MLB Draft Preview: Griffin Conine

We’ve learned several things about the early round draft preferences of the Mark Shapiro/Ross Atkins regime over the course of the last two years:

-this is a group that values production – numbers matter, particularly those with some strong context.

-character matters; the Blue Jays scouts spend a lot of time (years, in some cases) getting to know potential draftees and their make-up.

-track record is important:  players who have had sustained success at high levels of the game are easier to project into the future.  Under Shapiro, Cleveland was a very risk-averse team in the early rounds, and that trend has carried over.  To be fair, the Blue Jays haven’t drafted a high schooler in the 1st round since 2012. Still, the Blue Jays took only 5 prep players (and only 1 Pitcher) with their first 25 picks.  So, track record translates to collegiate players.

And there’s one more component that the Blue Jays value – genetics.   On the excellent At the Letters podcast, GM Atkins told hosts Nicholson-Smith and Zwelling that the Blue Jays place a lot of importance on players with “windshields” – players who were passengers on their Dads’ trip through the Major Leagues.

When you watch a person (ie. your Dad) become star right in front of you, you realize they’re not much different from you, and it makes it more real.  It’s one of the reasons why pedigree has value in the game – if you watch your Dad, and learn what it takes to become a great player…’s not intimidating.  Often times players that are extremely talented that haven’t had that exposure come into an environment where all of a sudden (a player thinks) everyone’s as good as me or better…..can quickly demotivate (a player).

With that in mind, and given the success that prospects named Guerrero and Bichette have had,  a very logical pick for the Blue Jays in the 12th spot is Duke OF Griffin Conine, son of former MLBer Jeff, also known as Mr Marlin.

Conine certainly checks the boxes for Toronto.  After a slow to start to his career at Duke, he had a breakout season last year, posting a .971 OPS.  Conine didn’t stop hitting when the college season ended, as he was named the Cape Cod League’s top pro prospect.  Conine was named a preseason NCAA D-1 All American prior to the 2018 campaign.  Not considered a top prospect as a high school senior, Conine’s work ethic has no doubt helped his prospect status climb to the point where he has to be considered one of the top three college OF prospects heading into June’s draft.  And then there’s his Dad, a 17-year Major Leaguer who has a pair of World Series rings.  In retirement, Jeff started taking part in triathlons, and had been serving as a Special Assistant to Marlins President David Samson before leaving the organization last fall, after incoming head honcho Derek Jeter offered him a less role with the team.

Jeff Ellis of Scouting Baseball and I had a lengthy chat about players the Blue Jays might be heavily scouting in advance of the draft, and Conine’s name was a part of that discussion.  In his most recent mock draft, Ellis has Conine going to the Jays:

Conine shares a birthday with Ryan Rolison, making him one of the younger juniors in this class. He has a long track record of performance and bloodlines that will make him move up boards. He is unlikely to be a star, but I see a player who should be worth 3 to 4 wins for many years. He is a complete player and the youth and relative safety make him a perfect fit for the Jays.

Maybe that’s not a ringing endorsement or a prediction of future first division stardom, but Conine would indeed be a very good fit with the Jays.  He can play all three Outfield positions, although his speed is not his greatest asset, and RF appears to be the best spot for him.  Because of his high OBP skills, Conine led off for his Cape Cod team last summer.  Conine works the count well, but he does tend to have some swing-and-miss because of his power – he had a 25% K rate last year.  Conine gets significant torque and loft with his swing, but he gets good plate coverage, and uses the whole field.  I did not come across this in any reports, but his bloodlines probably suggest a high Baseball IQ.

Veteran scout Ted Lekas of gave this analysis after seeing Conine last summer:

Athletic right fielder with plus bat and power potential; good, sound approach at the plate from a slight open stance; good balance; plus bat speed with quick hands and quick wrists; plus barrel control, barrels up balls and projects as a plus hitter; present strength; loft and leverage to all fields, projects to plus power; below-average run; did not produce home-to-first run time;  above-average arm strength (55) with good carry; average defensive actions; tools to be above-average major league regular contributor.

