Thursday, December 20, 2012

From Building Up the Farm System to Selling It


By
Courtesy of The Star
My, how things can change in such a short span of time. Up until about a month ago, the hallmark of the Toronto Blue Jays has been their ability to lay the groundwork for a solid minor league system. Now they've gone from building up the farm system ... to selling it.

Just three years ago, the Toronto Blue Jays ranked 26th out of 30 teams when it came to their minor league system. According to Baseball America's organizational talent rankings, they now own the fifth best minor league system in all of baseball.

So how did the Blue Jays go from the basement to the penthouse of farm systems? It all began with the trade surrounding the cornerstone of the team: Roy Halladay.

On December 15th 2009, the Blue Jays effectively set the reset button on the franchise by sending Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Blue Jays parlayed Roy Halladay into Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor and Travis d'Arnaud; the Philadelphia Phillies number two, three and four prospects respectively.

On paper, it seemed like quite the haul for the Blue Jays to net three top five prospects from the Phillies. It was just the beginning of what was to come.

The conclusion of the 2009 season not only saw the departure of Roy Halladay, but also included everyday starters Marco Scutaro and Rod Barajas. Fortunately for the Blue Jays, under the Type A/Type B free agent compensatory system, the exit of Scutaro and Barajas awarded Toronto a couple of supplemental draft picks.

The first supplemental pick eventually turned into Aaron Sanchez in the 2012 draft, who now stands as the Toronto Blue Jays number one prospect. The recently departed Noah Syndergaard (formerly the number two prospect in the Blue Jays system) came by the way of another supplemental pick in the 2010 draft.

These are just a few of the many shrewd moves Alex Anthopoulos performed over the past three years. In that short window, he stockpiled many prospects and draft picks in a cunning and clever fashion.

However, in the last few months, it's almost as if he has made a complete 180 and cashed in lot of those highly-coveted and valued prospects. There has been an unmitigated shift in the direction of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Here's the million dollar question, though ... was this Alex Anthopoulos' plan all along?

Was his end game to build up the Minor League system to become one of the best in baseball and eventually turn around and sell high on its top prospects? If that was in fact the strategy from day one, it's bloody brilliant.

It's remarkable to have that kind of foresight, but a lot of it has to do with happenstance. It truly was a perfect storm of activity for things to break the way they did for the Toronto Blue Jays this offseason.

The following events needed to take place in sequence for things to pan out the way they did; the Blue Jays needed to have their starting rotation decimated by injuries, the Marlins needed to perform a complete fire sale, and talks had to break down between the Mets and R.A. Dickey.

Even if just one of those things didn't occur, or even if they occurred out of that particular sequence, the Toronto Blue Jays would not be where they are today.

This regime has been criticized for years as a bean counting, prospect hoarding, draft pick stockpiling organization. Especially when it came to the issue of payroll, it's almost as if the Blue Jays were saving money for a rainy day, only rain was never in the forecast.

In retrospect, all that bean counting, prospect hoarding and draft pick stockpiling by Alex Anthopoulos suddenly makes a whole lot of sense.

There is no other professional sport in which prospects are as highly coveted as they are in baseball. From the moment they're drafted to their journey through the minor leagues, baseball prospects are hyped like no other prospect. As highly touted as some of them come, most young players don't even see the bright lights of the Major Leagues.

If you want an example of how quickly things can change from year to year, just take a look back at Baseball America's Top 10 prospect lists for the Blue Jays from the past 3-4 years.



Of the Blue Jays Top 10 prospects in 2009, only three are on the 40-man roster:
J.P. Arencibia, Chad Jenkins and David Cooper.

And of those three, only one is an everyday starter ... exactly one. One of ten players on the 2009 top prospects list has an everyday job with the Toronto Blue Jays. I wouldn't consider those very good odds.

While some of those players are ones that failed to come to fruition, most of them were traded away by the Blue Jays. They were used as trade chips to acquire big league players. This year, Alex Anthopoulos traded five of the Blue Jays Top 10 prospects. In other words, half of their best up-and-coming players were dealt for established Major League talent.

If you think about it, prospects really are like lottery tickets. Once in a blue moon, you might get lucky and hit the jackpot. But more often than not, those lottery tickets turn out to be a bust.

