“The Future is Bright” for the Blue Jays

How often do you hear Blue Jays fan’s moaning about the Jays not making the postseason? Well it has sort of become a yearly routine as the Jays continue to push new heights on their postseason drought. It seems that every year the Jays fall short of expectations and are just not good enough. When you look at baseball, the team sport that it is, you will see that for a team to win everyone has to do their part. Unlike sports such as basketball it really isn’t possible for one man to carry a team by themselves. Players will have their good days and their bad days and when one player is struggling another one must pick them up. Baseball like any other sports is also a game of runs where it is possible to go on a winning streak as batters begin to see the ball really well out of the pitchers hand or for pitchers to be hitting the corners consistently. What people don’t often take into consideration is some behind the scenes stuff that makes a winning ball club. A winning team is a team with a winning culture. How exactly do you create a winning culture? Well in baseball specifically, it’s about leadership in the clubhouse. The baseball season is a marathon of 162 games and players have to buy into the season and their role. You often see a lack of energy and drive in players towards the end of the season if there isn’t anything left to play for. This attitude is not what you want in the clubhouse because it is the competitive spirit that can help a team win a lot of games. Now it may not seem like a lot but Jays fans have heard about problem’s in the clubhouse before. Whether this is true we don’t know for sure but having people on the same page is fundamental and newly acquisitions Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson are exactly the type of the players who can make a difference in the clubhouse. One thing that Josh Donaldson spoke about in an interview with Sportsnet during spring training was being able to perform to the best of his ability and be a good teammate at the same time. You often hear the term 5-tool player being thrown around; well being a good teammate who can build other’s confidence should be one of the tools indeed. Donaldson said, “I want him to know I believe in him just as much as I believe in myself”. These are the exact words you want to hear from a player because that mentality can help a team tremendously. I mean it’s not hard to understand. You could have the best player in the league but if all he cares about is winning and his stats, it doesn’t mean much. Being individualistic is not a good thing when playing team sports and when everyone has to buy into the system. Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin have both got a taste a playoff baseball and know the feeling that everyone player strives for.

If you ask any Blue Jay if they think they can win the World Series they will all tell you one thing. They will say that getting to the playoffs is the first step and once you’re there you are more than capable than anyone else to make a serious run. So can the Blue Jays do this? What is there to say this is just another year they fall short? I started this article about leadership presence for a reason and the reason being the wave of young players in the Blue Jays system ready to make an impact. Having that winning culture is exactly what will make them go from having their good games here and there to becoming solid contributors for the Blue Jays not only now but in the years to come.

One thing that the Blue Jays have been criticized for in the past is that they never developed players of their own like other teams in the league such as the Tampa Bay Rays. These people happened to be correct with the names of Bautista, Encarnacion, Reyes, Donaldson and other big names being acquired via trade in some way or another. While these players didn’t begin their career in the Blue Jays system, the idea of not being able to develop players is no longer the case anymore. The Toronto Blue Jays have brought many players of their own into the league in the last few years including current roster players such as Dalton Pompey, Drew Hutchinson, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez and former players Casey Janssen and Adam Lind. These players developed through the Jays system and have made it through the system to get to play with the big boys under the bright lights. Some players move through the system faster than others but nevertheless they all have worked their way to the top since the time they were drafted and while doing so have passed many others hoping to do the same.

In the MLB finding a gem is not easy whatsoever. If you didn’t know already the MLB draft is a very timely process not like other sports where it’s a round or two and then over. Every year MLB teams draft a long list of players and it’s not very often that they will be superstars or even make it to the big leagues for that matter. Making a journey to the big leagues through the farm systems is a journey itself and getting all the way the big leagues after its all said and done can mean nothing for some players. In many cases players will tear it up in the minor leagues and make their way up through the system and then when they finally make it to the big leagues it is a whole different story. Stats in the minor leagues can be deceiving because anyone would agree that the big leagues is a whole different level of itself where the cream of the crop play. For those who make it to the big leagues it isn’t often they will prosper right out of the gate. Many of these players who are September call-ups are trying to make every moment count as they try to impress management and make their case for taking up a roster space in the big leagues. When a young player makes it to the league it often doesn’t mean they have made it and they will be there forever. Many times players will get sent down back to AAA to improve their game. If they aren’t getting much playing time at the big leagues they are often better off going back to the minor leagues where they can get regular at bats and continue to work on their craft. The trips up to the big leagues and back to the minors can even become a routine for some who just so happen to not be good enough or are on team’s who often don’t need them. A team throws out it’s best nine guys on the field everyday and to be one of those guys out of all those guys who you started with from single A ball is considered a HUGE success even if success is the dream coming true of getting a permanent spot on the team for good.

