|National Post photo|
When you talk to Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim, one thing becomes readily apparent: the possessor of a strong work ethic himself, that quality is one of the first that he mentions when discussing the merits of staff and top prospects in the Toronto minor league system. The other word you hear repeated is passion: a trait Kim has in abundance himself.
Kim recently discussed the state of the Blue Jays system in a wide-ranging discussion. Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro has been given the means to build a state-of-the-art baseball organization, one that combines the best of the worlds of traditional scouting, analytics, top-notch minor league instruction, and sport medicine. The goal is to build an organization that hopes to not only be competitive in the short-term, but in the long run as well. And the 35-year old Kim, whose story is as good as anyone's in pro ball, will be a huge part of that in his role as overseer of minor league players and coaches.
The Overall State of the System
Kim agrees that the system took quite a hit as a result of Alex Anthopolous' trading spree from November, 2014, to July, 2015, when he dealt 18 minor leaguers in upgrading the major league roster. But he counters that not only did the system rebound last summer as a result of a strong draft and the huge steps forward taken by several prospects already in the system, but opportunities for players like Andy Burns, Chad Girodo, Matt Dermody, and Danny Barnes to step up were created as well. Much of the projectable talent may be in the lower levels of system, but Kim feels that there are a number of players who will start in Buffalo that could make a contribution to the 25-man roster if the need arises.
On Coaching Changes
Cesar Martin is the first name that was discussed when it comes to the spate of personnel changes that were made in the minor league system. A long-time coach in the system. Martin drew accolades with his work with the Gulf Coast League Jays the last two summers. Kim praises Martin as, "a great communicator, and someone who is easy to talk to." Kim says that Martin is able to build a rapport with both Latin and North American players, and can motivate his charges:
Cesar has such a good way about him, always positive and makes coaches and players feel comfortable...very knowledgeable, great person to be leading our young men.Martin is a hard worker, and Kim admits he has learned a great deal from him. It has been suggested that Martin's promotion to Lansing has much to do with the likely presence of top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr, but Kim says that it was entirely on merit. Martin is viewed as an up-and-coming managerial talent by the team.
For the past two seasons, former Blue Jays backstop Sal Fasano served as the club's minor league pitching coordinator. After serving as the system's roving Catching instructor previously, he unofficially continued to mentor the organization's receivers in addition to his pitching duties. While Fasano was highly regarded, and many players in the system expressed their disappointment when he was let go last August, Kim and the Blue Jays had wanted to split the position back into two. That was accomplished with the promotion of Jeff Ware, formerly Lansing's pitching coach, to the pitching co-ordinator's job. Another former Blue Jays C, Ken Huckaby, who managed Dunedin to a playoff appearance last year, takes over the Catching Instructor role.
Kim also had words of praise for both coaches. Of Ware, Kim called him a strong communicator who gets the most out of his pitchers, a humble man despite his background (former first round draft choice). Huckaby has a passion for Catching: "he loves talking about it, and he loves teaching it."
Former Blue Jays World Series hero Devon White has carved out a post-playing career as a baseball instructor and a Jays goodwill ambassador. He now can add hitting coach for AAA Buffalo to his resume. White came to Instructs last fall, and Kim was impressed with his enthusiasm. When it came time for outfielders to perform some drills, the fit White went onto the field and did them with the prospects. Given how much he enjoyed himself, Kim says it was a "no-brainer" to have him coach at the higher levels of the system, where he can have a significant impact on players who are on the cusp of the major leagues.
Kim was also asked about Rich Miller, who is returning at the age of 66 to manage at short-season Vancouver. Miller managed the C's to the Northwest League title in his first year at the helm in 2011 (their first year of affiliation with Toronto), and has been a senior advisor in the organization for the past couple of seasons. Kim describes him as, "an old-fashioned coach, who demands accountability from his players, and is passionate about teaching the fundamentals." The Vancouver fans are among the most devoted in all of minor league baseball, and deserve a competitive team on the field, even if development is the priority. Returning Miller to the dugout is a step in that direction.
On Reese McGuire
McGuire, acquired from the Pirates in the Liriano-Hutchison deal last summer, has been rumoured by some to be in the running for the job of backing up Russ Martin. With the signing of veteran backstop Jarrod Saltalamacchia, it would seem that McGuire will still be destined for more minor league seasoning. With the DFA'ing of A.J. Jimenez, it would seem that the way has been cleared for McGuire to get that experience at AAA Buffalo.
