I’ll get it off my chest right away. I’m not a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays draft strategy. While I was following the 2013 draft, I sat and wondered to myself “when will they take a position player?” When they took catcher Garrett Custons in the 10th round out of the Air Force Academy, I realized it was a similar gambit as they used last year selecting Alex Azor out of the Naval Academy: they selected a guy who who would sign for peanuts (or a hot dog*) in order to get more out of the signing bonus pool.**
As more information came out from the Jays about their picks, I remained hopeful. People said that first round pick Phil Bickford’s mechanics could be trouble. Second rounder Clinton Hollon had already had forearm trouble (an indicator of elbow issues) and third rounder Patrick Murphy had already had Tommy John surgery. The Jays selected some high schoolers with upside later in the draft that probably wouldn’t sign: Jake Brentz (11th round), Eric Lauer (17th round), Sam Tewes (22nd round) and Rowdy Tellez (30th round).
And so, what have we discovered now that the signing deadline has passed? Bickford didn’t sign. Hollon’s elbow damage on an MRI enabled the Jays to sign him for well under slot. Murphy is on the 60-day DL with the GCL Blue Jays and the Jays have 8 pitchers from the first 10 rounds now under contract. The good news is that with the huge savings under slot the Jays had from the first ten rounds, they were able to sign two highly-ranked guys who fell way down in the draft because teams thought that they wouldn’t be able to offer enough money after the 3rd round (more on that later).
The Blue Jays 2013 draft strategy strikes me as throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. But in this analogy, it’s baseballs that are being thrown and the Jays are hoping that one of the pitchers throwing those baseballs makes it through the system. Of those 10 rounds, there is really only one pitcher who isn’t a risky high-school (or young community college) arm with some upside. The fact is that after the fifth round or so, the Jays went with college pitchers who would sign below slot (in addition to 7th round HS pitcher Conner Greene who also signed under slot) enabling the Jays to save for higher picks or, in the case of this year, 11th rounder Jake Brentz and 30th rounder Rowdy Tellez.
Why am I skeptical about this draft strategy? Unlike my friend Zach Mortimer, who writes for Baseball Prospectus and intends to get into scouting as a profession, I think that there are flaws in prioritizing the big-talent/big-risk draft picks (particularly pitchers) that the Blue Jays have been chasing recently. So far, most of their early round hitters have failed more often than they’ve succeeded with the examples of Matt Dean, Mitch Nay, and D.J. Davis coming to mind. Dwight Smith, Jr. is showing signs of really coming around, but he was never considered to be as “toolsy” as any of Dean, Nay or Davis. Smith is also finding his success in Lansing (full-season Class-A) whereas the other three are still in Bluefield (Rookie-level).
This is why the Jays draft strategy is a little concerning to me. The Blue Jays have not really drafted and developed any position players in years. The only two “home grown” position players on the 2013 Blue Jays roster? J.P. Arencibia and Adam Lind. In fact, if you look at the high minors for the Jays, very few position players that are succeeding were drafted by the Blue Jays. Right now, outfielder Kevin Pillar is the huge exception, tearing up Double-A and Triple-A after being drafted in 32nd round in 2011.
Anthony Gose? Disappointing this year and not drafted by the Blue Jays. Moises Sierra? Also struggling somewhat this year and an international free agent. Prospects in AA? Well, Andy Burns, drafted by the Jays in the 11th round in 2011 (the same draft as Pillar) and is showing potential but is still only 22 and could go either way at this point. Catcher A.J. Jimenez is playing well and will most likely be an ML backup at the very least (9th rounder in 2008).
And that’s it. Even if we go down to Dunedin in the Class A-Advanced Florida State League (where Burns played the first half of the season) there really aren’t any sure-fire position playing prospects. All of the younger players with upside have struggled and their futures really are questionable.
This brings up the question: Where do the Blue Jays expect to get their position players from?
Right now, it looks like the plan is to stockpile young arms, groom them into legitimate “prospects” and trade them off for position players. While this is certainly a workable plan, I really don’t see a huge future in doing this for too long. Eventually, you’re going to have to provide your own talent or the costs of maintaining a team of traded-for players is just going to overwhelm even Rogers Communications.