There has been many good stories of players who have made it all the way to the majors and succeeded but often it wasn’t smooth sailings for them either. It doesn’t get much better than Jose Bautista himself. Bautista was a young prospect in the Orioles system when he made his debut in 2004, 4 years after being drafted by not the Baltimore Orioles but the Pittsburgh Pirates. As you may have heard me discuss before, prospects continue to be the most prized possessions on baseball teams and it isn’t unlikely to see many prospects debut with a team different than they were drafted by. Prospects are often trade assets because of their potential or because teams don’t see a good fit in the future due to their skill or filled roster spots. Some teams will value prospects more than others and it is a usual scene to see scouts scouting players not of their own team, on a regular basis. Every game is a tryout, right Mr. Reeson? Back to Jose Bautista. His first look at the big leagues wasn’t the most pleasant and neither was his first few seasons either for a matter of fact. It wasn’t until he was traded to the Blue Jays that he made a name for himself.

When the Blue Jays acquired him in 2008 they must have not thought much of him rather than a kid with some potential who could fight it out for a spot on the roster. They thought a new scenery would do him well and that who knows maybe he could bounce back and live up to the potential that many had seen in him and that got him to the big leagues in the first place. In 2009 Bautista’s career changed dramatically as not only was he was able to find a home at last but he would secure this home for years to come. Bautista who owns one of the sweetest swings in baseball in my opinion along with Robinson Cano started hitting the ball on a consistent basis and hitting them far and deep out of the park. In 2010 Jose Bautista began a 50-homerun campaign that would continue to the following season putting him with elite company. Ever since, his success has been documented and he is a leader on the field and in the clubhouse for the Blue Jays.

Not every story will be as exciting and compelling as Jose Bautista’s but every player has a story of his own and whether he gets a chance to live it might become a reoccurring theme for Blue Jays prospects. Fans going into this season were very excited about the Blue Jays partly because of players such as Marcus Stroman who made his mark last season in the major leagues. Unfortunately, it was with great disappointment and shock that Jays fans found out that he would be out for the whole 2015 season after tearing his ACL while taking part in fielding drills. Now this may sound like the worst way to be injured but it joins many other unexpected ways to be injured including celebrating at home during a walk off and tearing your ACL or sneezing and getting a fracture. Yes Kevin Pillar is the enemy of that one. Back to Stroman, his injury is surely a big loss and you certainly have to feel for a guy of his nature, a very positive and charismatic young man who was hoping to help his team achieve their playoff aspirations this seasons. Stroman puts his heart out on the field and takes every game as a learning opportunity. For a guy who sets such high standards it was no surprise that he told reporters that he would come back stronger and better than ever next season. The Jays are in a position where they should use this positivity instead of dwelling on what has happened. This excitement for pitchers like Stroman will be a reoccurring theme as the Blue Jays have a flurry of young players with enormous potential ready to make their mark in the big leagues.

Aaron Sanchez is right up there with Stroman not because of the fact that fans have got a taste of what he has to offer but rather because as a true brother of Marcus Stroman, he has travelled the same path and has made his way through the Blue Jays system with Stroman. Fans will recall his dominance during exhibition games last spring training at Expo Stadium when he came in and was lights out closing out the game. This would continue during his time in the big leagues when he pitched out of the bullpen and was a pivotal prescience in the Jays bullpen. Going into this season he will find his way into the rotation despite the overwhelming need for help in the Blue Jays bullpen. Obviously making it to the big leagues as a starter he hopes to continue and dominate in that fashion but he will be the first to tell you that he is more than willing to do what he can to help the team win. With Stroman going down to injury, he will get a chance to start every 5 games for the Jays at the end of the rotation. Being the 4th or 5th starter obviously wont mean much as at the end of the day it will be his job to win the ballgame whenever his name is called regardless if his opponent is an opposing ace or not.

