1897 Maple Leafs Brought Base Ball Back to Toronto to Stay

Second in a series…..

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Buck Freeman

In our last post on this topic, we saw the burgeoning city of Toronto burst onto the professional base ball scene by clinching the International Association title on the last day of the 1887 season.

Toronto’s success was to be short-lived, however, as many of their stars were scooped up by teams in higher leagues the following season.  Jumping teams and leagues from one season to another – and sometimes in mid-season – was not uncommon in the early days of the game.  In response, the National League had quietly established a Reserve Clause in 1879, which bound players to one team until the team decided their services were no longer necessary.  The owners felt the rule created more stability in allowing teams to keep much the same roster from year to year.  At first, the players appreciated the stability and security of a contract as well, but they chafed when the Reserve Clause was used to restrict salaries.

Despite its attempts to corner the market on players, the National League did not have a monopoly on the top players in the game.  The rival American Association began play in 1882, offering fans Sunday baseball, beer, and cheaper ticket prices.  When the rebelling players formed their own league in 1890, the rosters of minor league teams like Toronto’s were decimated, with three major leagues now bidding for the services of players.  Faced with escalating player salaries, Toronto ceased operations as an International Association franchise on July 9th, 1890.  It would be five years before base ball returned to Toronto.

A large town of 81 000 at the beginning of the previous decade, Toronto’s population had more than doubled a decade later, as the city became a major centre for railways, manufacturing, and finance.  The skyline of Toronto continued to change as capital poured in from all directions.  Churches were still the dominant structures, but impressive new buildings sprung up in the 1890s, including the Flatiron Building, Queen’s Park, and City Hall.  The former sleepy government and military town was becoming a bustling city in every way.  And with a booming economy, the city’s inhabitants had the means and the desire to seek amusements in their leisure time.  One of the places where many flocked on weekends was the Toronto Islands.

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Queen’s Park

To the east of the downtown Toronto waterfront lies the Scarborough Bluffs, an impressive height of land that stretches for several miles along the Lake Ontario shoreline.  Sediment from the erosion of the Bluffs found its way into the Lake, where currents carried it westward, and deposited it in the form of sandbars across Toronto harbour.  By the early 1800s, the longest of these bars stretched almost 9 kilometers, forming a peninsula that featured a carriage road from town.  A severe storm in 1858 washed away a major section of the peninsula toward the eastern end.  The resulting islands that were formed became popular with the wealthy and working class alike, with the former building grand summer homes on the islands, and the latter flocking to the new hotels and amusement park that were built.  A ferry service from the docks at the foot of Yonge Street, the main street of the city dating back to its founding, brought passengers the short distance to the islands.

As baseball was changing off the field in the 1890s, its development on the field continued, as it more and more came to resemble the game we know today.  In the 80s, a series of adjustments had turned the game over to the Pitchers: restrictions on the delivery of the ball, as well as a gradual reduction in the number of balls needed for a walk had meant a decrease in hits.  Runs were still abundant because of the number of errors committed by both teams per game, but with the introduction and improvement of gloves, offence declined by the start of the decade.  Moving the pitcher’s mound from 50′ to its current distance of 60’6″ evened the tables for the hitter, and the game had all but finished its evolution from its early years.  Rosters had expanded, as teams could no longer rely on one or two Pitchers to sustain them through the year.

The Players League lasted only the 1890 season, and the American Association ceased to exist after the following year, bringing some stability back to both the Major and Minor Leagues.  Toronto returned to the International Association, now known as the Eastern League, in 1895.  But after a lengthy absence, the team had some distance to travel in order to win back fans who had found other diversions.  The team had to share the field at Sunlight Park, their former Queen Street haunt.  Cannonball Crane, who had almost single-handedly pitched and hit Toronto to the 1887 title, was brought back, but he was a shadow of his former self.  A guy who liked a good time, Crane had all but eaten and drank his way out of the National League, and Toronto released him in July.  Crane tried to return to the NL as an Umpire the following season, but he was fired after only several games due to concerns about his game-calling and drunkenness.  The 1896 team showed some promise, bringing in future big leaguers Buck Freeman and Bill Dinneen, but had trouble drawing fans, and played their July home games in Albany, NY.

It would not be until 1897 that Toronto’s baseball fortunes turned around.  Toronto entrepreneur Lol Solman, proprietor of a hotel/restaurant and the amusement park on Centre Island, also owned the ferry company that brought fans over from the mainland, bought the team, and renamed them the Maple Leafs (four decades before Conn Smythe took the name for his hockey team).  Solman moved the team over to the island to play at newly built Hanlan’s Point stadium, and Toronto was about to embark on over a half century of minor league success.  For 50 cents, fans could get a ride on the ferry and a seat at the ballpark to watch either the Maple Leafs, or the lacrosse team Solman also owned.  Spectators flocked to the new ballpark to see the new and improved Maple Leafs in droves – at one point, as many as twelve ferries were needed to shuttle fans back and forth.

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Game at Hanlan’s Point – 1897

Toronto won only five of its first twenty-five games, but new Manager Foxy Irwin’s club caught fire, and went 70-24 to finish 2nd behind Syracuse.  Freeman took aim at Hanlan Point’s short right field fence, hitting 20 HRs to go with a .357 average, both tops in the league.  Dinneen was the ace, winning 21 games, including 17 of 18 decisions at one point.  1st Baseman Dan McGann set a league record with 22 triples.  All three would go on to successful MLB careers – Freeman drove in 100+ runs 9 times with the Senators and Red Sox, while Dinneen threw the first shutout in World Series history, and went on to a long and distinguished career as an American League umpire after is playing career.  McGann collected over 1400 hits in a 12 year MLB career.

  A Syracuse brewery had offered a cup to go to a playoff between the first and second place finishers in the league a year earlier, and Toronto made short work of Syracuse in the 1897 final, taking the first three games on the south side of Lake Ontario before returning home to finish the Stars off in the fourth and final game.