The reports all seem to project Conine as Logan Warmoth with more power potential.  If the Blue Jays select him, the fans in Vancouver are in for a treat this summer.  Of the players I’ve seen so far this college season (a small sample, admittedly), he’s the most impressive.


The Blue Jays Have a Problem…..

Naswell Paulino – Twitter

“Corruption exists in every pore of commerce, and the Latin-American market just happens to have really oily skin.”

Jason Parks, “From the Buscones to the Big Leagues,”

   When we talk about the lower levels of the Toronto Blue Jays farm system, President/CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins would like to have us mention about how 3 of their 4 short-season teams made the post-season (one of them winning a league championship), and how their High A club won a league shared title.  It’s evidence of an ample wave of talent that’s working its way up through the system.  Failing that, they would prefer we talk about the team’s High Performance Department, which Shapiro believes will give the club a competitive advantage in years to come.

Unfortunately, given the latest PED suspensions of players connected to their Dominican complex, such is not the case.  In addition to the three players suspended last week, three more received suspensions this week, and we also learned that a seventh player was found to have tested positive in September.

17-year old Southpaw Naswell Paulino, a converted OF who struck out almost a batter per inning in the DSL, 19 year old RHP Jol Concepcion, who also fanned nearly 9/9 at two levels, and 20-year old Righty Juan Jimenez were suspended in this latest round.  Paulino and Jimenez received 72 game bans, Concepcion 60.  All three, like the trio suspended last week, were found to have used Boldenone.  After the season, RHP Luis Silva was found to have tested positive for Stanozolol.

In an email, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins stated that this had been a lengthy process:

 A little while ago, MLB informed us that a group of our Latin American prospects had failed drug tests. Due to the large group of impacted players within our program, MLB launched our investigation that we and our Player Development staff fully complied with. MLB’s suspension decisions were recently announced at the conclusion of their investigation.

Atkins was choosing his words carefully (he said much the same to several media outlets yesterday), but his concern was obvious:

 This situation is very disappointing and disturbing to the organization; disappointing that the players made these choices, but more so disturbing that some failure of our environment allowed this to happen. It is our responsibility to create an environment and culture where our players know that PED use is not condoned, and to give them resources and education to ensure that they do not make these decisions. As we seek to determine both how and why this happened, an internal investigation into the situation remains ongoing, and we will double down on ensuring that all our staff is properly equipped to help our players make the right choices. Aside from this specific situation, we fully support the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, and will continue to collaborate with MLB on all matters relating to PED abuse.

To be honest, none of the seven prospects named are familiar to most Blue Jays fans; given the club’s sanctions for going past their pool allotment to sign Vladdy Jr, they could sign no picks for more than $300K – SS Hugo Cardona, part of last week’s group, was the only one who signed for that amount.  The club had high hopes for him, as well as Paulino and Concepcion.

When it comes to determining why these 7 young men took the risk of taking a banned substance, several factors come into play.  The first of these is probably the knowledge that they are marginal prospects, desirous of gaining an edge over the competition and eventually making their way off the island to play.  In an interview last year, High Performance Director Angus Mugford said that the marginal players stateside were the ones most receptive to the new methods of training and nutrition that the club was introducing for much the same reason:  to seek that edge.

Education is likely also a factor.  Kids growing up stateside know that there’s risk involved with taking any kind of supplement.  Dominican kids are not necessarily exposed to that kind of knowledge.  Teams do their best to educate their international players, but sometimes it takes a while for their message to sink in.

And then there are the unscrupulous types that can be found at or near some MLB complexes.  Perhaps they are connected to a buscone, the all-powerful scout/agent/coach/trainer types that wield an enormous amount of influence over young players.  Not all buscones are corrupt, but it only takes a few to upset the system.  As Parks wrote in his essay, “(some) buscones smell money like reality show celebrities smell fame.”  This is usually the case in regard to bonus money, but it’s likely that can spill over into the development of players.  The pressure must have come from somewhere for these kids to get bigger faster – they didn’t come up with the idea on their own. Were they aware that what they were taking was against the rules?  There’s a slight possibility they were, but what’s more likely is that they ingested those supplements after someone told them that they were fine.

