DUNEDIN — As a team with a stated goal of building itself into a winner and then sustaining that status through constant renewal from the farm system, minor league matters have taken on a more structured and important role in the Blue Jays scheme in the last two years.
No fewer than 17 of the 62 players at the big-league camp are minor-leaguers, ranging from players like Deck McGuire getting his first taste of pro ball to those like Zach Stewart, who is going to get to compete for a rotation spot.
Most are at least a year or two or maybe more away but they’ve all earned it in one way or another.
“Some guys, it’s a huge benefit to be here,” said Tony LaCava, VP of baseball operations. “We’d like to see them earn it. When they do get it, the biggest benefit they get is to see what it takes, see the examples of the kinds of routines players need to have.”
It’s not for everybody. It takes maturity to come to big-league camp and not have it get into your head.
“Certain kids you might not want to bring to camp because you don’t know if they’re going to be able to handle that,” said LaCava. “It could go the other way but the guys we have invited here are capable of handling it and benefitting from it.”
The entire system, excluding the big-league roster, amounts to between 160 and 180 players at any given time. Historically, for each 100 players who sign a professional contract, about five will blossom into major-leaguers. Identifying which ones are moving forward and which ones are stagnating is a constant process.
“We have individual plans for each guy,” said LaCava. “It takes the emotion out of it. If you sit down and create a logical plan in mid-winter, there’s no emotional element. With the plan in place, you don’t react emotionally when the guy hits four home runs in a week and say ‘He’s got to move to Double A.’
“You can really take the emotion out of it. You can calmly assess and say ‘If he does this, this and this from a statistical standpoint and then this, this and this from a skill level, now you make a decision and you advance the player based on the right reasons.”
Each individual plan has a designated time frame and windows when the status of the player can be reassessed. Physical talent is obviously a must but a huge part of the equation is personal makeup of the player. Premier talent evaluator Pat Gillick has suggested the talent/makeup ratio is 60/40.
“My awakening to that was when I went from scouting to player development,” says LaCava. “I was the national (scouting) cross-checker for the Braves in 2000 and became farm director in 2001.
“That’s when makeup became so real to me. There’s a barrier to entry based on talent, no question about that. If you can’t exceed the barrier to entry then makeup doesn’t matter.
“But once you’ve exceeded the barrier to entry with your talent, makeup will determine whether you’re able to reach your ceiling. If your makeup isn’t all that good, the player will never achieve his potential because somehow, he gets in his own way.
So, what is makeup?
“It’s hard to define,” admits LaCava. “It’s a combination of resiliency, determination, work ethic, accountability, being a good teammate. All those things. The blend is not an exact science. It’s hard to pin-point it. But I’ll tell you what: You know it when you see it.”
The Jays’ minor-league spring training will open with a mini-camp designed as orientation for 35 of the younger players starting later this week. The bulk of the players in the system will be checking in during the first week of March.