Unlike Toronto’s previous championship team, the 1897 outfit was to prove that the pro game was here for the long run.

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Vlad, Big Nate Atop AFL Top Prospects List

To the absolute surprise of no one, Vladimir Guerrero Jr was named the top prospect in the Arizona Fall League by former MLB scout Jason Pennini, who now writes for Prospects Live. After a long season, Guerrero was less than thrilled to head to the desert to play for another six weeks, and he didn’t see a whole lot of strikes as the league wound down, but he showed more than enough for Pennini to give him an 80 grade for his future MLB role. Let’s think about that for a second.  80 is the top of the scale.  The Blue Jays have never had an 80-grade prospect in any tool category; not Roy Halladay, Carlos Delgado, or Tony Fernandez.  As Pennini himself says:

Eighty grades should not be thrown around lightly. I am not even sure that there should be an 80 given to a prospect every season. Only .3% or 3/1000 data points in a normal distribution fall beyond three standards deviations of the mean. An 80 on the scouting scale describes a position player who is a franchise cornerstone or potential hall of famer.

There is absolutely no doubt about Guerrero’s bat.  There might not be a player in all of baseball who manages it better or covers more of it.  His power comes from such a loose, fluid swing.  His defense is the tool which causes the most concern, but as newly appointed Blue Jays coach John Schneider, who managed Vlad the last two season said, Guerrero could be Adrian Beltre defensively, but his bat would still be ahead of his glove. Get ready for some fun, Blue Jays fans.  There’s no reason to believe that Guerrero won’t continue to mash in the bigs.   Nate Pearson’s 2018 season never really got started.  Sidelined to begin the season with an oblique issue, a line drive off his lower pitching arm in the second inning of his first start ended his year.  He got some innings in Instructs, and more in Arizona, and while there were definite signs of rust, Pearson showed enough to be named the 8th best Arizona prospect.  His fastball was hard to command some times, and caught too much of the plate at other times, but he made a definite impression:

  Physically, Pearson’s massive frame looks capable of bearing the brunt of a 200 inning season. While his track record in the minors is limited, I think he has among the best stuff of any pitching prospect and mostly needs time to prove himself.

For Blue Jays fans who have not been through a true rebuild (we’re not counting the J.P Ricciardi years) should be encouraged about these reports.  Until they’ve proven themselves at the MLB level, they’re just that, but there is plenty to be optimistic about.  Ryan Borucki, Lourdes Gurriel Jr, and Danny Jansen gave every indication that they will be big leaguers to stay,  with Guerrero, Pearson, and Bo Bichette (who was banged up and stayed home, but likely would’ve been a top AFL prospect had he journeyed southwest to play) soon to follow.  The challenge for Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins is to surround them with complementary players, and to keep developing (or using depth to acquire) pitching.  A 90-loss season may be upcoming, but this team could improve in a hurry if their top prospects continue on their development arcs.

Blue Jays MiLB Schneider Developing Alongside his Players

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milb.com photo

Toronto Blue Jays Minor League Manager John Schneider has travelled a long road, and like many of the players on the championship teams he’s managed the past two seasons, he’s on the cusp of a Major League job.

A career Blue Jay, Schneider was originally drafted by the Tigers in the 24th round of the 2001 draft after making All Colonial Conference Association as a Catcher, Schneider opted to return to school at Delaware (where he says he, “Majored in Sociology, and minored in baseball”):

 I didn’t know if I was quite ready to leave school yet, and I was signed up to play in the Cape Cod League, which I really wanted to do.  I had two years of college eligibility left, and I felt like one more year of school would be good for me. It kind of worked out for me, and I decided to leave school the next year.

Schneider was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 13th round the following year, and soon after was off to Auburn of the New York Penn League (the Blue Jays’ short-season affiliate at the time), where he slashed .240/.381/.352 in 40 games.  Schneider moved up through the organization, until back surgery following the 2006 season and three concussions suffered the following year gave him cause to consider his post playing career:

I had back surgery in 2006, and then came back and played the next year, then – everyone reaches a point in their career where you start thinking, “maybe this isn’t going to work out for me,” and I had bounced around so much…..then it was the concussions (three in 2007) that gave me a pretty good scare, and started me thinking about my long-term future outside of baseball….you put everything together, between hitting your peak as a player, and throw in some injuries, and it was time for me to call it a career, and luckily I had a coaching gig with the Blue Jays lined up.  I went from being in the locker room at spring training to going into a coaches meeting the next day.

When asked what was the biggest adjustment he made from literally being inside the lines one day to the outside the next, Schneider said:

One of the hardest parts was seeing something that you loved and done your whole life, and your friends are still continuing to do it.  You know you could probably still do it, but it wouldn’t be realistic.

As his playing career reached its final stages, Schneider admits that staying in the dugout in a coaching or managing capacity had already entered his mind:

I had conversations with Managers and Co-ordinators – when you’re managing, you can tell which of your players might make a good Manager or Coach down the road, the way they talk, their demeanour, and how they interact with guys on the team.  Dick Scott, who was our Farm Director at the time, was very open with me, and gave me the opportunity to start coaching right then and there (spring training 2008). He even said if I wanted to keep playing, they would give me a release and we could re-visit things in a year.  I played about another week in spring training, and then realized it was time. I also wanted to get a head start on coaching while I was young, and I was told after 2007 that if I had another concussion I’d have to retire, so that made the decision a lot easier.

Schneider was assigned to the Gulf Coast League as a hitting coach for the 2008 season.  Having not played rookie ball, it was another period of adjustment for him:

I went from playing at a high level back down to rookie league, but you do forget about the mistakes that get made, and the repetitions players have to put in.  You learn patience – if you have to tell them something a thousand times, tell them a thousand and one. That took a little bit of time. I look back on it now, and when I started managing I was 29.  I thought I had made it, and I realize now when I look back on how I acted, and things like arguing calls with umpires, and then you remember the kids were so young. It’s funny to look back and realize how much you’ve changed like your demeanor and the way you go about things.

