Friday, December 8, 2017
When Alex Anthopolous took over as GM of the Blue Jays, one of his first priorities was to return the club to its scouting roots. Under the previous regime of J.P. Ricciardi, the scouting department was cut back considerably, and Toronto was no longer considered to be a standard bearer of acquiring and developing prospects. The 2009 Jays media guide listed 13 area scouts and 4 national cross checkers to take care of evaluating amateur players, and nine pro and major league scouts. A year later, Anthopoulos had put together a scouting staff of 21 pro and MLB scouts, and 24 area scouts and 8 cross checkers. It was the biggest scouting department in the game.
The benefit of this increase was to make each area scout's geographical area smaller, which allowed them to get more looks at players, and get to know them better. By 2011, the second draft under Scouting Director Blake Parker, the Blue Jays were at the top of their scouting game.
The Blue Jays had taken advantage of old draft rules to hoard picks: in 2010, they had 8 of the first 93 (taking, among others, Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, and Justin Nicolino). In 2011, they had 7 of the first 78, landing Joe Musgrove, Daniel Norris, and later, Anthony DeSclafani. Interestingly, top pick Massachusetts prep righty Tyler Beede, who had told all MLB teams a month earlier that he had committed to Vanderbilt and therefore not to select him, failed to sign after the Jays chose him 21st overall. The compensation pick they received next year, of course, was Duke RHP Marcus Stroman.
The Top Arms
Norris (taken in the 2nd round), considered by many the top high school southpaw in the draft, struggled with his command and overhauled mechanics in his first pro season, but had a breakout 2014, pitching at four levels, and finishing the year with Toronto. Dealt to the Tigers as the centrepiece of the David Price deal last year, Norris has battled some adversity, including a cancerous growth on his thyroid (first detected when he was pitching for Buffalo last summer) which was removed in the off season, and some inconsistency early this year. Norris pitched well in Detroit's rotation for the final two months of 2016, and should be a lock to be stay in it next season.
Musgrove was dealt to the Astros in 2012 in the J.A. Happ deal, and made his big league debut against the Blue Jays in August. He set a major league record by fanning 8 in that game, the most ever for a pitcher making his first big league appearance in relief. Musgrove allowed only 1 hit over 4 1/3 scoreless innings, retiring the last 10 hitters in a row. From there, Musgrove moved into the Astros rotation, starting 10 games over the rest of the season. He has to be considered a favourite to land a spot as a starter with Houston next year.
DeSclafani was part of the blockbuster deal with Florida that brought Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle to Toronto 2012, and after making his MLB debut with the Marlins in 2014, he was later traded to the Reds in the Matt Latos deal. Despite missing two months with a strained oblique, he made 20 starts for Cincinnati this year, and also has to be considered to have locked down a rotation spot for next year.
The Top Bats
They had not yet developed an overwhelming preference for projectable high school arms that would mark later drafts, but Toronto did take high school pitchers with 5 of their first 7 picks.
The two bats they had hope for were California HS OF Jake Anderson, who they chose in the 1st supplemental round, and a Georgia HS OF with MLB bloodlines in Dwight Smith, Jr. Anderson's career has been significantly derailed by injuries, and after reaching full season ball with Lansing this year, finished the year with short season Vancouver. Smith has reached AA, and might profile one day as a fourth outfielder, but spent his second season with New Hampshire this year.
Few scouts kicked the tires on a kid from suburban Los Angeles when he was a high school senior. Neither did recruiters from Division 1 schools. So, Kevin Pillar headed off to nearby D2 Cal State Dominguez Hills, a school that produced utility infieder Craig Grebeck, who spent three seasons with the Blue Jays in the later 90s.
All Pillar did at Cal State Dominguez was hit - he was second in his conference in hitting his freshman season, and set an NCAA record with a 54-game hitting streak in his junior year. But still the scouts tended to give Pillar's game a miss, and 978 players were selected before him when he finished his senior year. The Blue Jays took a chance, taking him in the 32nd round in 2011.
Two years later, Pillar was in the big leagues.
The son of a former motorcross racer has shown little regard for his health as he made a series of highlight reel catches since establishing himself as a regular last season - he played the last half of 2015 with a broken hand, and he recently had surgery to repair thumb ligaments he injured sliding into 2nd in early August.
Pillar provides elite-level defence, and when the team was on its way to scoring runs at a near-historic level in 2015, the offence could carry his .314 OBP. This year, with production down, so was Pillar's walk rate and hard contact rates. His dip in offensive production was not the sole reason the team had trouble scoring runs down the stretch, but it didn't help.
Still, Pillar has generated 9.3 of the 15.9 WAR the 2011 draft has produced, and considering how far he has come since his D2 days (no one taken below Pillar has cracked MLB), the Blue Jays amateur scouting staff deserves top marks for this pick. Projected to be an overachieving, fourth outfielder type, Pillar has more than surpassed expectations.
The Ones That Got Away
Louisiana HS LHP Aaron Nola was taken in the 22nd round, but opted to attend LSU (his brother Austin, a junior infielder was taken in the 31st round, but didn't sign, and returned to LSU for his senior year).
The Phillies took Nola with the 7th pick in 2014, and he was in the majors a little over a year later. After a good start with the Phillies (2.65 ERA on June 5th), but was hit hard over his next 8 starts, and was placed on the DL in August with strained elbow ligaments and tendons).
RHP Luke Weaver was taken a few picks earlier in the 19th round, but the Florida high schooler opted to attend Florida State. Selected by the Cardinals in the 1st round (27th overall) in 2014, Weaver averaged almost a K per inning before debuting with St Louis this year. He gave up some contact in his first MLB season (46 hits in 36 innings), but he also struck out 45.
Future Super Utility Guy?
Andy Burns was one of the top Colorado high school prospects in 2008, but fell to the 25th round to the Rockies due to his commitment to Kentucky. After this sophomore season with the Wildcats, he transferred to Arizona, meaning that he had to sit out his junior year. The Blue Jays had kept tabs on Burns, and even though he didn't play in 2011, took him in the 11th round. Primarily a short stop, the Blue Jays began to groom him in a variety of positions in 2014. He played mostly 2B for Buffalo this year, but can play all four infield and the corner outfield positions. Burns made his MLB debut with Toronto in May, and appeared in 10 games in three separate stints with the team. With his versatility, above average speed, and bat, Burns is all but ready to fill a valuable reserve role with a big league team.