The Jays also seem to be looking for big arms with great fastballs and hope that these young pitchers can pick up and polish their secondary pitches enough to be effective into the high minors and even the majors. As far as position players go, it’s hard to tell what the Jays are looking for. Obviously, they like great athletes with speed and versatility but it also seems like, because they’re drafting their position players lower down, that they’re looking for character guys who will be good in the organization.
Here are the position players they drafted this year (and signed) that I think might have a chance get to Double-A:
Round 14: 1B L.B. Dantzler – Dantzler hit a for a lot of power playing for a strong, Division I school. He has shown the ability to hit for power immediately in Vancouver.***
Round 16: C Dan Jansen – I don’t know much about him but he’s put together some good games in the GCL. He’s still young, so anything can happen.
Round 21: C Michael Reeves – Reeves is hitting up a storm in Vancouver and has a reputation as a good defensive catcher. Having a good stick (even without much power) and a good glove is a combination that can take you a long way as a catcher. Look at Mike Nickeas who’s hitting in the .150 range for the Buffalo Bisons.
Round 23: OF Brenden Kalfus – He was a batting champ in his college conference and I’m told he plays well defensively. Like Reeves, he hasn’t shown much power, but good defense and the ability to get on base will keep you around in pro ball. (Note: For those of you looking for Kalfus on Baseball Reference, they spell his name Brendan Kalfus. Unless I spell it that way, you won’t get a link.)
Round 30: 1B Rowdy Tellez – Tellez was supposed to be a 2nd or 3rd rounder but fell hard to the 30th. The Jays gave him $850,000 to sign and forgo his commitment to USC. He’s said to have the most power from the left side of the plate of anyone in the draft. Let’s see what happens.
Yup. That’s it. 5 guys. To be honest, 5 guys making Double-A from the hitting side of the draft is actually pretty good. The Jays took very few high school batters that signed (I think SS Andrew Florides is the only other one) so most of my evaluation is based on what the players have done so far in pro-ball, taking into account the level that Jays have them playing at as well as their college pedigree.
With the pitching, there’s definitely talent there, but with all the high school guys, there are also big questions. Will Hollon and Murphy (rounds 2 and 3) recover from injuries fully? Will the high school pitchers be able to harness their big arms and develop secondary pitches? Will the college guys ever have enough stuff to get hitters at the high professional ranks out?
What does this strategy say about the Blue Jays? It leaves me with more questions that answers and looking at past drafts, especially those under Alex Anthopoulos, this one seems to be much more one-dimensional than some of the others that he’s had. The first 9 picks were almost all hard throwing high schoolers or college pitchers that they could sign below slot. The only guy in there who looks like a “safe” pick is college lefty Matt Boyd (sixth round) who will probably be kept to a limited number of innings this season to go easy on him after a season in which he went deep into the College World Series.
To me, this draft is the extreme example of what the Jays have been doing over the past few years. Questions about why will probably never be answered, but it was the first draft under the new director of amateur scouting, Brian Parker. Is this the true example of Parker’s draft strategy? Were there no position players that the Blue Jays felt they needed to draft in the first 10 rounds? Are the Jays actually going after as many young, high-ceiling arms that they can get in order to stockpile to trade for position players?
For me, signing Tellez redeems this year’s draft a little bit. It gives the Jays one really big bat with upside from this draft. While there are guys who are always going to come out of nowhere and shoot through the organization (like Pillar), bats like Tellez’s are rare and in a system where power is getting more and more scarce, it’s nice to see that they managed to grab someone who can hit the ball a long way. The signing of Brentz is less of an anomaly for me. Again, he’s a young guy with a big arm and loads of potential but these kinds of prospects have a high flame-out rate.
This draft raises a lot of questions for me and, having covered the Blue Jays minor league system pretty thoroughly over the past year, I have serious reservations about the Jays’ ability to draft and develop position players over the coming years.
What do you think about the Jays’ draft strategy and the 2013 Draft?
* Azor was quoted last year as saying that he would have signed for a hot dog.
** I highly recommend Bluebird Banter’s Draft Signing Table: a crowd-sourced summary of the Jays picks and signings that was the best resource in helping me follow what was going on.
*** Anyone hitting for power is someone to keep tabs on in my books. The Jays do not have any real power hitting prospects (or at least any prospects who are making good on their power potential) right now.