Arrested Development


John E. Sokolowski-US PRESSWIAt the end of a long lost-season the Blue Jays- represented by Escobar, Snider, Farrell, and Vizquel- have certainly done their best to keep things entertaining. For all of the hyper-inflated nonsense of late about the clubhouse, veteran leadership, and fractured managerial relationships, there has been an implicit quieter critique of the club that should be dominating water-cooler conversations.

I imagine that Alex Anthopoulos isn’t as amused as the rest of us with what has transpired recently, but with the latest secrets slipping out of the always tight-lipped ninja I dare say that even he might agree with the following assessment. The problem with the Jays has not been veteran leadership, free agents, poor contract management, drafting or scouting. What has been failing the Toronto Blue Jays has been player development

An evolving club philosophy in player development seems to recognize this point. The club is talking about leaving more of its young players (like Anthony Gose and Adeiny Hechavarria) in the minors to create depth and let the players force the club’s hand instead of letting the club’s needs force the player’s hand.

To envision this new philosophy, think of the exact opposite of how the club handled Travis Snider, Henderson Alvarez, Drew Hutchison, Gose, Hecchavaria, and Kyle Drabek. Every one of those players was put on the Jays ball-club because the team needed them and not one of them because they were ready. These short-term gains have been detrimental to the club’s long-term health and inconsistent with Alex’s long-term investments in scouting and the draft.

This shift in club philosophy is partly caused and aided by the fact that we finally have a Triple-A club to which we can send prospects without destroying them. The club never should have been in Vegas in the first place, but Vegas shouldn’t be used as an all-in-one excuse for the Jay’s front office’s failures in player development. We haven’t exactly been letting players pitch in Double-A either.

Take Alvarez as an example. According to most scouts, he has the potential of a solid number 3-4 rotation starter and is a pretty safe bet to reach his ceiling. The kid was brought up with only two pitches and the ‘plan’ was to let him develop a third pitch at the major-league level. Well, apparently it is really tough to learn a new pitch playing against the best players in the world while competing in the standings. When Alvarez’s alarmingly low strike-out rate dipped to even lower levels, the club refused to send him back to the minors for the very same reason that they brought him up to the majors: they needed him whether he was ready or not.

I am sympathetic to the argument that the front office is trying to field the best team for its fans. I do end up watching the games, but I am also sympathetic to the argument that we are trying to build a championship team in Toronto. Bringing up players when they aren’t ready isn’t building a championship team, it is treading water. Take a look at teams like the Rangers and Rays whose success we are trying to emulate.

More importantly, the club’s lack of player development clashes with A.A.’s vision for the club: build the core of a championship team through the draft by getting as many picks as possible and selecting high-upside athletic prospects with a premium put on pitching. The Jays wanted to draft lots of high-upside players and build depth in the system. They wanted to hit on twice the number of players of other clubs and so they increased their number of picks and doubled the size of the scouting department. It will take some time for these players to get to the club, but the idea is that once they arrive there will be a constant stream of talented prospects showing up.

At the on-set of A.A.’s tenure the Jays may have been bad, but as a fan I could see what the club was building. Within that vision every move made sense, and so I could see purpose. Fans could sign on, but it has seemed like the Jays forgot about one important part of the equation. They forgot that they need to manage what happens to our prospects between the draft and them donning a Jays jersey. Why put all of this effort into drafting all of these players if we aren’t going to develop them properly?

Players have been jerked around, brought up, sent down, and toyed around with. The front office hasn’t had a vision for player development. Players were moved through the system sometimes based on clubs needs and sometimes for unknown reasons. The club’s reasoning has been inconsistent and sometimes silent. For fans there hasn’t been a way to make sense of it. As a fan, there is no vision or purpose to grasp when looking at player development. It has looked like the Jays are are making up club policy on the fly.

Don’t take this argument to the extreme. Some of these players probably would not have succeeded regardless of what the Jays did with them. But, if the Jays front office is about squeezing as much value as possible in every facet of the game, then why wouldn’t we be setting up our player development system so that we were extracting the most value out of our prospects by putting them in the best place to succeed?

With A.A.’s recent comments it seems like the club is finally carving out its own philosophy of player development that looks similar to the way the Tampa Bay Rays handle their prospects. The Rays conservatively and slowly develop their players. Their players aren’t brought up until they are absolutely ready to play. Rays prospects are put in the best place to succeed, while ensuring that their arbitration clocks start once the club is getting better value for their skills. Price, Hellickson, Davis, Torres, Cobb, and now Guerrerri were all brought along very slowly and it seems to have turned out alright for their pitching staff and its depth.

The major leagues are a constant game of execution and adjustment. Outside of Mike Trout, the average ball-player needs physical, mental, and emotional maturity to be ready. The difference between the Jays and the Rays hasn’t been veteran leadership, but player development. We don’t bring up guys when they are ready because their play demands it, we bring them up when the club needs demands it. It is about time for the front office to be demanding that its long-term need for properly-developed prospects take precedence.

Hopefully so, because then we can all turn our attention back to the circus that has been operating out of the Rogers Center as of late.