If you talk with anyone who has been around the minor leagues for a while, one thing players, coaches, and managers alike agree on is that the nature of the relationship between players and coaching staff has changed.  Minor League instructors who yelled at players to motivate them are on the way out, as patience and teaching are the keys to dealing with young players.  For his part, Schneider embraces that:

I’ve always believed in that, I believed it since I first started managing. You had managers that you love playing for and some managers not so much.  You try to take a little bit from each guy who managed you or coached you. On teams that I manage, I like the messages to come from teammates. If you have that kind of vibe and chemistry going on in your club house it just makes things so much easier. Problems tend to take care of themselves that way, although there are times when you have to step in and take charge. I tend to be one of those managers who doesn’t scream at kids, and I try to remember how hard the game is to play, And I try to relate to them the message that I probably made more errors and mistakes in my careers than they’re ever going to make. They could look at my stats and see I wasn’t very good, and say, who are you to yell at me? Unless it’s something that’s fundamentally incorrect, or something that’s in violation of what we stand for as an organization, I’m much more than kind of guy that’s going to pop them on the back and say way to go keep doing what you’re doing, rather than what are you doing? I don’t think you get a lot of results if you’re the kind of guy that just goes up there screaming.

 

When asked which players in New Hampshire helped deliver the message to their teammates this year, Schneider spreads the credit around, but points out two players in particular:

There were a lot of players like that, which is one of the reasons why I think we were so good. Whether it was (Cavan) Biggio who was there all year, or Pat Cantwell who is there all year – The thing we tried to do was build a positive, winning culture.  I knew we were going to have a good team, but I also knew we were going to have a lot of fluctuation in our roster. You want the guys were there and playing every day to be able to show the new guys coming in how we do things and how we roll. The core guys who were there just made it fun, and as much as we try to make these guys better on the field, what goes hand-in-hand with that is teaching them how to win, and teaching them how to be good teammates.  So if they can take care of things and their own backyard – which they did a really good job of this year – It makes my job really easy.

Schneider prefers an environment where players can be comfortable:

Baseball’s too hard not to have fun. I wanted guys to be themselves. I’m a little bit different than other managers in the organization. I don’t have a dress code. I tell players to dress the way they want to dress I just be  who you are, because I think you get the best results when people are comfortable. From the stuff we did in the clubhouse, to the stuff we did on the field, to the stuff we did on the bus, we just had a lot of fun this year. It’s not something you should take for granted. It’s tough to do in the minor leagues Dash you get the talent together you get the personalities together, where guys really liked being around one another, it makes for a really good year.  

But Schneider doesn’t run a loose ship; the expectation of hard work is still there.  Many clubhouses across baseball have ping-pong tables – it’s an excellent distraction.  But sometimes the line between distraction and obsession is easily crossed, and when it happened in Lansing in 2015, Schneider didn’t hesitate to have it removed (temporarily, at least):

You have to do stuff like that every once in awhile if guys are spending too much time at the ping-pong table and not enough time in the cage or on the field. I took it away for a couple of weeks, but I did give it back.

 

Like the players he manages, Schneider has made his way through the system, starting in the GCL, and advancing to Vancouver, a place that he still remembers fondly:

It’s a big League City in a minor league. The people in the front office do everything first class.  The stadium is awesome, and for our guys to get that kind of experience right out of the draft was unbelievable. I’ve been to a lot of minor league Parks, but there’s no atmosphere like there is at The Nat.  I have a lot of great memories from Vancouver.

 

I put Schneider on the spot somewhat.  There has been so much written and said about Vladimir Guerrero Jr that I asked him to tell us something people might not know about the slugging prodigy.  He didn’t hesitate with his answer:

How funny he is. I’ve told numerous people that. When you watch him playing on the field you know he’s having fun. When you see him in the clubhouse, when you see him in the cage, or when you see him on the bus, He’s a funny dude, man.  He speaks way better English than anyone thinks. He and I text back and forth in English. He’s a really keen observer of things around him and he’s a bit of a jokester in the clubhouse, then he goes out onto the field and works his butt off.  His teammates really respect him and look up to him, and not just because of the player he is. His numbers speak for themselves, but I’ve really got to know him well over the past two years, and we’re talking about someone who’s as good a person as he is a player.        

When Guerrero joins the Blue Jays (likely in mid-April), there will be an enormous amount of pressure and media attention on him.  Schneider thinks he’ll be more than up to the challenge of dealing with the high expectations:

He’s been doing it for the past couple of years in the minors.  I think he responds to challenges well, whether it’s the Futures Game, or the Fall Stars Game, or whether it’s the thousands of people who came to see him play every day, he handles it well, all at 19 years of age.  He’s surrounded himself with really good people away from the field who help him that – obviously, his Dad is a huge support.

When asked if Guerrero has the skills to stick as a Major League 3rd Baseman, Schneider feels that he does, but he also has thinks Vladdy will adjust to an eventual position change:

I do.  I think with baseball it’s tough sometimes to see the long-term, and things can change quickly, but for the next handful of years, I see him at 3rd Base.  He’s better there than people think. He makes the routine plays, he has good and quick hands, and an above average arm. It’s the little things, but I’ve seen him make diving plays to his left and plays down the line, which are above average Major League plays. I think that once his athleticism, agility, quickness, and first step reads, it’s going to be really fun to watch him over there.  I think whenever you look at a hitter like that, people say, “oh, his bat’s ahead of his glove,” but Vladdy could be Adrian Beltre defensively and I think his bat would still be ahead of his glove – that’s just how good of a hitter he is. I think he’s fine at 3rd and will continue to make improvements, although he does have the athleticism to move elsewhere one day. I definitely see him as a 3rd Baseman right now.

