Jays in Transition: Building a Strategy for a Sustainable Contender
“If we do everything the exact same way the Yankees and Red Sox do, they’re going to win every time because they have a lot more resources than we do.” This is what Cleveland Indians’ President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti told me on the phone last week. Antonetti was named Sporting News Executive of the Year in 2017 and has worked in Cleveland since 1999. The Indians are consistently among the bottom ten teams in Major League Payroll. As a smaller market team, the club has to find different ways to compete with bigger market teams. Antonetti told me, “If we are just as good at player development or scouting as they are with young players, they are going to be able to outspend us with major league free agents and build better teams. We have to find a way to create more efficiencies in how we spend our money and to get a return, which means major league wins. For us and teams like the Blue Jays, that means investment in infrastructure and people is imperative. That investment helps us do a more efficient job selecting players and developing once they’re here.”
THE DUNEDIN PROJECT
Depiction of Renovated Stadium – Dunedin
To Antonetti’s point, the Jays are constructing an eighty million US$ project that will provide the Jays with one training location and a state of the art facility. In the last ten years 22 out of 30 MLB teams have either renovated or built entirely new spring training facilities. How can the Jays compete with other teams in the AL East if their training facility is among the worst in MLB? The renovation of the Dunedin complex has been a priority for the Jays since 2015. Paul Beeston mentioned to me, “It is something we’ve always wanted to get done, and it’s finally getting done” Beeston served as the president of the Blue Jays from 1989 to 1997, and again from 2008 to 2015. He went on to say “the renovations are absolutely critical; the facility is one of the two or three worst in baseball,” adding that “you need a facility where you can operate year-round.” The current arrangement was built to only train the players and prepare for the season during spring training.
I asked Antonetti about the significance of combining minor league complexes and the major league complex. “Different people have different views on it,” He said. “Some people view that it’s better to have them separate so the minor leaguers can then say, ‘Hey if I work really hard I’ll one day be on that major league side.’ We take a different view. We’re all one organization. We all want the same things. We’re all working towards the same thing, which is to win a World Series and build an incredible culture. So, we want our major league and minor league coaches working together seamlessly and that’s best done in one shared facility. And I think the other benefit for minor league players is they have a great windshield to look at ML players and say ‘Hey if I want to be a major league player then I need to do things like Corey Kluber.’ Corey is so great for us to be able to hold up as an example and say, ‘If you want to win the Cy Young, watch how he works out between starts. Watch the work that he does in the training room, in the weight room, and watch generally how he takes care of himself.’”
Jays President & CEO Mark Shapiro has said, “I think we’re going to have one of the all around best facilities in baseball when it’s done.” Similar to Beeston, Shapiro said his hope is that “from a staff and player perspective we’ll have more and more players living and training there all year round when we’re not in season.” The facility is set to open by 2020.
Future Player Development Complex
The Blue Jays, after trading key pieces of their farm system to help push them over the top for the notorious 2015 run now look to get younger in order to build a sustainable contender in the A.L East where even ninety wins does not guarantee you a postseason berth. Due to the aging of the core of the championship run and a lack of young, internal alternatives, the Jays have had to flip the page and focus on the future. Even in transition they have been able to weaponize the farm system through draft picks, international signs, and trades. These acquisitions were driven by the more collaborative approach of combining scouting, analytics, and every other type of information imaginable in order to arrive at the best decisions possible.
By using this process along with the aforementioned approach to development in order to help their players maximize their potential, they have been able to replenish the big league club with young talent and begin the process of building their future major league core. Laura Armstrong from the Toronto Star writes, “There was a belief when Alex Anthopoulos went all in at the 2015 trade deadline that he sacrificed the farm system for the playoffs, and that when he left the Blue Jays at the end of the year that he had forced the front office into rebuild mode.” The Jays’ farm system was ranked 24th and 20th by Baseball American the next two-off seasons, and nowhere near the top ten of MLB Pipeline’s list. In 2019, MLB Pipeline ranks us 4th and Baseball America ranks the Jays system as 3rd in Major League Baseball.
Paul Beeston has experience with rebuilding a team and farm system. I asked him about the process of turning over a major league team, building for the future, and if he could of think an alternative to the current direction.
“There is no alternative,” he laughed. “The only alternative is doing exactly what they’re doing. You have to get rid of the bad contracts, bring in the young kids, redo player development, and have a whole new look.” Beeston said that in the past he cut a substantial amount of money off payroll and “invested in the draft and international prospects.” To Beeston’s point, the Blue Jays have recently implemented a more analytical approach.