This has to be an embarrassment for the Blue Jays.  Certainly, other teams were caught in this dragnet, but the 7 suspended Blue Jays tops MLB, something they certainly are not proud to be part of.  The Blue Jays had 5 players suspended for PED use last year (including MLBer Chris Colabello), but only 1 was a complex leaguer.   There is great irony that the team is generating this sort of headline when they’ve invested so heavily in the High Performance group, and earlier this month received approval to vastly upgrade their training and rehab facility in Dunedin.  Whether or not the investigation results in wholesale changes to their Dominican complex remains to be seen, but this is something the club is surely hopeful of putting behind them.

With the Braves having been dealt a harsh sentence in the wake of their own international scandal, Parks’ opening words in his Buscones tome ring true:

Hunting talent in Latin America is 80-grade complicated, and no one authority, no matter how experienced, can supply a definitive perspective, so varied are the possible outcomes.

Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects #9 Ryan Borucki

Baseball America photo

I had a chance to meet Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro in his Rogers Centre office a few weeks ago.  The plan was to talk about the state of the team’s farm system, but it developed instead into a wide-ranging discussion about the team and baseball in general.

One thing that Shapiro said toward the end of our conversation stuck with me.  In talking about finding and grooming young players in general, he observed that, “people forget just how hard it is, and how long it takes to develop starting pitching.”  And while that wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering observation, we do tend to forget sometimes that staring pitching is where this game begins.  But the gestation period of a minor league to MLB pitcher can be 4 years.  Or more.

Case in point:  LHP Ryan Borucki.

Concerns about his elbow had caused Borucki’s draft stock to tumble in 2012.  He suffered a partial UCL tear while pitching a no-hitter in March, but played primarily 1B in his senior high school season as he opted for rehab over Tommy John surgery.  The Blue Jays were at the peak of their “roll-the-dice” approach to the draft that year, and selected him in the 15th round.

The rehab ultimately proved unsuccessful, and Borucki underwent Tommy John, which cost him his entire 2013 season.  He had a strong return in short season ball in 2014, but shoulder and elbow woes limited him to 5 innings in 2015.  It wasn’t until his fourth year as a pro in 2016 that he graduated to full season ball – the Blue Jays opted to keep him in Dunedin to keep an eye on his health, but Florida State League hitters teed off on Borucki, and when he was sent to down to Lansing after 6 starts, there was little hint that 16 months later, he would be on the cusp of a big league job.

With the help of Lansing pitching coach Jeff Ware, Borucki added some deception to his delivery, giving hitters less of a glimpse of his pitches.  Borucki dominated Midwest League hitters as a result, and even though he’d had limited success above that level, the Blue Jays opted to add him to the 40-man roster in order to avoid the chance of losing him in the Rule 5 draft.

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins told Shi Davidi, in a piece for Baseball America, that there was a huge consensus for adding Borucki to the 40:

“It’s rare that you have a group of people absolutely pound the table for a player without one exception. When that happens, when they are talented, albeit he was in low-A ball and had a previous injury, he did have a good year. It was unanimous across player development that from a work-ethic and competitive standpoint, what he means to this organization as a teammate, that it was somebody we were excited to add to our 40-man.”
   Borucki pitched at three levels, starting at Dunedin and finishing the year with a start in Buffalo.  He did not have enough innings to qualify, but his swinging strike rate (14%), and ground ball rate (50.4%) were both good enough for 4th among Florida State League pitchers.  Promoted to New Hampshire in late July, he picked up where he left off in Dunedin, tossing a scoreless 7 innings in his first start, and allowing only one run in his first three.
   Borucki does not overwhelm hitters.  His fastball sits 90-92, touching 94 on occasion.  He complements that fastball with a developing slider, but it’s his change up which generates the whiffs.  Easily the best in the system, he throws it with good arm speed and movement.  The back turn that he developed with Ware continues to offer some deception, and helps his fastball play up a little faster than it is.  He also has some arm-side run to his fastball, which often induces weak contact.  At 6’4″/175, Borucki is long and lean, which allows his to get good downward movement on all of his pitches.  His athleticism enables him to repeat his delivery and field his position well.  When you talk to people in the Blue Jays organization, they are unanimous about Borucki’s grit and resilience.  Even as far back as 2014, he has been called a big leaguer in the making.  Given the ups and downs of his career so far, he has more than learned how to bounce back from a bad outing.
    Borucki should have a shot at competing for a back of the rotation spot in spring training, but he’ll likely begin his 2018 season in Buffalo.  Injuries and/or inconsistency at the big league level will probably mean that he makes his MLB debut at some point next year.

