 

While Guerrero was flirting with .400 and getting top prospect acclaim across the continent this summer, his fellow top prospect Bo Bichette was scuffling for the first time in his pro career, his average dropping into the .230s in May.  Bichette was over-aggressive at the plate, and word quickly spread around the Eastern League that you didn’t have to throw a lot of pitches inside the zone to get him out.  Time, patience, and the help of Schneider and hitting coach Hunter Mense allowed Bichette to break out, but Schneider says the organization wanted to challenge Bichette this year:

That was part of the reason we wanted to put him in AA at 20 years old.  You have to struggle some times, right? His struggles were more like for a two or three week span, he was really grinding offensively a couple of times, but then you look up, and he’s hitting .286, with double-digit Homers, 75 RBI, 32 Stolen Bases, 43 Doubles, and made tremendous strides defensively and as a leader of the team, and he won his second championship in a row as a starting Short Stop.  I couldn’t be happier with the year that he had. I told him in April, “I’m going to purposely run you out there every day, and I want you to tell me when you’re tired,” because I knew last year he and Vlad had pretty strict schedules. I told them both this year that the training wheels were off, and to let me know when they needed a rest. Bo still played over 130 games. I think the most impressive thing this year was when he was going through a rough patch in early May, and I kept throwing him out there, but he didn’t complain, didn’t ask for a day off – I gave him a couple, because I could tell, and that’s my job as a Manager – but he expected to play every day and work his way through it.  To me, that’s invaluable.

Earlier in the season, Schneider had Lourdes Gurriel Jr in the lineup.  After a nearly two year hiatus after leaving Cuba, Gurriel looked very rusty in all aspects of his game.  He was a different player this year:

He was like that right from spring training……I saw him in Dunedin last year, and he just hadn’t played in a year and a half, he was kind of raw – you could see the talent, but you couldn’t see the results right away.  Coming into spring training this year, he was a completely different guy. Offensively, defensively, he just seemed more comfortable. It was awesome to see the start that he had, and then get called up later to Toronto.  He’s a good guy to have for his work ethic, and the other guys see that.

And no conversation about New Hampshire’s lineup this year would be complete without a discussion about Biggio, the EL MVP and HR leader.  After managing him in Dunedin last year, Schneider knew Biggio was destined for big things, but this year’s breakout was a bit of a pleasant surprise:

If you ask him, I don’t think he expected to hit 27 Homers and 99 RBIs – we tried so hard to get him to 100 – but I think this season showed what he’s capable of.  He’s so intelligent, and has such a good command of the strike zone. He made adjustments going into this year, and he’s going to have to do the same thing next year, but I think will be consistent is him playing every day and being productive, and being a solid defender.   I saw him after the got drafted, and he was a typical top-of-the-order guy: hitting everything up the middle, working the count. And then he started to become more aggressive early in the count. I think hitting behind Vladdy for part of the year helped him, because Pitchers would tend to take a deep breath after facing Vlad and maybe throw the next pitch over the plate…..then 450 feet later, you’ve got a couple of runs coming in.  

Like Guerrero, there is some question as to Biggio’s long-term position.  After starting his pro career at 2nd, he saw time at 1st and 3rd with New Hampshire, and played the corner OF spots in the Arizona Fall League.  Schneider thinks 2nd is his best position, but his versatility will be the key that drives him toward the bigs:

I think he’s going to be versatile.  He’s such a good athlete and student of the game that he can play several positions.  He looked good at 1st Base and 3rd Base and with what they did with having him play the OF in the Arizona Fall League.  He even got an inning at SS with us this year. I think 2B is where he might fall back on, though. I think he’s going to do a lot of things, with his best spot being 2nd.  

 

 

Winning or development?   The question is often asked of all farm directors and GMs.  Do organizations focus on building minor league teams that win, or let players take their lumps in an environment that sees them get reps, if not necessarily wins?  For Schneider, it’s best to try to focus on the best of both worlds:

I think you kind of want to a bit of both at every level.  I’ve always said that the minor leagues is a filtering out process, so for the guys who aren’t going to get to the major leagues, the games we play are practice games, and the post season games are higher leverage practice games.  It’s fun for me as a Manager to be in those situations, and it’s fun for the players to see how they react to those higher leverage games, but you really can’t replicate that during the regular season – when you have to get a guy from 2nd to 3rd, when you have to make a pitch with a runner on 3rd, when you have to make all the routine plays, when everyone knows you’re going to steal and you have to get a good jump.  All those things you put so much time and effort into over the course of spring training and a year, they really come into play in the playoffs, whether it’s the guy making decisions, or it’s me making decisions, everything is sped up. So I think that if you can do some of both, you’re doing a good thing. The biggest thing is you want the guys to expect to win, whether it’s the Dominican Summer League or AAA, you want them to expect to win every day.  If you can create that environment and that culture, I think you’re going to be better off than most other organizations. It’s been cool over the last 2 years to know as a manager or as a coach, your players are developing, and still be winning.

 

Watching New Hampshire play this summer was a lot of fun, and not just because of the prospect depth the team featured.  Schneider managed aggressively, and had the team always looking to run on the base paths.  The Fisher Cats led the Eastern League in stolen bases, with five players in double figures of steals.  The team went from 1st to 3rd probably more than any other team.  This was all part of Schneider’s plan:

I love it. You do have to adapt to your personnel, but I’ve always said if you can run, keep going and force the issue.  I told the guys everyone on the team has the green light to steal, and we came up with the term running in the outfielder’s face.  In spring training, I said, if it’s a ground ball to left field on you’re on first, I want you to keep going on to third, just run right in the left fielder’s face.  Now, you can’t go crazy, and you can’t run yourselves into outs, but the more aggressive you are, and the other team knows you’re going to be that way – you’re going to ,steal, hit and run, go first to third, go for extra bases – they’re going to play on their heels a bit.  I take pride as a Manager knowing when other teams talk about us, and they say these guys are going to be really aggressive on the bases.

