TORONTO - Since he took over as general manager 18 months ago, Alex Anthopoulos’ plan to rebuild the Blue Jays brand has been an open book.
“We are not building to compete for one season,” he likes to say. “We are building to compete every season.”
Rather than risking big money on free agents, Anthopoulos and his management team are committed to building through the draft and developing their own consistent supply-line of talent.
There is no timetable, just a promise that once the franchise is in position, all the necessary resources will be there to put it over the top. Cynics, and those not paying attention, will look at this plan as just more of the same empty promises that have marked the past 18 seasons since Toronto last appeared in the playoffs.
It is doubtful that this year’s team will reach that critical mass of potential and performance, even though a lot of work has been done in the past two years. The scouting staff has been doubled. The minor leagues have been restocked with enough talent for Baseball America to rank Toronto’s farm system No. 4 in all of baseball. The pitching staff is promising.
“We want to create value in our players,” says assistant GM Tony LaCava, who oversees player development. “Ideally, they will play on our team one day. But if not, we want them to be of the kind of quality that other teams will want in trades.”
By mid-summer, after the draft, the Jays system will include more than 200 farmhands in various stages of development. Considering the fact that less than 10% of them will ever play a regular-season game in the majors and even fewer yet will stick around long enough to make a difference, it’s not an easy way to build.
It is a work in progress, but already there are signs the talent is starting to bubble to the top.
To measure this club at the dawn of a new season, you need to take two snapshots: One of the current 25-man roster and another of the talent in the system.
Now: Rookie J.P. Arencibia has worked hard all spring on learning everything he needs to know about his pitching staff to guide them through the season, despite his own inexperience. If he hits as expected, he could be Toronto’s receiver for years to come. He’ll get plenty of help from Jose Molina, who is like having an extra coach in uniform.
In the Pipeline: Catching, long a weak link in the Jays’ chain, is now one of the organization’s strong suits. Behind Arencibia are Brian Jerolman at triple-A, Travis d’Arnaud at double-A, with A.J. Jimenez and Carlos Perez at class-A. D’Arnaud may already be the best receiver in the system, but Perez has the potential to be the best catcher the Jays have produced.
Now: By all accounts, Adam Lind passed every test this spring in his re-introduction to first base, a position he hasn’t played since college. If he is able to put the offensive and defensive sides of the game together, the Jays won’t have any worries at this position for the next five years at least.
In the Pipeline: There is no clear line of succession here, though David Cooper, a first-round pick three years ago, is coming off a strong spring and a double-A season which produced 20 homers in 2010. Mike McDade hit 21 homers at Dunedin last year but still is a bit rough around the edges. Anthopoulos isn’t too concerned about this position. “You look around the big leagues and a lot of the first basemen weren’t playing that position when they got here,” said Anthopoulos.
Now: The Jays have multiple options on Aaron Hill, that could keep him in the fold right through the 2014 season. Despite the fact he’s one of the leaders in the clubhouse and has been a high-producer in the past, last year’s poor offensive output has to give the Jays pause before they decide to spend the $30 million it will take to lock him up through ’14. More than likely, they’ll wait and see how this year goes before pulling the trigger on the option for ’12 and ’13. That said, how Hill bounces back will be a key to just how well the Jays will do in 2011.
In the Pipeline: Second base is a bit of a dead zone in the Jays’ system, especially so now that Brad Emaus was let go last fall and has landed with the Mets. Jonathan Diaz, destined for triple-A, made a nice impression this spring but he’s more a utility player than a regular. One of last year’s drafts, Andy Fermin, made a bit of a splash early but he’s a long way off.
Now: After an entire spring setting up Jose Bautista to play third, the Jays have gone back to Edwin Encarnacion for opening day and into the foreseeable future, as long as you consider that to be a month, maybe two.
Encarnacion has lost some weight and manager John Farrell has become convinced that a better-conditioned Encarnacion is not going to be the defensive liability that he was last year.
In the Pipeline: As long as Brett Lawrie doesn’t fall on his face at triple-A, he is going to be on the fast track to Toronto. There is a school of thought that if the Jays didn’t want to delay the start of his arbitration clock, he would have made the team in Florida. Lawrie just turned 21 but he responded to his first big-league camp like a 10-year veteran. His poise was remarkable, given that he was learning a new position. He can run, hit, hit for power and while the book on him is he’s not a great defender, nothing he showed this spring would indicate that to be true.
Now: There are times with Yuniel Escobar when the style gets in the way of the substance but he will definitely provide some “Wow!” moments with his glove. What has been more promising this spring has been his offensive work, hitting .391 with a .443 on-base percentage.
In the Pipeline: Cuban defector Adeiny Hechavarria is a major league-ready defender right now but his bat is still stuck in customs. He’ll likely be back in New Hampshire again this year, his second as a pro, trying to refine his offence to catch up with his defence.
Now: Travis Snider in left, Rajai Davis in centre and Jose Bautista in right is how the Jays will begin the season, putting Juan Rivera into the slot as designated hitter.
It’s a better ensemble with Bautista in right as opposed to Rivera, though with Rviera in as DH, it’s basically still the same batting lineup as before.
In the Pipeline: The No. 1 outfield prospect in the system is Anthony Gose who, at the age of 20, might be among the top handful of defensive centre fielders in the game. Gose will go to double-A New Hampshire this year with an ETA in the big leagues in late 2012 or early 2013. He needs to prove he can hit to make his blinding speed pay off. At triple-A Las Vegas will be Eric Thames, who had a strong big-league camp this spring, and Darin Mastroiani. After an injury plagued season, Moises Sierra is healthy again and ready to try to prove himself prospect-worthy. Lower down in the chain, the Jays have some outfielders of interest in Jake Marisnick and Canadians Michael Crouse and Marcus Knecht.
Now: Once Brandon Morrow is added back into the mix in the next week or so, Toronto’s starting rotation will all be 26 years of age or younger and of a quality that can be said to be one of the team’s strengths heading into the season. Rookie Kyle Drabek has proven himself more than ready to make the jump from double-A to the majors and will occupy the No. 2 spot in the rotation order, to separate left-handers Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil.
The bullpen seems to have settled out for now with Jon Rauch as the closer, with Jason Frasor, Shawn Camp and Casey Janssen setting the table. Frank Francisco and Octavio Dotel are on the disabled list for the time being.
In the Pipeline: The No. 1 reason the Jays have such a highly rated farm system is because of their wealth of young, talented arms. In the last two drafts, the Jays have used many of their early picks on pitching and have accumulated some prime prospects.
No. 1 on the list, acquired in the Scott Rolen trade two years ago, is Zach Stewart, who will probably make his major-league debut sometime this season. He’ll be joining Brad Mills and Bobby Ray in Las Vegas. Chad Jenkins, the No. 1 pick of 2009, is probably the most advanced of the rest of the crop of high-ceilinged pitchers. He is ticketed for either high-A Dunedin or double-A New Hampshire this year. Next on the list would be Henderson Alvarez, a Venezuelan who will turned 21 in a few weeks but has already had three seasons of pro ball.
Deck McGuire, last season’s first-round pick out of Georgia Tech, also showed well this spring with a four-pitch arsenal that features a plus fastball and a nasty curve. Behind Mcguire are Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergard, Asher Wojciechowski and Griffin Murphy, all high picks last June. Drew Hutchison, a 15th-round pick in 2009, also has turned some heads with a strong first season at Auburn and Lansing in 2010.