Talking prospects with Tony LaCava, Blue Jays VP of Baseball Operations


Upon arriving at Cooley Law School Stadium on Monday, May 7 for the first game of my second trip to Lansing, Mich. to see the Lugnuts, I was surprised to discover multiple members of the Blue Jays’ front office in attendance. Joining vice president of baseball operations and assistant general manager Tony LaCava were senior advisor Mel Didier, minor league field coordinator Doug Davis, and pro scout C.J. Ebarb, who signed Lugnuts left-hander David Rollins and right-handers John Stilson and Jeremy Gabryszwski in last year’s draft. By the end of the week, major league scout Sal Butera and even general manager and senior vice president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos had stopped by.

So after digesting the wealth of Jays knowledge now at the stadium, I made it a priority to talk to LaCava after Tuesday’s game to see if he would be willing to answer a few questions before the end of my trip. I was actually taken aback at how nice and accommodating he was, as he was willing to answer questions right then and there. We made small talk and briefly discussed Rollins, who LaCava said conceals the ball while working at a quick pace, and Anthony DeSclafani, who he called “another Blue Jays special” before bringing up Shaun Marcum.

I had left my recorder up in the press box, though, so after discussing a few other tidbits, I was going to have to connect with LaCava later in the trip for the interview instead, which turned out to be just prior to Thursday’s game. Considering the amount of front office staff in attendance, not to mention that Lugnuts manager John Tamargo Jr. was absent for the first two games of the week, LaCava was, as expected, very, very busy on this trip with things to do and so many people to talk to. I’d like to sincerely thank Mr. LaCava for giving me the time of day amid his hectic schedule not just once but twice, and for being so gracious in his responses as well.

I really enjoyed hearing his insight to the questions below, and I hope you do as well. My questions are in bold, with LaCava’s answers in plain text.

Sticking with Lansing first-off, a guy like Justin Nicolino, obviously he has the plus change and a good curveball too. Fastball velocity, though, is it an issue at all? Or do you see him adding a couple of ticks to it?

“Well, I think there’s more in there. He’s just turned 20, or he’s turning 20, and physically there’s still some growth, if you look at him he’s got more future growth I think. Already he’ll show you 92, he doesn’t pitch at 92, but his velocity’s creeping up since he signed, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a little bit more fastball. Not that he needs it, because honestly with the angle that he pitches at, the changeup, and the improving curveball, we think he’s got the weapons to be one heck of a starting pitcher in the big leagues right now, even if he doesn’t get more velocity.

Speaking of weapons, Aaron Sanchez. In terms of that changeup, that third pitch, how’s it coming along?

“We think it’s going to be the third plus pitch that he has. Fastball velocity it keeps getting better, and movement, and angle, and command of it just continues to get better and better. His breaking ball is an out pitch, it’s a knockout curveball, and his changeup is, at times, plus also. So that’s three out pitches we think, and he’s just 19.

It’s pretty easy to get excited about him.

“Oh yeah, yeah. We think he’s got a great future.”

Keeping with the Lansing starters, how did the whole piggybacking concept come to fruition this season?

“Well piggybacking’s been done in the past in other organizations, especially with younger pitchers. It’s a way to get a five-month season out of pitchers who normally, if you just let them go full go, would run out of innings by, at the latest, mid-July. We’re trying to get them into a mindset of going five months which is a full minor league season — ultimately we want them to go six months — and to protect them during their teenage years where they’re being asked to do more and they’re still growing, they’re still physically growing. It’s our way of making sure we do the right things by them from a health standpoint.”

Going all the way down the ladder to the Gulf Coast League, a guy like Griffin Murphy, the top prep left-hander of the 2010 draft, he’s not getting talked about much with guys like Nicolino and Daniel Norris in the system right now. How’s he coming along?

“I haven’t seen him since spring training, but in the spring it looked like there had been some improvement, the velocity was starting to get back into that 90 range. Right now it’s just more of an opportunity and waiting. The guys that we wanted to come here we deemed were more ready for this level, and we haven’t really sat down and done the short-season rosters yet, but I’m hopeful that he’s going to, obviously, be a part of one of those teams.”

Jacob Anderson and Dwight Smith Jr., they get lumped together a lot. Can you expand a bit on each player individually?

“Well they’re very different. I mean Jacob is 6’5″ and a longer muscle guy, and Smitty is more of a compact, stronger-type build. Anderson’s got future physical development, and Smith does too, but not as much projection on the body. So physically, there are big differences. Smith we feel is going to be able to play center field, so we’re going to have him do that, and Anderson will be on a corner, and it looks like it’s going to be right field. So he’s got enough for a right field arm.”