 

After managing two teams at two levels to successive league titles,  he knows the core group that forms the next wave of Blue Jays better than anyone else in the organization.  And he can’t say enough about their collective work ethic:

This group that’s coming up, they’re really good, but they’re also really hard workers.  I can’t say enough about how hard they work and what kind of guys they are….it’s a special core, and I think to have them on the same team for a period of time will do wonders for them.  They’ve learned how to work, they’ve learned how to win.

 

 

Like his players, Schneider’s ultimate goal is to be in the majors one day, although he’s not one to rush the schedule.  He’s content to trust the process, and continuing to develop alongside his players:

It’s definitely a goal of mine. It’s nice to hear my name out there a little bit, and hopefully I can be one step closer (next year).  Much like players, coaches and managers want to get better every year, be around challenging situations and good people, and to be open to different ways that things are done.  To me that was very fulfilling last year to hear different views about hitting or pitching, and I just always want to continue to evolve with the game. I love the core group that I’ve been able to spend the last couple of seasons with, and hopefully I’ll be able to be around them in the big leagues in some capacity.  I’m thrilled with the addition of Charlie (Montoyo) in Toronto – I think it’s a good blend of what we’re trying to do up there.

 

Blue Jays 2013 Draft Review

It takes time to develop a Major Leaguer.

Even Mike Trout needed three years of seasoning before bursting onto the scene a couple of weeks shy of his 20th birthday.

The one thing I hear the most from minor league managers/coaches and front office personnel about player development is the need for repetitions.  Players need time to learn and apply new skills once they enter pro ball.  Obviously, college players have some of their rougher edges smoothed off by three or four years of experience, but generally speaking, it takes 4-5 years minimum to develop a player to MLB standards.

So in assessing the Blue Jays performance in the June draft, it’s best to go back five years.

Which takes us to 2013, when the combination of GM Alex Anthopoulos and Amateur Scouting Director Blake Parker were at their swashbuckling best.  The Blue Jays were not afraid to roll the dice – the previous year, 7 of their first 8 picks were high schoolers, (4 of them the most risky commodity of all – the HS Pitcher), and the one college player they selected from that group – RHP Marcus Stroman – was viewed as one of the more high risk/high reward players in the draft.  Projection was the key, often with a matching heavy element of risk.  Toronto looked for players who were overlooked because of size (Stroman), injury (2012 LHP Matt Smoral, who missed his senior year of high school due to a foot injury), location (2012 1st rounder DJ Davis, who played his HS ball in football-mad Mississippi), or a college commitment (Daniel Norris – 2011, Anthony Alford 2012).

2013 did not see a change in that philosophy.  In fact, at the 10th pick overall, the Blue Jays did not see a talent to their liking, so they selected California HS P Phil Bickford, who chose not to sign with the club after the two remained far apart on a bonus agreement.  Rumours at the time suggested that the club didn’t like the results of Bickford’s post draft physical.  Bickford was going to attend Cal State-Fullerton, but enrolled at Southern Nevada CC instead. In 2015, he was chosen by the Giants with the 18th overall pick, and pitched in the 2016 Futures Game.  The Giants dealt him to the Brewers later that summer, and off the strength of that season was named the team’s 5th best prospect.  2017 was a different story, as he missed 50 games for a failed drug test, and a line drive broke fingers on his pitching hand.  Owner of a 98 FB, command has been Bickford’s biggest issue as a pro, and the Brewers have moved him to the bullpen.

With the pick the Blue Jays received as compensation (11th overall) the following year, the club took C Max Pentecost.  It’s hard to say the decision to punt the Bickford pick has paid off, at least to this point.

The Blue Jays continued their roll of the dice with their next three picks, taking HS hurlers with all of them.  RHP Clinton Hollon was a talented but enigmatic Kentucky pitching prodigy.  Elbow and make up concerns dropped his stock, and the Blue Jays picked him up in the 2nd round for below slot.  Hollon needed Tommy John after only a dozen pro outings, but appeared to be turning things around in 2015.  Promoted to Lansing after starting his comeback with Vancouver, Hollon survived a shaky 1st inning in his Midwest League debut before retiring the next 19 hitters in a row.  He made only two more starts for Lansing, after a positive PED test earned him a 50 game suspension.  Before he could finish that ban, he received another one for a drug of abuse.  That was enought for the Blue Jays, and they released Hollon prior to 2017.  He played indy ball in the Frontier League last season.

Blue Jays area scout Blake Crosby had spent a lot of time in Arizona in 2012 scouting Phoenix HS 3rd Baseman Mitch Nay, and came away impressed with a junior at Nay’s Hamilton High by the name of Patrick Murphy, who they decided to take with their 3rd round pick. Murphy missed his senior year after undergoing Tommy John, and had myriad injury issues through his first three years of pro ball, when he pitched all of 4 innings.  Toronto’s patience with Murphy has been rewarded, however, as he was named the Florida State League Pitcher of the Year this past season, and was recently named to the 40-man roster.  Murphy dialled his FB up to 100 this summer, and held his velo late into games.  He also possesses probably the best curve in the system.

The Blue Jays took a pair of college seniors with several of their next few selections in order to save some bonus money.  Two players they took have combined for almost 9 WAR between them, but unfortunately Matt Boyd and Kendall Graveman have done so for the Tigers and Athletics, respectively.  In between Boyd and Graveman they gambled in the 7th round on California HS RHP Conner Greene, whose electric fastball garnered attention two seasons ago, but his inability led to a trade to the Cardinals last year, and his release by that organization this week.

Further down the draft, Toronto picked up LHP Tim Mayza (12th), and an undersized college OF in Jonathan Davis (15th round), along with a Wisconsin HS Catcher who missed much of his senior year in the next round.  Mayza, Davis and Danny Jansen both made their MLB debuts this year, and Jansen looks ready to settle in as the club’s everyday backstop, while Davis has a chance to stick in 2019 in a 4th Outfielder role, while Mayza has a legitimate shot at a bullpen job.