Blue Jays Spring Training Deal with Dunedin Approved

Clutchlings Photo

In the words of Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro, the team has taken a big step forward with the unanimous approval of a new 25-year licensing deal with Dunedin by the Florida city’s council tonight.

The Blue Jays were represented by Director of Florida Operations Shelby Nelson and Legal Counsel Matthew Shuber.  The approval guarantees funding for an $81 million replacement of the former Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, spring home of the Blue Jays, and a significant upgrade to the minor league complex.  The complex was a huge part of the deal in the eyes of Shapiro, who feels that the new training and rehab facility will give the team a huge competitive advantage:

It’s shifting Dunedin away from just being a spring training site, where we prepare our players for the season, to a 365 days of the year, state-of-the-art training and rehabilitation centre, and a base for our US operations.

As the deal involved funding from local, county, and state governments, negotiations were some time tense, and the Blue Jays took their turn being grilled at council meetings at the higher levels.  The bulk of the price tag ($46 million) will come from a 6% hotel bed tax collected by Pinellas County.  The Blue Jays will kick in $20 million, while Dunedin will contribute about $6 million, and the state will match the city’s funds.  The bidding process will probably take about six months, meaning shovels won’t be in the ground until April or May.  The Florida State League’s Dunedin Blue Jays may be looking for other accommodations next season, depending on the pace of the upgrades.

The former FAES, which could charitably be described as quaint, will be razed, and the park will return to its orignal name, Grant Field, in honour of the family that donated the land for the stadium, according to a source close to the negotiations, although the Blue Jays have said that has not been determined.  The minor league complex, now known as the Bobby Mattick Complex (after the long time Jays scout, executive, and one-time Manager), will revert to the Cecil P. Englebart Complex, its founding title.  Again, this has not been confirmed by the Blue Jays.

The Blue Jays and Dunedin have a lengthy history, going back to the team’s inception in 1977.  Their set-up is less than ideal, with the stadium and minor league base about a ten-minute drive apart.  While the team looked into other spring training sites in advance of the expiry of their deal earlier this year, Shapiro said that there really wasn’t a better site for the team than Dunedin.




Mark Shapiro on the State of the Blue Jays

Mark Shapiro Photo

Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro recently welcomed Future Blue Jays to his surprisingly compact 3rd floor office for  what was going to be an overview of the team’s minor league system.  As the last warm rays of Indian Summer danced off of the Lake Ontario waves outside his south-facing window, the half-hour conversation turned into a general discussion about the 2017 Blue Jays, the Rogers Centre, and where the organization is heading.

Construction on Southbound Highway 400 and delays on the TTC tried to conspire to keep a guy from the north from arriving at the appointed time, but a good sprint from St Andrew Station allowed me to make it with seconds to spare.

With the regular season over, and the winter meetings still over a month away, this is something of a down time in the front offices of non-postseason teams.  Still, the Blue Jays suite was a hive of activity.  Assistant General Manager Andrew Tinnish was in this morning, fresh from trips to the Dominican and Japan earlier this month.  General Manager Ross Atkins said hello as he was stirring his coffee at a counter just outside of Shapiro’s office.

Shapiro has acknowledged that while the 2017 season was a disappointment, it was not unexpected, terming the club “fragile” because of the age of the 25-man roster, and a lack of upper level minor league talent.  Shapiro has an eye of the future,  stating that, “We’re trying to construct a development system that maximizes the potential of our players,” and he says that he’s encouraged by this year’s draft, the work of Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish (who heads up international scouting and player development), and by the development being done at the minor league level.  “That building effort is a long-term play,” he added for good measure.  Shapiro does not believe in taking short cuts when it comes to building a winner.

