Sports

FRESH FROM THE FARM

The Blue Jays are pinning their hopes on developing minor-leaguers

MICHAEL SNIDER July 19 2004
Sports

FRESH FROM THE FARM

The Blue Jays are pinning their hopes on developing minor-leaguers

MICHAEL SNIDER July 19 2004

FRESH FROM THE FARM

Sports

The Blue Jays are pinning their hopes on developing minor-leaguers

MICHAEL SNIDER

ON A WINDY April afternoon at the ballpark in Syracuse, N.Y., Russ Adams did what he was supposed to do. Solid in the field in a 10-7 win over the Ottawa Lynx, the SkyChiefs’ shortstop got on base three times, hitting a single, walking once, and getting hit by a pitch. Now, that’s not a glorious line score for a prospect whom the Toronto Blue Jays selected with their first pick of the 2002 draft. First-rounders are usually chosen for their knack at rocketing balls out of the stadium or blowing away batters with a smoking fastball. But Adams, 23, has another, less glamorous talent the Jays liked—command of the strike zone. The University of North Carolina product rarely swings at bad pitches and forces his opponent to throw the ball where he wants it. “The more pitches you see, the more comfortable you get,” explains Adams, who’s leading the SkyChiefs in doubles and shares the lead in walks so far this year.

“I think being patient can only help you.” Patience is the key word, and it applies to more than picking the right pitch. However much we’d like to revisit the championship seasons of 1992 and 1993, it’s going to be a few years before Blue Jays fans see their team back in the post-season. And it won’t be the current roster doing the hitting and pitching, either. The 2004 team has struggled in the first half of the season thanks to a miserable spring of blown leads, poor situational hitting and injuries to their superstars. There have already been rumblings about trading away

high-salaried players like Carlos Delgado— whose contract ends this year—which will likely resurface again as the July 31 trade deadline approaches. Nope, the Jays’ future depends on the development of prospects such as Adams and a bunch of others whose names are not yet well known. It’s all part of the plan laid out by the team’s general manager, J.P. Ricciardi: building a farm system on smart draft choices and not breaking the bank in the process.

IN THESE penny-

pinching times, there are already rumblings about trading away some high-salaried talent

Back in the early ’90s, when Toronto collected a pair of championship rings, the club sported one of the highest team payrolls in the majors. Today, after losing millions with the falling dollar and dismal fan turnout, the Blue Jays are on a budget. With a payroll hovering around US$50 million a year, Toronto is like a four-cylinder Honda

pitted against a couple of NASCAR heavies: the Boston Red Sox with a US$ 127-million payroll, and the New York Yankees with US$184 million. Those two have occupied first and second place in the American League East for the past six years, and can afford to shop for such high-priced superstars as Curt Schilling and Gary Sheffield. Meanwhile, Toronto is left filling holes on the field with mediocre (but cheap) talent. But smallmarket clubs can make it: the Oakland Athletics and Minnesota Twins have earned post-season spots even though they possess two of the lowest payrolls. And they did it by finding and developing talent in the minor league system.

The Blue Jays have taken that strategy further, focusing on drafting solid college players rather than high-school phenoms to fill their minor league rosters. Since Ricciardi took over in 2001, no high-school player has been picked by the Jays earlier than the seventh round of the June First-Year Players Draft. This year, the Jays chose 35 college players and waited until the 20th round before selecting the first of five high-schoolers. It makes financial sense. Collegians are considered to have honed their skills, cost less to develop, and reach the majors faster.

A fine example is David Bush—the Jays’ second pick in the 2002 draft. The righthander from Pennsylvania pitched for Wake Forest University in North Carolina for four years, compiling a 15-8 record with 38 saves, and garnering all-American accolades. Like Adams, he has made a quick ascent through the minor-league ranks since turning pro two years ago; he got his first start in the big leagues earlier this month against the Expos, giving up one run in 52h innings in a 2-0 loss. Sitting in the dugout while the steady thwack of batting practice balls ricocheted around the near-empty Syracuse stadium, Bush, 24, credited his college years with helping him cope with the pressures of pro ball. “By the time I got here, I was ready for road trips and being away from home, which are things some younger players struggle with,” said Bush. “So all my focus, all my effort, could be put toward baseball.”

Before Ricciardi took over in November 2001, Toronto was like most other teams focusing on exceptional—but young—athletes, with the intention of making big names out of them. Sometimes it worked, producing all-stars like Roy Halladay, Vernon Wells and Carlos Delgado, and a probable

future all-star in Alexis Rios, who was called up to the big club in June. But while there’s certainly merit in cultivating raw talent like the current crop of aces, it’s still a crapshoot. Players drafted out of high school routinely spend five or six years in the minor leagues, with many never making it off the farm. “About $190 million was spent on firstround picks from the high-school ranks from 1993 to 2000,” says Ricciardi in his sparse office on the SkyDome’s fifth level. “And about

$130 million has never seen the big leagues. There’s been no return on that investment.” Still, while drafting college players makes sense, some critics suggest a team should not make that strategy a long-term cornerstone. “It would be like investing all of your money in Nortel,” says Tom Valcke, a former professional scout who now runs the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Mary’s, Ont. For one thing, college hitters use aluminum bats, rather than wood as the pros do, which may skew the stats. Also, pitchers don’t throw as much as they do in the minors, and may not enjoy the best coaching available.

“There’s merit to developing high-school players in your system,” says Valcke. “The focus is 100 per cent on the development of the player. The focus of college is to win games, and sometimes that comes at the expense of development.”

That doesn’t seem to be slowing Adams down. Through his minor league career, including the first few months of this season, the SkyChiefs’ leadoff hitter has reached base nearly 38 per cent of the time. He was also selected to play in the annual prospects’ all-star game on July 11 in Houston (two days before before the MLB all-star game), a contest that features top minor leaguers in a U.S. versus the world exhibition. That game is also a solid litmus test for later greatness. Some of its alumni include the Jays’ Vernon Wells, Oakland’s Mark Mulder, and Alfonso Soriano of the Texas Rangers.

THE JAYS are

focusing on solid college players rather than highschool phenoms. Other teams are taking notice.

Although Adams recognizes he still has a lot to learn, his triple-A manager is certain he’ll develop into the player the Jays envision. “No matter the situation, no matter the competition, Russ always finds a way to come out on top,” says Marty Pevey, a former Montreal Expo and native of Savannah, Ga., whose easy southern drawl belies a pretty stiff neck when it comes to pushing his players. “His level of skill seems to rise to the level of competition he’s playing against.” For now, as Adams, Bush and the rest work their way into the majors, it looks like patience may pay off. fi1]

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