The club also got some value out of college LHP Chad Girodo (9th), and 13th round pick Tim LoCastro, who was part of a package in 2015 to get some international bonus pool space after the club broke the bank on some kid named Guerrero.  28th rounder Matt Dermody gave the team 23 relief appearances in 2017,  but spent most of 2018 on the DL.

With the money the club saved on bonuses in the early rounds, they were able to sign  legendary HS slugging 1B Rowdy Tellez after taking him in the 30th round.  Many teams were scared off by Tellez’ commitment to USC, but the Jays were able to throw a $750K bonus at him to sign.  After steadily moving through the system and becoming on the organization’s top power prospects, Tellez stalled in 2017 and most of 2018, before turning things around in August.  He made his MLB debut in September, and became the first player in the live-ball era to record four extra base hits in his first 5 PAs.

Compared to previous drafts in the Anthopoulos/Parker era, the 2013 crop has produced the lowest WAR (10.0) and WAR/Player (1.0).  It was a different draft than the 2012 event, when the team had accumulated 4 1st round supplemental picks (none of which have even played above AA).  It can’t be called a smashing success to this point, and while Murphy, Jansen, Davis, Tellez, and Mayza may all make their marks, the team whiffed on their first five picks.  Jansen may one day prove to be an All Star, but the 2013 draft did not produce a player you could apply the franchise label to.

 

 

Will the Blue Jays be Rule 5 Players?

Baseball’s Rule 5 draft is still three weeks away, but with the Blue Jays having added 5 players to take them up to a full 40-man roster, will there be anyone eligible for the draft the team might consider?

On the surface, with a full roster, that seems unlikely.  However, with Yangervis Solarte likely to be non-tendered, there is a small window of possibility.

The last time the team successfully dipped into the Rule 5, they came away with a strong year’s worth of bullpen performance by converting Joe Biagini to relief.  A similar conversion with Glenn Sparkman, taken from the Royals, a year later was not as successful.

In the case of Biagini, the team was looking more for a piece of a contending puzzle.  Circumstances have changed since then, with the team likely not ready to contend until 2021 at the earliest.  At this point in their rebuilding process, it might make sense to take a gamble on a Rule 5 player and leave him on the 25-man for a season, and see where things go after that.  The Blue Jays are high on athletic, up-the-middle players, although you could make an argument that they are quite well-stocked throughout the system with that commodity.

Baseball America, in their first look ahead to next month’s draft, has identified 5 players who might be worth a Rule 5 roll of the dice (interestingly, there are no Blue Jays on that list).  Astros RHP Riley Farrell might be a player the Blue Jays would consider, although after adding 5 pitchers, they might be looking at other positions.

There’s every possibility, of course, that the Blue Jays are happy with most of their current 40-man, and may sit out the draft.  If they make no further roster moves other than letting Solarte go, that may be the case.

 

Conine Releases Statement Regarding PED Suspension

Blue Jays prospect Griffin Conine, the 52nd player chosen in last June’s draft released a statement in view of the 50 game ban he received for a positive performance-enhancing drug this week via Twitter:

While minor league drug PED suspensions have become somewhat commonplace (90 this year, to date), the Blue Jays are particularly sensitive about the issue.  Pitchers Thomas Pannone and Joel Espinal received suspensions earlier this year, and 7 connected with the team’s Dominican complex were found to be in violation last fall.

Conine tested positive for Ritalinic Acid, more commonly known as Ritalin, which is used in the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperacitivty Disorder (ADHD).  Ritalin helps to produce dopamine in the brain, and can help improve cognition and working memory, with a simultaneous impact on impulse control.  Because it’s technically a stimulant, Ritalin is banned by both WADA and the USADA, as it is believed to improve endurance and strength.

Athletes who require such medications can apply for a therapeutic use exemption, so that they can continue its use.  This past season, 116 MLB players received such an exemption.  The use of ADHD medications such as Ritalin and Adderall is highly suspect in some circles. 

MiLB players are specifically warned about banned substances, and information is available in every clubhouse.  Conine, to his credit, did not deny using Ritalin, and will not appeal the suspension.  It’s always interesting to see which players are caught using PEDs.  It rarely seems to be the elite prospects – with his draft status, Conine could be seen as one, but his draft stock tumbled over the course of this spring, as he went from Cape Cod top prospect in 2017 and seemingly sure-fire top 10 or 15 choice this year to the middle of the 2nd round.  Did he take the meds in order to get back on top of his game, or does Conine have a medical condition that’s legitimately helped by a recognized drug?  Either way, he had to have known that it was a banned substance – players are responsible for everything they put into their bodies.

It’s hard to say where Conine would have started 2019.  Dunedin is the preferred next step in the progression for college draftees who played in Vancouver, although his line (.243/.314/.430) suggests that some time in Lansing might be the tonic to restore his confidence.  He’s set his development back somewhat – 50 games will take him into the end of May/beginning of June before he can resume his career.

All Quiet on the Blue Jays 40 Man Front

In a little bit less than 24 hours from now, MLB 40 man rosters must be finalized and frozen in advance of the Rule 5 draft next month.

The Blue Jays currently sit at 36 players on their 40, with the possibility of a couple of spots being opened tomorrow.

Among the players the team is likely considering promoting to the 40 are Pitchers Hector Perez, Patrick Murphy, Yennsy Diaz, and Travis Bergen.  Jordan Romano, Max Pentecost, and Jackson McClelland are players on the bubble.   The decisions the Blue Jays have to make are not easy.   McClelland smashed the 100 mph barrier regularly this year, and averaged 97 with his fastball.  With a similar build, it’s easy to see Romano experience a big uptick in velo in a relief role.  Maybe they’re marginal MLBers, or maybe one or both could be one who got away.