In terms of pitching, he has found much success with his ability to pitch strikes. Having being a top prospect in the Jays system for long time one thing that he was criticized for was his lack of control of his fastball. Everyone knew he could pitch fast but many questioned his ability to throw for strikes. In the minors numbers can obviously be deceiving but not in the same way it was for Sanchez. Many pitchers and batters put up very impressive numbers and aren’t able to nearly perform at the same level when they make it to the big leagues. In Sanchez’s case, a 4.19 ERA in AAA must have meant nothing because he was able to put those numbers behind him and dominate out of the bullpen. Being a starter will be an adjustment for Sanchez who relied heavily on his fastball and changeup coming out of the bullpen. As more batters come around the lineup to see him multiple times in games, he must expand his arsenal of pitches. He has worked on a slider this offseason and will try and use it to accompany his other pitches. Because Sanchez can hit the high 90s with his fastball, his changeup is very effective as well. Still at a young age Sanchez will continue to develop and can be a major force in the Jays rotation in the near future. The impact Stroman had on the Blue Jays towards the end of the season will be something Sanchez is striving for and something that is more than reasonable for someone of his talent to achieve.

People have been going on about Stroman and Sanchez for years now and rightfully so,but we must not forget the talented young man that has been in the Jays rotation longer than the two. Drew Hutchinson broke into the big leagues in 2012 and has been on the rise ever since. Despite putting up a high ERA above four in his two whole seasons he has been a good presence in the rotation throwing some very good quality starts. Though we don’t often buy into spring training numbers, Hutchinson went an impressive 3-0 in his 15 innings pitched with a 1.80 ERA. He is likely to improve his ERA this season and get more wins this season. One major thing that hurt him last season was the amount of homeruns he gave up in the dome. This was part of a bigger struggle to win games at home but if he can maintain a good strike out ratio I think he will be fine. For all my statistics fans out there I feel you would appreciate the fact that his Strand Rate/ Left on Base Percentage (LOB%) was 67.1% according to USA Today – one of the lowest of starters last season. This means that he is able to get out of jams on a frequent basis, which is definitely something to keep note of. At 24 Hutchinson is ready to reach new heights and who knows maybe pitch another couple of complete game shutouts, which is more than capable of. He was the youngest opening day starting pitcher for the Blue Jays this past week. Just to end with a side note, say what you want but there is something really attractive about his pitching form to me and I enjoy watching his pitch for that reason alone.

Moving on to the guy that Jay’s fans weren’t very sure if they were going to see in the rotation or the bullpen going into the season. Daniel Norris is no new face by any means but he is on the verge of his first full season in the big leagues. By now many fans must have seen the exclusive ESPN column where they got up close with Daniel Norris and how he spends his offseason (If you haven’t done so I highly recommend it). There is much more to just his pitching and it all happens in a small van that he lives in during the offseason. He takes on a journey of his own well before pitchers and catchers report and he sticks by the desire of doing what he loves even though he may be in the big leagues and making big money. Back to Norris and the pitcher he hopes to become. Norris has followed a path not to different to the likes of Stroman and Sanchez and has always been closely behind them in top prospect rankings. His numbers in AAA don’t really jump out at you but he was able to command his pitches and take control on the mound. That’s exactly what you should expect from Norris this season. From his spring training outings and his first start of the season in New York it was clear that he isn’t afraid to work behind in the count. He recently added a new changeup this offseason, which is just another pitch to his great arsenal that features a strong breaking ball. Now the reason why this is important to me is because he is a LHP, which is definitely something you don’t get every day. Norris actually reminds me of Ted Lilly with his hanging breaking ball when he was a Blue Jay many years back. There is something about Norris that makes me feel he will be dominant on the mound this season and perhaps even more that Aaron Sanchez. I’m not sure what it is about him to be honest (it might be his ability to rock some serious facial hair) but after watching him so far it feels he’s being doing this for a whole long time now.

Then there were two. The two young guys that have people on twitter screaming “Castruna” actually. Totally off the radar at the beginning of the season, young pitchers Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna impressed the Jays more than just a lot that allowed them to fly north as young members of the Jays bullpen even though they haven’t pitched above single-A ball before. Both Castro and Osuna have flame-throwing arms that can throw for strikes, which has translated into success so far. When looking at Castro his long arms stand out and more especially his velocity of his fastball and changeup, which reaches 95mph. Like Osuna he gets lots of strikeouts and throws literally nothing but strikes. If a pitcher doesn’t have to rely on his breaking balls to strike out batters and uses his fastball that speaks volumes. Osuna is very similar in the fact that he has tremendous control of his fastball, which is usually the last to come around with young pitchers like Sanchez for example. The weak bullpen has opened doors for both these young men and they should be able to have an impact on the Jays moving forward as they never seem to be afraid of the big league hitters. One thing I must point out is that these two young men are great individuals as well. Osuna spend his signing bonus to help parents and send students to school. Likewise, Castro helped pay for surgery for his parents with his 45k bonus. That is great to hear!

