With all of us somewhat starved for baseball content, we caught up with Blue Jays Assistant Director of Player Development Joe Sclafani about a number of things in the Toronto farm system.
Since MLB does not allow team staff to talk about any player currently on a 40-man roster, that did cut the length of our conversation down quite a bit. Updates about, say, Gabriel Moreno, Nate Pearson, Hagen Danner, and Leo Jimenez were unfortunately (if not understandably) off limits. But we did discuss where things sit for the team in terms of Covid, developments relating to MLB teams providing housing for their minor league players, and a few player updates for your reading pleasure.
FutureBlueJays: Joe, I would rather talk about baseball first, but I think we probably have to get the COVID situation as it impacts the minor league complex, and the plan for the year going forward. So has there been any impact, as far as players accessing the minor league complex or anything like that?
Joe Sclafani: No, obviously it’s a it’s still something that we’re going to still be dealing with, and it’s not going away…but we’ve been able to reopen the the facility this past Monday. And we’ve had some guys here, local guys coming in and working out down here. So operations – I can’t say normal but as normal as they possibly could be. We had another camp with about 30 or so guys that kicked off today. So we’re dealing with the challenges, but everybody’s doing okay, and we’re just happy to be running.
FBJ: And as far as vaccinations go, I know we talked in the spring, you talked about the guys having the (one shot) Johnson and Johnson vaccination, but I don’t know how that works in terms of boosters. Can you update us on that?
JS: We were pretty fortunate that we got to a pretty significant level of vaccinations with with a lot of our players and staff, and those who were able to do so had boosters, and we had them for any staff that were around and players that were around in December. So there’s a good chunk of us that have already gotten the booster. And so we have plans in play for when we bring in the larger groups to have that available for everyone…..we feel like we’re in a good position in terms of just overall vaccination rate as we move forward into this year.
FBJ: Finally, before we talk about players, were there any bumps in the road, Covid-wise, last season?
JS: I’m really proud of our group overall, it wasn’t an easy thing. That that was such a grind in and of itself. And with all the extra protocols and pieces that we had in place, I was proud of our players and staff members for abiding by those, and doing things the right way. We had one minor hiccup at the end of the year in New Hampshire, where we had to miss a few games, but that was where I don’t think we could have avoided it. I think they’re the series before one of the opposing coaches had or something….We’re pretty fortunate and credit to our players and staff.
FBJ: One exciting development this off season has been the commitment on the part of MLB to finally provide adequate housing for their minor league players. Mark Shapiro on the FAN 590 mentioned you as spearheading this effort. Can you tell us how things are going at this point?
JS: Charlie Wilson (director of minor league operations) is doing a lot of the heavy lifting with the affiliates. We’re working with them to make sure that we hit all the guidelines that MLB has laid out. We’re excited about it overall, as we raise the standard of care for for minor leaguers. We were the first one to do the salary raise and other teams followed suit shortly after that, and we take pride in being able to provide the best resources for our players.
FBJ: In the lower levels, would you still have some host families to help with the younger players?
JS: It’s pretty complicated and something that we’re working on – trying to figure this out on such a big scale is challenging in and of itself. There have been discussions, and that’s definitely an option but we don’t know how realistic it is, especially with all the COVID stuff going on. But we’re going to make sure that we’re hitting those standards, and following MLB’s lead and trying to use whatever guidelines they provide us to figure out how we’re going to do it at each level.
FBJ: Tell me: as a player as a former player yourself, maybe this could help my readers, and give them some perspective on this. What would this have meant to you when you were playing?
JS: It would have meant the world. Honestly, I know that that does sound a bit dramatic, but there were times when it was challenging, with all the travel and with everything else going on, to try to be prepared and ready to go and recover in the evenings, it was difficult We didn’t make much, and there a couple situations where we were living four to six people in a two bedroom apartment just to save some money and it was it was challenging with the options that we had available. It’s a game changer. Our affiliate relationships have been great with trying to help guys with providing options and all those things, but just instituting this and taking that worry and stress out and making sure that everybody’s going to be well taken care of and have a good place to recover is a great thing.
FBJ: I know we’re still a couple of months out and we can’t predict things with any degree of certainty, but are you are you looking at having a season in Vancouver as opposed to Oregon this year?
JS: We haven’t heard too much on that, but we’re working on it. We have a bunch of smart people working on it, and we’re hoping that there’s there’s a way to get out there and I haven’t heard anything official yet, but there’s definitely some optimism there.
FBJ: I think given the circumstances, we can start talking about players by discussing Orelvis. He struggled a bit with the breaking stuff at High A, but he still showed an ability to make pitchers pay with fastballs on the inner half. All in all, you have to be pleased with what he accomplished this year.