For the players, promotion to the 40 isn’t just a step closer to the big time.  For the guys who did not break the slot bank, the pay raise is a huge bonus – AAA players start at $2150/month (for a six month season), while AA players start at $1700.  Once promoted to the 40, players receive a $41400 salary (plus membership in the MLB Health and Welfare and MLB Insurance plans), which doubles in their second year on the 40.  Those numbers may not seem like a lot in the face of MLB salaries (the minimum is $545K) and high bonuses paid to top draftees and international players, but the Blue Jays spent almost 75% of their close to $10 million draft bonus pool this year on three players.  In addition, players on the 40 get an invite to spring training (which can trigger a bonus).

This will be one of the most interesting final pre-roster freeze 24 hours for the Blue Jays in recent memory.

Blue Jays Land Astro Arm for Diaz

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milb.com photo

The Blue Jays cleared up the log jam of up-the-middle players somewhat today when they dealt Aledmys Diaz to Houston for minor league RHP Trent Thornton.

The move appears to open up the SS position, at least for now, to Lourdes Gurriel Jr.  The Blue Jays attempted to develop him as a super utility player last year, but he was used exclusively up the middle in 2018, playing the bulk of his games at Short.  It will be interesting to see where Gurriel plays in the long-term if Bo Bichette continues to show progress in his defensive development.

Drafted by the Astros in the 5th round of the 2015 draft out of North Carolina, Thornton is ranked the 24th prospect in a pitching-deep Astros system.  He has worked almost exclusively as a starter throughout his MiLB career, starting 22 games for AAA Fresno in 2018.  In one start in April, he gave up a leadoff single, then fanned the next 8 hitters in a row, setting a Pacific Coast League record.  In a June outing, he took a no-hitter into the 8th innings.  At the Arizona Fall League, he fanned 20 in 15.2 IP. As a player facing the Rule 5 if not placed on a 40-man roster by Tuesday, he became the victim of something of a numbers game with the Astros.

Some scouting reports…..

MLB Pipeline

Thornton has added a couple ticks of velocity to his fastball in 2018, working at 93-95 mph and topping out at 97 with riding action. He has an interesting array of secondary pitches, including a curveball with some power and depth and an improved slider that he can turn into a true cutter. He needs to refine and trust his changeup more to find success against left-handers, however.

Baseball America

His 6-foot stature and delivery have led some scouts to project him to the bullpen. His windup involves a deep plunge with both hands, followed by an exaggerated two-handed windup that ends up with a hand break above and behind his right ear and a stab in the back. While his delivery features a lot of moving parts, Thornton has shown plus control as a pro with a walk rate of 1.5 per nine innings–and he maintains the quality of his stuff through the entire outing. Thornton can touch 95 mph at his peak, but he generally sits 90-91 with a fastball that grades as average thanks in part to its riding action. His 12-to-6 curveball is an above-average offering at its best, and he mixes in a fringe-average slider and below-average changeup. Thornton projects as a back-end starter.

In a poll of PCL Managers, Thornton was picked as the starter with the best control.  Thornton has a funky delivery with some moving parts that offers a bit of deception:

 

A tweet by David Adler, who writes for mlb.com, suggests Thornton has slightly above average velo, and can spin a breaking ball:

 

Where does Thornton fit?   He’s a guy who has maxed out his projection, and while his stuff might play up in a relief role, it would appear his acquisition was made more with a minor league starting depth/major league emergency starter role in mind.  Thornton does not have a typical starter’s build, but he uses sequencing and his ability to keep hitters off-balance to miss bats or induce weak contact.  His 11.4% SwStr rate was 3rd highest in the PCL, and his 41.6% GB rate was respectable.  Blue Jays GM told Sportsnet that Thornton is a player the team sees as a starter:

“We felt that this represented a good opportunity to use an area of depth to acquire a player that can be a part of our pitching core,” GM Ross Atkins said via text. “Trent is someone that we’ve targeted for some time, and are confident that his deep repertoire and strike-throwing ability allows him to be a factor for our major-league rotation in the near term.”

Obtaining Thornton doesn’t necessarily clear up the 40-man roster questions, but it does add some clarity to the 25-man.

How Doing Their Rule 5 Homework Landed the Blue Jays an MVP

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…..I wrote this several years ago at another site, and thought it was worth publishing again with the deadline for declaring 40-man rosters in advance of the Rule 5 coming up this week.

Over the course of the first three years of their existence, the Blue Jays were lovable losers, losing over 100 games each season, but managing to draw almost 5 million fans.  What many of those fans didn’t know, however, was that the club was quickly stockpiling minor league talent, and gaining a reputation throughout baseball for their scouting. That reputation was enhanced when they plucked one of the best players ever chosen in the modern era of the Rule 5 draft, an outfielder from the Phillies system named George Bell.
While their expansion cousins Seattle Mariners were loading up on fringe veterans to post a respectable record for an expansion team in 1977, the Blue Jays leaned toward young players with potential who were playing in the lower levels of the minors.  They were also scouring the US and the Caribbean for players at any level, including heavy scouting of other MLB teams’ minor leaguers. According to Kevin Kerrane in the epic Dollar Sign on the Muscle, “their staff was considered the most aggressive in the business,” at the time.
The Rule 5 draft pre-dates the Rule 4 draft, which is the well-known lottery of high school and college players baseball holds every June.  The Rule 5 dates back to bonus baby days, when teams would outbid each other for premium high school prospects, and then some organizations would stockpile those picks in the minors for years. To lessen that problem, MLB instituted the Bonus Rule in the late 1940s, forcing teams which signed a player for a bonus of over $4000 to keep that player on the major league roster for at least two seasons, or expose him to waivers if they failed to comply.  The most famous player to be claimed from that era was Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, who the Pirates claimed from the Dodgers in 1954. The Bonus rule ended with the advent of the Major League draft in 1965.
When an organization signs a player at the age of 18 or under, they have five years of development until they have to place the player on the team’s 40 man roster.  If drafted at the age of 19 or older, a team has four years to do so.
When a player reaches their expiry date and isn’t placed on their team’s 40 man, they are eligible to be drafted by any MLB team in the December Rule 5 draft.  To prevent the draft from becoming a free-for-all raiding of some teams’ minor league talent, each draftee costs $50 000, and must be kept on the 25 man major league roster for the whole season.  If the drafting team opts not to keep the player, they must offer him back to the original team for half that amount.
Bell was signed by the Phillies (who were considering the leading MLB organization in terms of scouting in the 1970s) out of San Pedro de Macoris  in the Dominican Republic in 1978.  The 19 year old Bell was sent to Helena of the Rookie Level Pioneer League in 1979, where he hit .311/.373/.387.  Promoted to Low A Spartanburg the next year, Bell took off, hitting 22 Home Runs and driving in 102, while posting a line of .305/..345/.550.
The word was probably starting to get out about Bell after that season, and the Blue Jays were no doubt among the first to know about him.  Promoted to AA the next season, Bell was off to a hot start,  but suffered a stress fracture of his right shoulder at the end of April, and was out until July.  In his first game back, he re-injured the shoulder in a home-plate collision, and his season was over.
Under the Rule 5 guidelines of that time, the Phillies had to place Bell on their 40-man roster prior to the November 1980 edition of the draft, or risk losing him.  They sent him back to the Dominican, and let him work out with Escogido, a local team the Phils had an informal working agreement with.