This is precisely why now is the time for the Blue Jays to cash in on the value of players like Travis d'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard. While d'Arnaud is relatively close to the majors, Syndergaard has yet to pitch above A ball in his career. And we all know a lot can change between A ball and the big leagues.

It may be a hallmark for any team to boast one of the league's best minor league systems, but ultimately I think every team wants to have a reputation for being successful at the Major League level.

One thing's for sure; somewhere along the way, something drastically changed. Up until the end of the 2012 season, it felt like the Blue Jays were perfectly content building a contender slowly and steadily.

With the flurry of activity over the past few months, the focus has suddenly shifted from the minors to the Major League club. And that's the great thing about the minors ... the players will always replenish themselves. As has happened in the past, there is always another diamond in the rough somewhere; the Blue Jays just have to find it.

For now though, it's all about winning at the big league level.

7 comments:

  1. outstanding insight. AA really is a silent Ninja. AA leader quick the craft of being a GM from Pat Gillick and others he watched and talked too. Only comment i have of value to this article is AA keen observation/ learning/strategic leadership skills are uncanny. Anybody know what AA's Bachelor of Arts is in? Economics?

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    1. Good question! I'm not saying AA necessarily knew all of this was going to go down the way it did, but now certainly seems like a good time to cash in on those prospects and turn them into Major League players.

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    2. Damasos Burnt ShirtDecember 27, 2012 at 2:20 PM

      I'd have to say that AA has situation awareness. It's that ability to recognize the situation as it unfolds and then act to take advantage of it. Having that ability doesn't make one right all the time, but they'll be way more right than wrong. It's not a common skill (although many folks seem to think they have it) and it is rare one to hone.

      I don't think he planned the offseason he had. I think he was willing to build upon what glimmers of hope that came out of the wreckage of the 2012 season. He expanded the Mathis trade to nab some serious talent (Reyes/Buehrle) to improve the club. As AA has stated, the chance to land a Top of the Rotation starter via trade (and extend them) is rare. He realized what he had and had the pieces (and fortitude) to trade them.

      AA didn't do an Ash and trade these prospects for mediocre players in the vain hope of making a run at a WC slot as many fans and media types wanted. The situation didn't warrant that because the jays weren't that good. It was even stupider when the team was decimated by injury.

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  2. Really great article Ian, one quetion though, don't you think it's troublesome to look at past blue jays top 10 prospects lists durring the Ricciardi years as evidence of uncertainty in our current top 10 compiled by AA? Everyone knows one of Ricciardi's greatest weaknesses was drafting due to his wannabe moneyball approach that, with some exceptions, completely missed on talent and high ceilings. Most of those years you cited our farm system ranked very low (22-30) whereas like you said the top 10 list AA just plundered was ranked 5th.

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    1. I just combed through the Blue Jays draft list from the years J.P. wasn't around, and they weren't particularly strong drafts - the most notable players for Arencibia, Romero, Hill, Marcum. Aside from that, it's pretty slim pickings.

      I like that AA isn't afraid to take a chance and sign high school guys. Roberto Osuna wasn't part of the draft class, but damn has he rocketed to the top awfully quickly - and he's only 17 years old.

      With J.P., I think perhaps he tried to adopt the Moneyball model too closely in Toronto and perhaps missed out on some guys in the draft.

      All this being said, I think it's paramount to keep a solid minor league system, because the Blue Jays never know when they might have to dip into the minors for some reinforcements.

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    2. Damasos Burnt ShirtDecember 27, 2012 at 2:24 PM

      The problem was JPR was fixated on college players. You can get elite college players, but the Jays weren't horrible enough to land them consistently. Also JPR didn't go over the slot value like AA did.

      The thing about MoneyBall wasn't fixate on one thing like OBP or college players, but recognize that the MLB FOs may overlook certain skills/abilities and take advantage of it.

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  3. AA first important move that changed the Organization was overhauling the scouting department and hiring double the staff of the JP Riccardi area. JPR greatest weakness was in the draft (yes with moneyball preferences) but he had nobody to advise him. Thus why JPR had a terrible farm system.

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