: Those guys (minor league staff) in Rochester are to be commended on the job they’re doing of balancing driving development, and preparing guys to stay ready to potentially help the big league squad if and when they’re called upon. They’re doing a great job of trying to make things as game-like and competitive as possible. It’s a strange environment playing in an empty stadium – it’s kind of hard to get the blood pumping. In summer camp, they were in competition, and there was intensity, but now the staff is trying hard to recreate that competitive situation with live ABs and live innings…..it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, but they’re managing to put a good atmosphere together.

FBJ: There had been some talk of expanding alternative site rosters to give teams more flexibility in creating game-like situations for the players. We saw that Gaby Moreno had been promoted to the site, likely to give you guys a third Catcher there. Have you heard anything more about that?

JS: I have heard that, and I talked to (GM) Ross (Atkins) about it, but we haven’t heard anything further. The idea was to have 15 players and 5 staff per team so that they could play real games….right now they’re just doing simulated games, live bullpens, and what not, just trying to do the best they can. That would be great if we could do that, and for those kids involved – what a great development opportunity for them. Gaby was down in Florida – he was one of the Venezuelan guys who couldn’t get home. Once we got him to the complex and he started working out, we wanted to get him up there as soon as possible, because he’s a great athlete, great kid, a competitor, and we wanted to get him in that atmosphere. Plus we had only two Catchers (Alejandro Kirk and Riley Adams) there, and they were getting kind of worn out with all the sim games and bullpens, so his arrival was a good situation for everyone.

FBJ: Speaking of Moreno, we had a chance to get eyes on him for the first time at spring training in 2019, and his athleticism really stood out. He needs to refine his approach at the plate, but he’s like a cat behind it.

JS: Yeah, you really can’t replicate that athleticism. He’s still learning – he was a short stop when he signed him, but it speaks to what kind of kid he is when we asked him to move, and he was more than willing to do whatever it took to help. Once he got back there, he went into it head-first, and once he started learning the ropes of the position, the strides he made were really impressive. He’s still young, he has to learn more about game calling, working with pitchers, and game planning, but he’s really exciting – he’s a blast to watch, and you saw that.

FBJ: Can you give us an update on some of the other top prospects at the alternate site? We understand that Jordan Groshans is healthy, and Alek Manoah arrived recently.

JS: First off, Groshans – he’s just a great kid – it’s unfortunate that he missed a lot of time last year, but he learned so much when he was rehabbing. He was picking people’s brains, trying to learn as much as he can, always had a good attitude, and then to get the opportunity to go up to summer camp, and be with some of the older guys…he’s continuing the same thing. He’s asking lots of questions, he’s being challenged – I can’t imagine being out for about nine months like he was, then being thrown into a big league environment. I know he was a little overmatched at first, but he’s starting to figure things out. He’s worked a lot with (minor league hitting coordinator) Hunter Mense on the offensive side, and I’ve seen video and live streams from the alt site that shows he’s made great strides defensively. His footwork looks great – it’s clear that’s been an are of focus for him – and he’s been working with (minor league coach) Danny Solano and (MiLB manager) Cesar Martin, and the improvement he’s shown is exciting.

As for Manoah, he got up there about two or three weeks ago, but I haven’t seen too much of him yet, but in talking to our coaches, he looks good. That kid’s competitive – he was sending video of his bullpens, just him basically throwing in the street off of a portable mound to his brother, and he was up to 96, saying he was excited, “I can’t wait to get out there.” He never stopped working, and it’s going to be exciting to follow him.

(RHP) Joey Murray is another guy who has really stood out up there. One of his development goals was to increase his velocity….last I’d heard, he was working his butt off, and he’s touched 94 – the goal is to get him sitting there.

(First round pick) Austin Martin has mixed in really well with the guys at the alternate site. He’s learning, and always asking questions. He’s working a lot on the defensive part of his game right now……he really puts in good ABs night in and night out. That’s almost all I read in the reports I get, and anytime I talk to anyone (in Rochester) they say he doesn’t give in, never takes an AB off.

The position player our guys up there are most excited about is (OF) Josh Palacios. He’s made some great strides, and is just killing it up there. Every AB is good, he’s hitting the ball hard all over the place, and is turning into a tough out. Josh has been refining his approach at the plate…..and he’s been working hard on the defensive side as well. Palacios brings such a positive energy.

There have been positive reviews all around on (SS) Kevin Smith, especially on the offensive side. He’s made some adjustments at the plate…..Kevin is an intelligent kid, he’s thoughtful, asks questions, and he wants to know “why.” He’s worked really hard with (minor league hitting coordinator) Hunter Mense up there, and we’re seeing some results. (After a rough 2019) he kept his head up, went home and hit the restart, then came to spring training refreshed and in tremendous shape, and it was clear that he had worked his butt off in the off-season.