Pitchers always continue to be valued by teams, as you can never really have too many these days. You never know when you can pluck an all star or ace from the farm and there have been too many feel good stories of pitchers and players for that matter who have beaten the odds to make it to the big leagues. Towards the end of last season the Blue Jays started benching Colby Rasmus for production sake as well as the fact of easing the transition of the young man who stands in center field this season. A humble Toronto native, Dalton Pompey has been on the Jays radar since being drafted not too long ago and being a late season call up last season. Pompey is known for his speed and his defense in the outfield. While his bat might take a while to come around it should be a matter of patience with him. Unlike Anthony Gose who was also known for his speed, Pompey has a significant amount of plate discipline that should allow him to last. Being in the bottom of the order will be nice as the Jays should have speed at the bottom and top of the lineup. It will certainly be nice to watch him and who knows maybe his brother Tristan Pompey one day.

This past offseason the Jays made a small trade that could have a bigger impact as this season goes along. Devon Travis was acquired from the Tigers in exchange for Anthony Gose. The Jays have obviously been struggling to have an everyday second baseman for the last few years since losing Aaron Hill and Travis may or may not be the answer. One thing to note about Travis is that he isn’t Ryan Goins. Goins is a premier defender, don’t get me wrong but he has struggled to hit the ball and get on base consistently. Travis has showed tremendous plate discipline and is able to hit the ball to all areas of the field. Now there is no guarantee he will be the solution the Jays are looking for but as with the case with Goins, the Jays have a good enough lineup that will be fine with production around the .260 average at the bottom of the lineup and everything more you get would be a bonus. He could turn a lot of heads this season if he stays calm and continues to do what has made him get this far and this could end up being a great trade in the long run for the Blue Jays if so. Gose never really had his chance with Pompey and Pillar one step ahead of him and on the other side Travis was a top prospect that would have probably not had a real shot at the majors with Ian Kinsler manning the second baseman duties for the future. Now both players have a new look team and a chance to make a big impact on both their teams. When it comes to Travis, he is humble and realizes this is something he has worked for and everyday is a blessing.

Looking down the system there are more intriguing names that can have an impact on the Jays next year if not late this season. These names include Jeff Hoffman the Blue Jays first overall pick who was moved down in the draft due to Tommy John Surgery. He has first overall worthy stuff in his arsenal and has already been in high demand with trade offers for Baltimore’s Duqquete and Braves former All-Star Justin Upton. He is definitely in the future plan for the rotation that could consist of him along side Stroman, Sanchez, Hutchinson and Norris. Obviously some of these players might take longer to develop but signs are leading to a quick rise through the farm system for Hoffman. Other players to keep an eye out for include DJ Davis, Max Pentecost and Mitch Nay.

The Blue Jays have taken on a new philosophy if you make call it. It is uncommon to see a team throwing out 6 rookies all in the top 10 of their prospect list going into a season. Obviously many would argue that you should throw out the best 9 starters you have and if that includes these young prospects so be it. Winning is everything right now for the Blue Jays and there is a strong sense that they will do everything they can to win. This poses some issues that we must watch over the course of the season. With such a young team will there be too much pressure? Osuna and Castro have never pitched above single-A ball and to be called upon to close out games is no joke when the crowd is going nuts. Furthermore, what if the bullpen is overworked like it has been over the past few years? Will Castro and Osuna be burned out by seasons end? These prospects have been valued so much by the Blue Jays so its time to live up to the hype. Stroman and Sanchez have been catching attention around the league and many might say it has saved AA so far. This young arm philosophy might keep Anthopolous going and it also provides the Jays will a respectable salary next year in guaranteed contracts. The Jays are on the course of developing young talent at last and they have the 29th pick this season instead of the 19th after going after Russell Martin and losing Melky Cabrera this offseason.

For now we must sit back and be patient and let the young kids go to work…

ARPIL 11TH, 2015

ADAM VIRANI

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