A scouting report from last spring lauded McGuire's defensive skills, but questioned his bat, partially because of his mechanics. Video from his time in New Hampshire after the trade last season showed that he had stopped dropping his hands prior to swinging, resulting in some harder contact. Asked if the team had worked on correcting McGuire's swing, he responded by saying that, "as a general rule, we don't like to make mechanical changes after we acquire a player. We like to establish a relationship, and in many ways, we're still getting to know Reese." Kim does like his short, compact stroke, as well as his elite receiving skills. "As a young player, he's had a heavy workload already," Kim continued, "and he's an intelligent Catcher, retains information very well, and demonstrates leadership on and off the field."
On Lourdes Gurriel
Landing the Cuban on a team-friendly contract was something of a coup. There has been speculation that Gurriel would start the season playing SS for Buffalo, but considering he's had almost a two-year layoff, that would seem to be optimistic. Similar to McGuire, Kim says the club is still getting to know Gurriel, but he has been impressed with the Cuban's work ethic, professionalism, and high baseball IQ after watching him work out in Dunedin.
Kim does acknowledge that Gurriel is probably the most comfortable at Short Stop, but says that he feels at home in Left Field as well. Understandably, while he's certainly expecting much from Gurriel in the future, Kim is not in a rush to name an April assignment for him. Much of that will be up to Gurriel himself.
Pace-of-Play Rule Changes
Pitch clocks were instituted in AA and AAA parks two years ago, and word came this week that there is a proposal from MLB to experiment with a new rule in the complex leagues this year whereby teams start extra innings frames with a runner on 2nd base.
Kim was reluctant to express a negative opinion about the rule, saying that MLB is constantly looking at ways to improve its product. It's hard to see this rule ever making it to the majors, but it should help save minor league arms from extended extra-inning games at the complex level.
On Integration with the High Performance Division
It did not receive a great deal of fanfare last year, but the Blue Jays creating a department that was charged with the conditioning, training, and nutrition of its players puts it on the cutting edge of player development in the sport (even if baseball is still lagging behind many other sports in this area).
Kim is proud of the integration between the minor league and high performance departments, saying that they work hand-in-hand in many ways, from setting individual strength/flexibility/nutrition goals for each player, to working together in developing schedules and moves for each player.
There are few high performance divisions across MLB, and none rival the Blue Jays' in terms of staff. Kim stresses that it's just not players the team is developing - it's personnel as well. And staff are encouraged, if the need arises, to step beyond their roles to help develop "the whole player." It's a holistic approach that's reflected in the high performance division's philosophy.
Kim took questions while in transit to his home in New York, and a listener on the other end of the phone conversation had to compete with the sounds of police sirens in the background to focus on what Kim was saying. During the season, his job involves a great deal of travelling - he's on the road three weeks a month, checking in on the minor league affiliates, overseeing players and staff. He does spend a fair amount of time in Dunedin, where the high performance division is headquartered. It's fitting that Kim is on the move during a phone interview, because his job requires a lot of that.
On Tim Raines
It's not everyday that you have a Hall of Famer on your staff, but that's the case with the man everyone in the organization refers to as Rock. Kim states that Raines has an infectious laugh and sense of humour, and "a special ability to make people feel confident." His knowledge base, especially when it comes to base stealing, is expansive. Kim isn't old enough to have remember seeing Raines at his peak, but it's obvious he's a huge fan.
The Blue Jays were ranked as the 24th-best minor league organization by Baseball America last year, and were more recently graded by Keith Law as the 21st. Five prospects have cracked BA's Top 100 (Vladimir Guerrero Jr/20th, Anthony Alford 59th, Gurriel 73rd, Sean Reid-Foley 75th, Rowdy Tellez/95th), and it's possible a few more (Max Pentecost, T.J. Zeuch) may join them next year. Kim would not commit to a team to watch among the Blue Jays affiliates this year, but it's hard not to think of Lansing being that squad. In a system on the rise, much of the remaining projectable talent in the organization will likely start the year there.
Mark Shapiro took quite a beating from some fans over the past year, mainly perhaps because he wasn't Alex Anthopoulos. Unlike during his tenure in Cleveland, when budget constraints always seem to be hampering his efforts, Shapiro has quietly been building a first class operation in all aspects of the game. He inherited a considerable amount of baseball acumen in the likes of Tony LaCava, Andrew Tinnish, Dana Brown, and Perry Minasian, he's greatly buffeted the operations department by hiring Mike Murov, the minor league staff (Kim and Ben Cherington), and the scouting side (Steve Sanders), as well as creating the high performance division (Angus Mugford). One would be hard-pressed to find a management group with as impressive a collective baseball resume as this one. The rest of the baseball world has taken note that Shapiro is creating a structure that will keep the club competitive on an annual basis. And Kim is thrilled to be a part of that.