As far as progress toward building a new stadium in Dunedin and vastly upgrading the minor league complex, Shapiro feels that Dunedin is, “Making significant progress – we’re really close to pushing across the goal line.”  Negotiations have been lengthy, and Shapiro has received some intense grilling at some meetings, but he feels that’s part and parcel of dealing with three levels of government to obtain financing for the project.  Despite the lengthy time it has taken to secure funding to move the projects ahead, Shapiro is excited about the possibilities:

  We are close to getting a significant renovation that I think has a chance to be a game-changer on both resources and culture for our player development system…ultimately, it’s shifting Dunedin away from just being a spring training site, where we prepare our players for the season, to a 365 days of the year, state-of-the-art training and rehabilitation centre, and a base for our US operations.

While some optimistic estimates suggested that shovels at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium might have been in the ground this past September, Shapiro is hesitant to forecast a date, but he says he is, “confident it will happen in the next calendar year.”  When asked where the Florida State League’s Dunedin Blue Jays will play during stadium reconstruction, he wouldn’t commit to a location, but did say that it will depend on how the demolition/construction is staged, and that the club has thoroughly discussed contigency plans, and has one firmly in place.

As far as the Rogers Centre renovations are concerned, Shapiro states that they are still in, “the design phase,” but the actual implementation of any upgrades is, “up to Rogers – where it fits in the hierarchy of their capital needs.”  He does promise that it will be a more fan-friendly remodelling:

   The general theme is – let’s change this from a multi-purpose stadium to a baseball ballpark as best you can within four walls and a roof… fairness to our owners, we’re the only team that’s asked to do it without any public subsidies.

He did add that the Rogers Centre is the last non-renovated stadium of its generation.  To those of us who grew up with the old makeshift facility that was Exhibition Stadium, that was a bit of a revelation, but it does speak to the need to bring the Dome up to modern standards.

As far as grass is concerned in any Rogers Centre renovations, it’s not a priority for Shapiro, mainly because of the cost (again, which would not be subsidized by the public) – the Rogers Centre has no drainage, and as one of the lowest-lying points on Toronto’s waterfront would mean huge costs just to install proper drainage systems.  Shapiro puts the price of that installation at around 30% of any potential Rogers Centre overhaul.  Factor into that a huge chunk of the annual operating budget, and the fact that the roof is closed for over 5 months of the year, and it makes grass a very costly upgrade.  Outgoing Blue Jays President Paul Beeston, of course, threw this out to an eager public after a number of disappointing seaons several years ago. As Andrew Stoeten said at Blue Jays Nation, “what was an olive branch became a landmine to his eventual successor.”

Shapiro pointed out that huge advances have been made in artificial turf design, and the dirt portion of the infield has led to a significant elimination of the former artificial turf bounce.  In an ideal world, he added, the Blue Jays would be playing on grass, but in the real world, it’s a very low priority.  Many have suggested that the turf might dissuade free agents from coming to Toronto, but that’s not how Shapiro and Atkins prefer to construct a roster, anyway.

Shapiro was also asked about the recent group of employees who were let go, which has garnered a fair amount of attention (much of it negative) in the media.  Included in the cuts were several long time employees who also happened to be Canadian.  It was obvious to see that he was understandably tiring of the subject, or at least the attention it was receiving.   He did point out that many of the job losses were on the business side of the operation, and he credited VP of Business Ops Andrew Miller with not making wholesale changes when he took over that portfolio two years ago.  Not to drag this issue out any further, but times change, and when a new regime takes over the management of any business, personnel changes are almost to be expected.  Shapiro has taken heat for bringing in three former Cleveland employees (Atkins, Miller, Eric Wedge) shortly after coming to Toronto, but he has hired a number of people on the baseball side from other organizations (Gil Kim, Steve Sanders, Mike Murov), and has kept quite a few on (Tony LaCava, Dana Brown,  Tinnish – a Canadian).  It’s unfortunate to see people out of work, and a cynic might suggest that some Toronto media outlets looking for clicks thought they would capitalize on that.  The business side decided to go in a new direction, and the skill sets of some of the now former employees didn’t align with that.   Shapiro is aware of the sensitivity of the topic, however, and says hiring and developing local talent at all levels of the organization is a priority.

