|Riley Adams/milb.com photo|
Blue Jays Director of Amateur Scouting Steve Sanders moved to Toronto last fall after being named to the job following six years with the Red Sox, but with the duties that come with running the department charged with selecting players in the annual June draft, he admits that he hasn't seen a lot of the city just yet.
We caught up with Sanders in Chicago, where he was waiting on a flight to Tampa. The Under Armour Showcase, an annual gathering of the top draft-eligible high school players that takes place at Wrigley Field, had just wrapped up. The East Coast Pro Showcase was on tap next for Florida, followed by the Area Code Games in California the week after.
The Blue Jays' drafting philosophy had undergone a change under the leadership of President Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins from the days of Alex Anthopolous, which was evident last year. Up to 2015, the Blue Jays had been willing to roll the dice on draft day, selecting players with high upside, but often with accompanying high risk. The high school pitcher, perhaps the riskiest commodity in the market, was the Blue Jays preference, as well as athletes in non-traditional baseball places. In 2016, the club went with a more conservative approach, selecting college players with five of their first six picks, which may have been an effort to re-stock the system in response to the prospect dealing Anthopoulos did in his final year at the Blue Jays helm.
Approaching the draft, the goal for Blue Jays scouts, says Sanders, is "a complete understanding of the player on and off the field....his strengths, weaknesses, and make-up." Players are evaluated not just for their tools, but for their aptitutde, and coachability, and as Sanders says, "how their values align with our organization's."
Working with the Blue Jays High Performance Department on evaluating players, Sanders says the club is always, "working to find new ways to gather and evaluate information more efficiently." For obvious reasons, he wouldn't divulge what some of the team's methods were, but it was well known that the Red Sox, his former employer, used neuroscience to help evaluate potential draftees. Angus Mugford, who heads up the High Performance group, said just before the draft that his role was to create "a good physical and mental fundamental makeup of as many players as possible," with the mental component being a huge factor. Make up has become a huge focus of the Blue Jays' evaluaton of prospects - Director of Player Development Gil Kim calls it "the sixth tool." With talent levels being so even across a wide spectrum of players, it's often traits like grit and resilience that separate the prospects from the suspects. Sanders added that the Blue Jays' Area Scouts take pride in getting to know players - "the more we know (about a player), the better draft day decisions we can make."
After taking over from former Scouting Director Blake Parker last fall, Sanders made few changes to the scouting staff. In the early years of the Anthopoulos era, the Blue Jays had one of the largest amateur scouting staffs in baseball, but the numbers have been cut back over the past few years. Sanders felt that wholesale change wasn't necessary when he took over: "this is a group that had a lot of success before I got here." As for his philosophy on draft day, he says because each draft is unique in terms of the composition of its top players, and the important thing is to "attack the draft, adding as much impact talent as we can." More often that not, this translates to the "best player available," when the Blue Jays' turn to select comes up each round. Sanders says it's best to be "open-minded" when it comes to the draft - some years college players dominate, and sometimes there are more arms than bats, as well as the reverse. In preparing for next year's draft, Sanders already suggests that it will be different in terms of its composition of top propsects than this year's was.
Sanders was asked for some capsule comments on the team's top draft picks:
On North Carolina SS Logan Warmoth, taken 22nd overall:
He's a player we've scouted for a long time....he wasn't a propsect out of High School, but he steadily improved at North Carolina, and that really showed this year. He's very steady and a well-rounded player, with a chance to stay at SS and hit for power. His make up is off the charts, and he has the intangibles to be a top of the lineup hitter.The second Blue Jays 1st rounder was Florida Juco RHP Nate Pearson:
His stuff in undeniable. He's shown steady improvement, and (Area Scout) Matt Bishoff has known him for a long time. It's not just his velocity, his secondaries are good pitches as well. He's a good athlete, repeats his delivery well, and has the ingredients to be a top of the rotation arm.2nd round pick C Hagen Danner:
Very athletic player who we scouted as both a catcher and a pitcher. Strong with projectable power, has a chance to be a run producer with the bat to go along with good hands and plus arm behind the plate. Was up to 95 with quality 3 pitch mix off the mound. Great competitor & teammate who bring a lot of winning attributes.3rd rounder C Riley Adams:
Strong performer in his 3 years at USD and in the Cape league, has power to all fields and shown ability to hit for average and get on base. Easy arm strength and another very good athlete which we feel will help him stay behind the plate despite his larger frame. Works hard on both sides of the ball and continued to get better defensively throughout our looks this season.4th round pick SS Kevin Smith:
Quality defender with hands and instincts to stick at SS. Has some pullside power at the plate and showed off what he can do with the bat in the Cape league last summer. Student of the game that's remade parts of his swing over the last few years, did a nice job of making some adjustments this spring to bounce back from a slow start. As he continues to develop, we feel he has the tools to bring value on both sides of the ball as an everyday SS.
5th round pick 2B Cullen Large:
6th rounder OF Brock Lundquist:Offensive switch hitting infielder with feel for the bat from both sides. Quality performer for three years at William & Mary. Has played mostly 2B but may be able to move around some for added versatility.
LHH college OF with feel to hit & track record of performance at Long Beach State. Can play both corners.7th round pick RHP Colton Laws:
Big 6'7 RHP with three pitch mix, gets downhill and throws a lot of strikes. Has impressive feel to pitch, size and angle add deception and can make him a tough look for hitters. Good athlete who was a basketball player in HS, feel he's going to continue to get better as he continues to log innings.
Canadian OF Tanner Kirwer, taken in the 20th round:
CF with plus speed to impact the game in the outfield and on the bases. Was starting to hit his stride offensively before being hit by pitch at the end of July (he was recently placed on the 60-day DL). Great makeup and energy, originally from Alberta, Canada before heading to Niagara U.
As the draft heads into Day 2, the knowledge of the Area Scouts is "the locomotive that drives the process," according to Sanders, and is a good example of why these individuals are among the most important in the organization. They know the players better than anyone, having seen them play over the course of several years. The intuition of Area Scouts becomes even more important on Day 3, when there is little information available about players who have yet to be drafted. Many selected at this point become what is known in the trade as "organization guys" - players drafted in order to fill rosters at the lower levels of the farm system. But, as Sanders says, "for every guy we drafted, there was someone on the staff who believed in them."
At 29, Sanders is one of the youngest Scouting Directors in baseball. He is, in baseball terms, "a gamer." Sanders attended Northwestern, but tore his labrum before attending the school, and redshirted his first three years. After graduation, he interned with Dodgers in his hometown before moving across the country to become the Red Sox Amateur Scouting Coordinator in 2012, moving up to Assistant Director in 2015. He has as reputation as having strong people and analytical skills. When asked what allowed Sanders to stand out among the candidates the Blue Jays were considering for the job, Shapiro responded:
It was helpful that Steve had worked with people that we knew well and aligned with like Ben Cherington, Mike Hazen and Mike Murov. Throughout our time with him, he was thoughtful, intelligent, passionate and humble. Steve impressed upon us that he was driven to learn and improve – and more importantly help others do the same. He also exuded many of the leadership traits that I think separate great leaders. Even better, he has over delivered on those interview attributes in his everyday leadership. He works to build strong, respectful relationships throughout our organization and to utilize every person and source of information to help us make better scouting decisions. We are fortunate to have Steve leading our Amateur Scouting staff.
Once things settle down at the end of the summer, Sanders admits that he's looking forward to getting to know Toronto better before planning and scouting for next year's draft begins.