JS: I can’t speak highly enough of what Orelvis did last year. First of all, full season ball is a challenge in and of itself, especially for a teenager jumping in and in a weird year like last year. There were a lot of challenges mixed into that. But I think what we were most proud of was the professionalism gains that he made, and the maturity that he showed throughout the year. He really solidified his routines and bought into the work that he needed to do every day to prepare, so that he was ready. He was at his best every single day. When he went to Vancouver, he was able to sit down with Donnie Murphy and said, ‘Hey, here’s what I’d like to do every single day, and this is what it does for me,’ and that is just a huge step in professionalism and we’re really excited about that. The performance on field kind of speaks for itself. But you know, people don’t realize first full season is is a grind, and for the first time you’re actually facing teams multiple times, so pitchers get to see you multiple times. If you have success, they make adjustments. It’s that first real time where you have to make adjustments and play that cat and mouse game. And Orelvis made strides there too. Matt Young (hitting coach) did a great job in Dundein, and Ryan Wright continued up in Vancouver, but Orelvis started figuring out how are guys going to attack him, and how can I counteract that and he killed it. He struggled a little bit at the beginning, but he figured it out. He stuck with his plan. He got off to a bit of a slow start in Dunedin, and we knew it was just a matter of time until he kind of took off and did what he did. And then same kind of process took place with Vancouver. He got up there and initially struggled a little bit but right as he was really starting to figure it out and got hot, he unfortunately ended the year with a little bit of an injury but he’s good. He’s been here numerous times during the offseason. So we’re excited for him in 2022.
FBJ: I’m not necessarily speaking about Orelvis here, but in the past the organizational philosophy has been to keep players at least a calendar year at each level. Maybe Covid has changed that somewhat and moved up some timetables, but is that still a guiding philosophy?
JS: I don’t think we pigeonhole ourselves to do that. It’s really just player dependent. You know, when guys show that they’ve mastered their routines or they’re killing it as a teammate, a worker and a professional, there’s a lot of intangible pieces that factor into those decisions on when we think that they’re ready to move on to the next level. Performance matters as well, significantly, but there are a lot of different factors that play into it. We want to do what’s best for the kid, we want to know: is he ready for the challenge? What happens if he struggles? There’s a ton of factors that play into it. So I wouldn’t say that. I guess it’s kind of a guideline. But when guys are ready for a challenge and everybody agrees across the board, we want to push them – show us you can do it until you don’t.
FBJ: We’re mindful that this has not been a usual off season, and that other than the Development Camp last fall, you might not have seen a lot of players, but is there anyone who has stood out to you?
JS: I haven’t seen too many guys yet. The pitchers are just starting to ramp up a little bit. Sem Robberse has been down here. He’s been as committed as anybody could be. He actually stayed in in the States and in the area and has been working out throughout the offseason. He looks really good. He’s just starting to throw so it’s hard to say with some of those guys. Just because they haven’t really dived into the baseball pieces yet but Sem is probably the one that stands out.
FBJ: We were really excited to hear you hired Toronto native Jaime Vieira as a hitting coach this week.
JS: We’re excited about Jamie. She’s been with us for a couple years but she was based in Toronto. She’s been really helpful for the hitting department in general over the last couple years, and she’s been great at developing relationships with players and you know, they’re a fan of hers. We actually brought her down for our swing camp this past fall, and just let her ingratiate herself with the group and give her some opportunity to see how she handled the coaching element of it. And the feedback we got across the board was was really extremely positive. And when we got to the point where we were trying to make that decision, there was a no brainer for us.
FBJ: Obviously it was a very positive experience for her and the players.
JS: It was just positive with the players, and kudos to them. They embrace anything that can help them and Jamie was helpful. She was tactful in the way that she presented information and how she was trying to coach, and they were open to it. They don’t care where the information comes from. They buy in that’s going to help them they’re certainly all in but you know, we also have a tremendous group of guys so there’s no surprises there.
FBJ: What will her role be?
JS: She’ll likely be a minor league hitting coach, based in Florida.
FBJ: How about some injury updates? Joey Murray is the guy I get asked about the most.
JS: Joey you know, it was not the year that we had envisioned for him and certainly not him for himself. But he kept a positive attitude the whole time. He showed up and did the work and was really trying to get back there. So at the end of last year, in FDL, he was healthy and ready to pitch and he threw 10 to 15 innings, I think, left on a really positive note. So we felt good about the ending there. And he’s been committed this offseason. So he’s good. He’s good to go, as far as I know, and we’re excited to see what he can do.
FBJ: Yosver Zulueta was a guy who I was getting incredible reports about from a source in Florida last winter, and then he blows his UCL out in his first outing.
JS: Zulu lives in the area, and we’ve seen a lot of him at the complex. It’s not often to see the commitment and the temperament he has every single day, as well as his determination…..and he’s progressing well. I don’t think he’s been off a mound yet, but he’s moving around pretty well out there. And I think that the mound is coming up relatively soon.
FBJ: Gunnar Hoglund had his Tommy John a bit before Zulueta. How’s he progressing?
JS: He’s trending in the right direction…since we got him he has been a great addition here in terms of our culture and our environment. He’s awesome to be around. Our staff loves him. I want to say he was out to 90 feet this week. So I don’t think he’ll be ready for spring training. but he’s definitely on the right track to get out there this year and compete.
FBJ: What’s in store between now and the start of minor league spring training?
JS: Oh, I guess there’s one piece that’s not play related, but the hitting lab is up and running…I’m looking at it from outside the window right now. We should have all the finished installs of all the tech next week. So we’re really excited to really use that. Upcoming in terms of players there are more preparation camps. We were signing our January or July 2 guys in January this weekend, and we have a program down in the complex on to bring all those guys in and to the intro program to the organization, and what we’re about. So we’re excited about that. And then we’re just rolling towards spring training.
FBJ: Both MLB spring training and travel to Florida are looking a bit iffy right now, but for those who are there or are thinking of making the trip, will the minor league complex be open for fans who will be itching to see some baseball?
JS: It’s hard to say right now. I don’t know if you know the the COVID situation down in Florida but it’s not ideal. So it’s something of a wait-and-see situation.