FBJ: Another guy who had his struggles in the second half last season was Patrick Murphy. Has he figured out the new delivery, is he healthy, and given the success of Jordan Romano, any thoughts about moving him from the rotation to the bullpen?

JS: Patrick is healthy, he looks good, and his velo is back up (high 90s). His curve still has that big bite on it.

It’s easy to dream on a two-pitch, 6’5″ power arm guy like Patrick out of the ‘pen, but we still think there’s a potential opportunity for him to be a starter, and obviously the Romano path is enticing to a degree, Patrick prefers to start, and that’s where he is for now. Ultimately, his future is up to to Gil and the front office……we definitely think that he can start, so we’ll give him the opportunity to do that….he’s doing well, working on his command, and he still has some other things to work on, but he looks good, he’s healthy, and his delivery – that was tough to change (as a result of MiLB deciding to call his toe tap a balk move) in mid-season, but he’s working on it.

FBJ: Alejandro Kirk became something of a cult hero in Canada during spring training. We know all about the bat, but how is his defensive game coming along? And what a great opportunity that must have been to have him on the taxi squad.

JS: Yeah, it’s not surprising that Kirky became so popular in Canada. He’s a tremendous kid, brings great energy, has a magnetic personality, and his teammates love him. With the bat – he controls the strike zone as well as anyone in the system. He doesn’t chase, makes you work for every out you get with him, and he squares up just about everything.

Behind the plate, we’ve adjusted his stance back there to help him be a little more athletic, and block pitches more consistently. It sounds like his receiving has become more consistent – he does move around back there better than people think, and the arm is solid. Kirky is a tireless worker, he wants to be great, and he accepts all feedback about his game. Like Moreno, he just needs to continue to work on game planning, how to read swings, and how to help pitchers as much as possible.

FBJ: That’s all great to hear about the alt site guys. How about the rest of the players in the system, who are basically spread all over the continent? How do you stay in touch and keep tabs on them?

JS: It’s challenging, but every team has to deal with it. When we first started, it was more like health and wellness checks…..every week we assigned different staff to groups of players….just trying to make sure they felt as connected and in the loop as possible. Once the cancellation of the minor league season was official, we shifted focus…we still have the same support groups, with staff checking in. This time we went through the same process as would ordinarily go through during spring training by identifying the highest leverage priorities for each player, and then worked together as a group to loop the player in as much as possible to get their input to build an action plan to accomplish those goals….the hard part of this was that each player has access to different resources, and may or may not be able to go facilities. We had to figure out what kind of equipment and resources they had first, then base those plans on that.

We check in with players every week or two….just try to stay in communication with them. They send videos, then we share them with staff members. This is a unique development opportunity, where you can make adjustments, and you don’t have to worry about performing every night. So it’s been cool to see these guys tackle that head on…it is challenging, but we’re trying to make the most of what we have.

FBJ: From a conversation we had with Gil in April, we understand that a number of Caribbean players were unable to get home when the pandemic hit, and were being housed in the Dunedin/Clearwater area. Are the still a number of them around?

JS: We still have 16 kids (Moreno was the 17th) who were unable to get home. It was another challenge to figure out the best way to take care of that many kids, educate them on safe practices, how to stay healthy, but still get some development in. At first, we were just doing workouts in the parking lots….two guys paired together with 3-4 baseballs, and they didn’t mix with anyone else. They would do workouts in every other space in the parking lot – kudos to our staff for the job they did in putting it all together, with (short-season field coordinator) John Tamargo Jr leading the way. As of 3-4 weeks ago, MLB gave us permission to have kids who were in these circumstances do some of their workouts at the minor league complex. They’ve been going there 4-5 times per week – they’re really thrilled, it was as much emotional/mental relief as much as anything for them. It’s been awesome just to see some normal baseball activity. The smiles on their faces the first day or two they were there pretty much said it all.

FBJ: Gil also said that Dutch RHP prospect Sem Robberse, who is in Dunedin as well, had been learning Spanish so that he could communicate with his teammates. Any word as to how that’s going?

JS: Sem is an unbelievable kid. Just outstanding. He’s curious, asks questions, and is able to make adjustments, almost right away. He didn’t waste any time (after the shutdown). He’s made the most of things, and I’ve heard a little bit of his Spanish…..it’s coming. And his teammates love him.

FBJ: You played in the Astros organization. Their recent troubles aside, they’ve long been viewed as one of the leading player development organizations in baseball. What methods did you bring to the Blue Jays from your time with them?