The Blue Jays, who had the fourth pick in the draft, had done their usual due diligence, and had assigned famed Dominican scout Epy Guerrero to keep tabs on Bell.  As the fall progressed, it was clear that Bell had fully recovered.  The nervous Phillies ordered the Escogido manager to keep Bell out of games until after the draft was over, but the horse had already left the barn.  Legendary Blue Jays scout Al LaMacchia, a veteran of four decades in the game as a player, scout, and front office man, showed up in Santo Domingo in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Bell.  After watching an early morning workout of the ballclub, LaMacchia contacted GM Pat Gillick right away, and told him Bell was sound.  The Blue Jays scooped him up with the fourth pick of the draft, and the Phillies’ plan to hide Bell in the Dominican was foiled.
The club had to keep Bell on the roster for the whole year, of course, and he played only a minor role, managing only 168 plate appearances in 1981, putting up modest .233/.256/.350 numbers.  The Jays were were still far from being a contender in those days of four or five man bullpens, so keeping the youngster was not a burden on the roster. After that season, Bell was optioned to AAA, but the Jays’ brain trust saw him as the final piece of a potential all-star outfield, along with a skinny outfielder they drafted in the middle rounds in 1977, and a former high school basketballer who they took with the 2nd overall pick the following year.
The plan was likely to re-unite Bell with Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby sometime in 1982, but a Lynn McGlothlen fastball to Bell’s jaw limited him to 37 minor league games that year, and understandably left him with a low tolerance of pitchers who tried to jam him that would crop up throughout the rest of his career, most notably when Red Sox pitcher Bruce Kison came in too close for Bell’s liking in 1985, which led to Bell charging the mound and karate-kicking Kison.
Fully recovered by 1983, Bell was recalled midway through the season, and with Moseby and Barfield, formed what many considered the best young outfield in baseball. Bell broke through in 1984, hitting .292/.326/.498, as the Blue Jays themselves broke through from perennial losers to contenders.  Then there was Bell’s monster year of 1987, when he set a club record with 47 Home Runs and 134 RBI, and became the first Toronto player to capture the AL MVP award.
1987 represented Bell’s peak, and his numbers began to fall off afterward.  Never a great defensive player, Bell feuded with Manager Jimy Williams when he was moved to full time DH in 1988. Perhaps still fuming after learning of this switch mid-way through spring training, Bell hit 3 Home Runs on Opening Day, the only player in major league history to do so. Bell also hit the last home run (a walk off) at Exhibition Stadium. His relationship with Toronto fans soured toward the end of his time in the city, and Bell finished his career with the Cubs and the White Sox, retiring in 1993.  Bell and the Blue Jays patched things up, however, and he was named to the club’s Level of Excellence in 1996. He is a guest instructor at spring training for the club now.
Bell was not the only gem the Jays plucked from the Rule 5 draft.  Shortstop Manny Lee, taken from the Astros in 1984, took over the position when starter Tony Fernandez was dealt to the Padres, and played for the 92 World Series champs.
Next to Johan Santana and Josh Hamilton, Bell was one of the best Rule 5 picks of all time.

Should the Blue Jays Re-Sign Harold Ramirez?

Our good internet friend Clayton Richer over at Jays Journal suggested that the Blue Jays should re-sign OF Harold Ramirez, who was granted free agency as a six year minor league veteran earlier this month.

On the surface, it makes a lot of sense.  After a disappointing 2017, Ramirez made some adjustments this season to put the ball in the air more, and won an Eastern League batting title as a result.

The question is – would Ramirez accept the Jays’ offer?   Probably not.

Ramirez and his agent have no doubt looked at the Blue Jays 40 man roster, and while one could make a case that the futures of Kevin Pillar and Dalton Pompey with the organization are uncertain, Ramirez is buried behind at least 8 other Outfielders in the system.  The team has had Cavan Biggio take reps as a corner OF in Arizona, so he probably has passed Ramirez on the depth charts as well.  And there are players behind him who range from serviceable to prospect, including Rodrigo Orozco, Chavez Young, and Griffin Conine.  Playing time at Buffalo is not even a guarantee for him despite his successful 2018, and Ramirez understandably is not interested in a fourth crack at AA.

Both sides probably are well aware of this.  If the organization valued Ramirez and felt there was a spot for him, they likely would have offered him a salary above minor league minimum to stay a Blue Jay.  Such likley was not the case, and both sides agreed that Ramirez is better off looking for an opportunity elsewhere.