Our talk shifted to the Blue Jays minor league system at this point, and it was clear that this was an area of extreme comfort for the former farm director.  When I told him how I preferred to watch minor league games on my laptop on nights where the big club wasn’t doing so well,  Shapiro admitted that he sometimes does the same thing.  The Blue Jays are very pleased with the Player Development Contracts they have with their minor league affiliates.  All of those agreements are up for renewal after next season, but Shapiro expects that they all will be renewed.  We discussed the possibility of Ottawa becoming an Eastern League affiliate – Shapiro was not aware of the details involving a possible move of an existing EL franchise to the nation’s capital a few years ago, which died for lack of desire on City Council’s part (in an election year) to fund upgrades to their ballpark to bring it up to MiLB standards.  It certainly is not a direction to move towards for the Blue Jays at the moment, but it was obvious that the idea of a team in the nation’s capital piqued his interest.

The crown jewel of the Blue Jays organization, and perhaps his greatest accomplishment to date, is the establishment of the High Performance department, and if not for another appointment coming up, I suspect he would have talked about it for some time.  Shapiro believes that the HP group gives the Blue Jays a huge competitive advantage, and the improvements at Dunedin will be a huge part of that.

We talked next about the futures of Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette.  Vladdy Jr has said that he wants to be in the majors before he’s 20, and with the rapid ascent of Rafael Devers, who was promoted to the Red Sox this summer at that age, I asked if such a plan was possible for Guerrero.  Not one to be pinned down on the subject, Shapiro noted that there was an opening for Devers in Boston this year (implying that he already has a pretty decent 3rd Baseman), and said that it was unlikely that we would see Jr in Toronto next year, but:

If we find ourselves in the middle of a pennant race next summer, and Vladdy had been successful in the minors up to that point, there’s always a possibility that we could promote him.

Finally, with our time almost up, I asked what the chances were of the Blue Jays landing prized Japanese star Shohei Otani, who the team has been extensively courting and scouting for some time.  Shapiro acknowleged that the team has put in their work on the future star, but admitted that he wasn’t sure if Toronto was a good fit for a Japanese player, with the implication being that markets like L.A, Chicago, or New York would have the inside track.  This is not surprising, but is disappointing, because with the new CBA rules, it appeared at least that the Blue Jays had a fighting chance this time around, unlike with previous Japanese players.

Shaprio is upbeat about the future in Toronto, pointing out that the Blue Jays have the youngest and most diverse fan base in all of MLB.  How things pan out in the future for the Blue Jays may come down to the head office of Rogers:  how badly do they want to produce a winner?  Will they make the investments necessary to keep the team competitive?  The Blue Jays are only one of two MLB teams owned by corporations, and recent rumblings suggest that they are looking to shed themselves of at least part of their ownership of the team.    Inferring from his body language and comments about dealing with the folks at 333 Bloor St East, that might be a welcome development for Shapiro.  For further reading on the subject, take a look at the excellent article Jon Shell wrote for BP Toronto earlier this summer.  


A personal note:  Shapiro has taken more than his fair share of lumps from the local media (not that he cares at this point in his career, as he noted).  He has always been a stand-up guy to me.  He returns emails, and is more than willing to deal with those in the non-traditional media. Compared to the former face of the franchise, Alex Anthopoulos, he may not be as affable in public, but in conversation, he is warm, genuine, and sincere.  A strong believer in positivity, grit, and resilience, the conference table in his office has a pile of books on that topic in the middle of it.  The white board behind it is full of points on the subject, as well as a note from his 13 year old daughter, a reminder that no matter how he is portrayed in the media, he is a family man, going through the challenge of helping to raise two teenagers in a foreign country.