In what must rank as one of the least-surprising happenings of the Blue Jays off-season, Toronto has renewed its Player Development Contract with the Vancouver Canadians of the Northwest League for another two seasons. During the C's annual Hot Stove Luncheon, Managing General Jake Kerr said:
"We have seen a number of Toronto's top prospects over the years and we look forward to further helping in their development. The Canadians relationship with the Blue Jays remains as strong as ever and we appreciate the quality of young men they have sent to represent our city and organization,"Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins was on hand for the announcement, and added:
The Canadians provide a great culture for our young athletes to develop, as both people and baseball players. We look forward to working with the Canadians for many years to comeMLB teams and their affiliates typically have two or four-year agreements, which come up for renewal in even-numbered years. The MLB team provides players (and pays their salaries), while the affiliate provides adequate facilities for the players and visiting staff from the big team.
To say that the relationship between the Jays and the C's has been successful would be a vast understatement. Since connecting in 2010, the C's captured three successive NWL titles, and nearly captured a fourth. Last year's edition failed to make the playoffs. Previously, Vancouver had a PDC with Oakland dating back to 2000. The NWL C's replaced a AAA version of the franchise that operated in the Pacific Coast League from 1978-1999.
The 2015 Canadians led the Northwest League in attendance (setting a club record in the process), after having finished second to Spokane every year since coming under the Blue Jays umbrella. New left field seating helped put the C's over the top, leading to an average attendance of just under 6 000. Nat Bailey field is a lively, raucous place, and has been a huge factor in the Canadians' success. And the industry has taken notice, awarding the C's with the Bob Freitas award as the Short Season Organization of the Year Award in 2011, and the President's Award as the Minor League Organization of the Year in 2013. If you ever find yourself on the West Coast in the summer, after you go to see the Vancouver Aquarium, the Capilano Suspension Bridge, or Stanley Park, do yourself a favour and catch a C's game. Nat Bailey Stadium is quaint (be careful of the obstructions caused by the grandstand pillars), and the Granville Island craft beer selections are an added plus. Even the grounds crew gets into the act:
The partnership between the Jays and C's has benefitted both sides considerably. For Toronto, there is a chance to grow the Blue Jays brand, and the experience of playing in Vancouver gives prospects not only a chance to play in front of an incredibly supportive crowd, it also allows many of them to have a taste of what living in Canada is like, with the customs issues, and the different currency. We tend to take all of this for granted as Canadians, but for many Americans, our country is significantly different. For the C's, as Canada's only minor league team, the benefits of joining forces with the nation's only major league team are obvious, but perhaps the biggest one has been the players the club has stocked Vancouver with. Kevin Pillar, Roberto Osuna, Marcus Stroman, and Aaron Sanchez all spent time in the NWL.
What's somewhat interesting is that this year, with the C's out of playoff contention early in the first half, there were some grumblings about the quality of prospects the Blue Jays had shipped to Vancouver this year. The NWL is considered to be a college grad's league, with many of its players getting their first taste of pro ball, and the Blue Jays have always sent a fair contingent of college draftees westward, but the blue-chip quality of players Vancouverites has been used to wasn't there in abundance this year, and the upper tier prospects who were sent there, like Jon Harris, Carl Wise, and Lane Thomas, struggled.
All of this underscores the basic give-and-take of a PDC: the parent club wants to know their prospects and visiting roving staff will be taken care of; the affiliate wants to know that they can put a quality product, including prospects and the odd rehabbing big name MLBer, on the field. The last round of agreement expirations in 2014 saw some 20 affiliate changes, one of the largest set of shuffles in some time. While some agreements (13 in all) have been extended to either 2018 or 2020 since last year, a number will be coming up for renewal this year, including the Blue Jays' PDC's with Buffalo (AAA), Lansing (Low A), and Bluefield (Short Season). Toronto owns both their High A and rookie franchises in Dunedin, so those relationships will continue until the Blue Jays choose otherwise.
Will the Blue Jays renew with Buffalo and Lansing? Certainly, both sides have benefitted. The Bisons have been in the top 5 in International League attendance every year since they joined forces with Toronto in 2013. The Blue Jays have had few top prospects spend much time in western New York, but they have fielded veteran teams that have been mostly competitive. Proximity certainly helps both the Blue Jays grow the brand, and it allows executives (and fans) to make regular trips down the QEW to check the progress of various players. So, will the partnership continue? It's hard to see it not, although one would have thought the Bisons had a pretty good thing going with their previous partner, the Mets. The ties between Toronto and Buffalo, of course, are much stronger, so there's every chance this PDC gets extended to 2018.
How about the Lugnuts? This partnership has been very successful, too. On top of the other factors, the communication between the two sides has been excellent, and that appears to be the most important facet of the relationship. Having Sanchez, Osuna, and Anthony Alford, along with rehabbers like Brett Lawrie and Stroman have helped. Lansing plays in a beautiful park, and the team is among the top drawers in the league outside of Dayton. So that looks like an extension in the making.
The Blue Jays were rumoured to be supportive of the move of the Binghamton AA Eastern League franchise to Ottawa, which hosted AAA baseball from 1993 to 2007. Even though they are reportedly quite happy with their current AA affiliation with New Hampshire, it's easy to see why this switch would make sense. Several ownership groups were interested in buying Binghamton and making the move across the border, but ultimately Ottawa city council balked at footing the bill for upgrades to bring the city-owned Ottawa Stadium up to current MiLB standards. Sensing that baseball in Ottawa was a no-go, the Blue Jays renewed their agreement with the AA Fisher Cats until 2018.
Since some clubs have extended their agreements until 2020, the question could be asked if this will happen with Buffalo and/or Lansing. Even with the all of the player development hirings in Toronto (and at that, we should remember that two mainstays of the Blue Jays minor league operations, Doug Davis and Charlie Wilson, will be staying in their current roles), that may be likely - it all depends on how long boths sides are willing to go for. A number of teams have re-upped with some of their affiliates until 2020 over the past few months. The Blue Jays are very pleased with both partnerships. In the case of Buffalo, bullpen reinforcements are only 90 minutes away.
This whole business of Player Development Contracts may not seem important when compared to moves that impact the 40-man roster (like signing free agents), but it can also be seen as a big part of the player development commitment the club is making. Having their prospects in locations that are relatively easy to access, with top-notch facilities likely will be an ongoing priority for this regime.