JS: I was part of the first draft of the new regime, so I got to see it evolve over time. What I took away was the holistic approach they used. We didn’t have all the tech and data when I was playing…..it started to take off just as I was ending my career, although we did have some of it. We were exposed to a fair number of things like bio mechanical markers – that was something that I thought was important when I came over here – to include the players with the use of technology, and explain the “why,” and “what does good look like?” Gil and I have talked a fair bit about the importance of that.

FBJ: What has the buy in been like for the players?

JS: It’s been fun to watch. It does vary from player to player, but that’s why we want to include them in the process. If you came to spring training this year, we had Edgertronic and Rapsodos set up. Pitchers, for example, want to see certain actions on pitches, so they’re all in on that stuff, as we have a great staff who do a good job of explaining it all in a way that they can understand.

Some time had passed since this interview, and it light of a few developments over the past ten days, we caught up with Joe again for some updates….

FBJ: Tell us about Kirky’s recent time with the taxi squad. What an opportunity for him.

JS: You can’t really draw it up much better than that. In a lower pressure environment, to get that kind of exposure (to the major leagues, and big league coaching)…it doesn’t get much better than that.

For the guys at the alternate site, it’s challenging to keep yourself ready and prepared, but also fold in some development opportunities…we have more staff there than at a typical minor league affiliate, and the freedom the players have to not have to perform every night, to be able to make adjustments as they go.

FBJ: In the case of a player like Reese McGuire, who was recently sent to the alt site, what kinds of things do the staff do there to help him get his game back together?

JS: Guys like Reese are obviously disappointed when they’re down there…..they want to get back to the big leagues as soon as possible. We have really good communications between the big league staff and the staff in Rochester on what the big league guys are looking for. As for the player, it’s that lower pressure environment at the alt site, so you can get in, do what they need to do to get back on track, and get back to the big leagues. There’s a good environment in Rochester – guys may not be happy to back there, but they blend in, and go with the culture there. A guy like Reese doesn’t play every day at the big league level, so it’s difficult for him to make adjustments there like he can at Rochester.

FBJ: We learned about a week ago from Baseball America that MLB had given you permission to go ahead, and subject to protocols and everything else related to Covid, begin to make plans to host an Instructional League camp this fall. Tell us how planning for that is going.

JS: It’s definitely been the highest priority of late. We found out the night before the BA story came out. MLB has given us plenty of leeway on what we can do – we have to present our protocols, but we had been thinking and preparing extensively for summer camp, so some of the groundwork (for Instructs) are there, and we had a great foundation to work off of.

On top of that, our medical team is doing a great job of tracking the Covid situation in Pinellas County….we’re trying to make sure it’s at a safe level before we even think about bringing guys in. We’ve had different discussions about using the alternate site or some other spots, but we’re hopeful that we can do something in Florida. MLB has given us permission to start by September 18th, but we’re thinking about starting up later in the month.

We’re still in the planning stage at this point. We have the unique setup in having the stadium and the minor league complex (at two different locations). If we utilize them both, it would help limit exposure somewhat. We’re thinking about having one of the two sites have more of a competitive, game-based focus. Some guys need that – pitchers need innings, younger hitters need ABs, and some live situations, so having a couple of different focuses, where live would fit that. There still would be work done related to development, but we’d prioritize having games later in the day. Some of the other organizations around us have already reached out and indicated their interest in having some games.

The other site (at the minor league complex) would be more focused on specific needs – like if it’s a physical need, and we need to get our eyes on a guy, if we need to do assessments, or work on things like dietary needs, or if it’s a specific baseball skill development aspect. We’re going to break guys into those groups, and maybe look at a longer camp. Nothing’s set in stone, and we’re still not sure on numbers yet, and we’re still working on protocols….we’re also hopeful of bringing a larger group than we had originally anticipated. We’re working tirelessly to figure out what this will look like, and how we are going to do it safely.

As far as the protocols go, most are similar to what the MLB teams are doing. All players and staff will be tested twice per week, there will be screening and temperature checks when you check in (at either complex). We’re still trying to figure out the set up at the minor league complex so that everyone is safe and social distanced. Mattick is not the biggest spot in the world, so that’s why the opportunity to split up into groups is pretty enticing to us.

For those of us who love the minor leagues, even with a big league game on almost every night, there’s been a void this summer, and a feeling that when MiLB does return, it will be a much different experience. The game will be the same, but checking in on eight Blue Jays affiliates every day in the summer will be no more. Next year there will be fewer teams, fewer players, and likely less minor league staff. For about a total of forty five minutes, it was nice to be able to forget about all of that and talk about the current Blue Jays minor league system with Joe.

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