A guy like Adonys Cardona, there’s a ton in there, he’s just starting to get noticed it seems. Do you think that’s because he’s an international signing and because of his age?

“Yeah, he’s that much younger, he’s two years younger than these guys here [in Lansing]. He’s 18, and these guys are turning 20 at some point, 19/20. He’d be a junior at high school here in the States. He’s just a little under the radar but he’s got just great potential. He’s got an extremely quick arm, a very, very athletic body that’s projectable as well. He’s got a chance to throw really hard some day. He already, as a 17-year-old, was throwing 94 and even 95, so we think he’s got a really bright future as well.”

With rookie league numbers, the consensus is to not read too much into them and take them with a grain of salt. At what point or level, if at all, do the Blue Jays pay attention to a player’s statistics?

“I think we certainly look at the numbers in the low levels too, but obviously the further away from the major leagues, the less the numbers mean. You can go back to amateur baseball, for instance, you go to a high school game, and we don’t really know how to evaluate numbers in high school baseball. But certainly at the major league level, at the other end of the spectrum, it is what it is: a guy’s numbers are his numbers, and you just work backwards. The further away from the major leagues, the harder the numbers are to predict in future performance, but you can still gather information. I think we’re probably more concerned by bad numbers than we are impressed with good numbers.”

With the draft coming next month, how do you feel about it both talent-wise and having five selections in the first 60 picks?

“Well Andrew Tinnish, our scouting director, is the point man on the draft. Alex, myself and Perry Minasian, our pro scouting director, have seen some players from the draft for Andrew, but I don’t really have the pulse on it like I would like to, to really comment on the strength of it and things like that.”

I was talking to C.J. Ebarb about John Stilson, and he said that Stilson wants to almost cut your throat out when he’s on the mound because he’s just that fierce. He’s starting right now in Dunedin, is that the long-term plan or vision for him, to give it his all as a starter?

“With all the kid pitchers we get, we’d like to at least explore starting just to see, because starters are so much more valuable than relievers. If you can get 200 innings as opposed to 60, those 200-inning guys are so hard to find, so you want to make sure that you explore that. We think Stilson has the weapons to start, and we’re going to give him a chance. We’re going this year and we’re going to evaluate him periodically, but so far so good.”

I heard Michael Crouse had a very good spring. I was only down there for a week, but there were whispers that he had a great spring overall. Can you give an update on him?

“I haven’t seen him yet, in fact going there next, but obviously Michael is a talented kid. It’s only been six weeks down there so it’s really hard to put a lot of stock into such a small sample, but obviously I look forward to seeing him when I get there. He had such a good year here, and we expect him to do the same down there.”

To me, he just screams upside.

“Yeah, he’s a toolsy, very talented kid. He can run, he can throw, he’s got power, and he’s getting better each day, he’s rapidly improving. From the day he signed to this point, he’s come a long way.”

Shifting up to Vegas, Yan Gomes has started to play third base. Has he boosted his stock, especially given his versatility?

“Yeah he definitely has. He’s put himself on the map, on the radar so to speak. We’ve been blessed to have all this catching with J.P. Arencibia, Travis d’Arnaud, [A.J.] Jimenez, [Carlos] Perez, and you’ll hear about [Santiago] Nessy, who was a kid in the Gulf Coast League last year. Yan has just kind of flown under the radar but he had a really nice spring training, a great camp, and we felt like he deserved to go to Triple-A and that he earned the opportunity to go to Triple-A. But with Travis there we didn’t know how to get him the playing time, and he had played a little bit of corner infield in the past, so we felt that we could have him do that and get more at-bats in, and then when Travis has a day off he gets some catching as well. So it was two-fold, one to increase his versatility, and the other to get him more playing time in Triple-A.”

Is the hitting environment in Las Vegas frustrating from a developmental perspective when it comes to evaluating a player’s progress?

“Ideally you’d like it to be more of a fairer environment, for both hitters and pitchers. In this case it’s tough on our pitchers and a little easier on our pitchers, but there are ways to normalize the numbers. Our guys up in the office, [Baseball Information Analyst] Joe Sheehan and [Assistant General Manager] Jay Sartori, they’re always trying to, I guess, translate what happens in Vegas and normalize the numbers. They only play half their games there, so we do get the benefit of seeing them in other places. It certainly favors the hitters there, there’s no question about that, but the league’s been out there forever and Vegas has been a minor league affiliate for a long, long time, and the cream of the crop will come to the top, right?”

Also, after the interview and while sharing a quick elevator ride, Santiago Nessy was brought up again (I forget how). I asked about some of the whispers that the young catcher could eventually move out from behind the plate given his body type, and LaCava quickly dismissed that, stressing that Nessy’s future is behind the plate and that “he’s not going anywhere”.

– JM