One primary example of that inclusion of analytics has been the implementation of a draft model to aid and inform decision making. Additionally, investing in infrastructure in Dunedin and expanding a high performance department run out of Dunedin by Angus Mugford (a sports psychologist who came to the Blue Jays from the revered IMG Academy). The department boasts a staff of forty-three across all levels of the organization, including consultants. Most importantly, the high performance department puts the player at the center of all the resources and services provided. Among those areas of support, resources had been added with nutritionists, mental performance coaches, physiotherapists, and experts in sleep and recovery.
Photo Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons
While the Jays have continued to develop the talent previously in place, they have drafted and signed prospects that have helped them make MLB.com’s list of the top 100 prospects. It was the first time ever since the list began where the Jays snagged five spots on the list. Undoubtedly some changes account for the addition of guys like twenty-year-old Bo Bichette, or Nate Pearson standing at 6-foot-6 and topping out at 104 MPH, and a sixteen-year-old Eric Pardinho out of Brazil.
Additionally, it was the first time in Jays’s history where seven spots were garnered on Baseball America’s list, ranking the Jays third. The list also recognizes 2018 first-round draft pick Jordan Groshans and fourth round pick Kevin Smith out of Maryland. Smith had an impressive 2018 campaign with a 305 average and 25 homers, and finished the season in Dunedin.
Neither list includes Patrick Murphy, the FSL pitcher of the year, or Cavan Biggio, Eastern League MVP.
Embrace the young talent that the Blue Jays continue to add and develop, as well as the different changes the Jays are undergoing. Beeston said, “Whether you’re the Houston Astros a few years ago losing a 100 games, or the 2003 Detroit Tigers, or the Boston Red Sox finishing in last place a few years ago. You go through it.”
The Jays have also hired Charlie Montoyo as the new manager for the Major League ball club. Montoyo has eighteen seasons of experience managing and has been a ML coach for the past four seasons. In addition to this level of experience, Charlie has a unique ability to connect with players and staff. His success has built upon a commitment to getting the best out of people.
I asked Antonetti if he thought it is important for multicultural leaders like Montoyo to lead ball clubs or be on coaching staffs as rosters like the Indians and Blue Jays are increasingly filled with more Spanish speaking players.
“A big part of impacting development is the culture that you create and the culture that leaders create and the more connections that you can make with players, the more players feel they’re supported and the organization believes in them and they have the resources they need to thrive and excel, then the higher likelihood they’re going to achieve their potential,” he says.
I went on to ask if he felt that Montoyo would aid that approach. Antonetti was clear and succinct in his response: “Absolutely.”
When building his coaching staff, Montoyo brought in guys from other organizations who have experienced success. The new group includes Dave Hudgens as the bench coach, Shelley Duncan as field coordinator, Matt Buschmann as the bullpen coach, and Mark Budzinski as OF/first base coach. The Jays bring back faces like Pete Walker and Luis Rivera to assume their previous roles (pitching coach and third base/infield coach respectively.). Dave Hudgens worked as the hitting coach for the Houston Astros and won the World Series in 2017 with them. He will ultimately help develop the younger guys on the club. However, Guillermo Martinez as hitting coach might potentially have the biggest impact of all. His familiarity with the club’s prospects is an advantage that is invaluable as an influx of talent makes its way to Toronto.
With experience in the progressive Tampa Bay organization, Montoyo also brings an openness to the incorporation of analytics and creative game management. The combination of his traditional baseball experience with his modern approach will help give him and his staff a potential competitive advantage as the young players mature and develop. HIs ability to communicate with Latin players in their first language will also be a potential separator.
The Jays have faced challenges over the past two years and finished fourth in the AL East both years. With the 2018 World Series Champions Boston Red Sox at their peak and the Yankees establishing themselves as one of the best teams in the big leagues and comprised of a ton of young players, is now a good time to press the reset button? In the fierce landscape of the AL East, especially with the potential of a diminished Red Sox (their farm system ranked 28th of 30) in a few years, now is the time to reset.
The future looks bright. A new state-of-the-art facility is set to be completed in 2020, offering a year-round place to train and rehabilitate. The farm system has risen in depth and talent significantly since the 2015-2016 off season, recently regarded as the fourth best in baseball by Baseball America. Prospects like Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Bo Bichette, and Nate Pearson have opportunities to form the core of a championship major league team. Charlie Montoyo and his staff will help to insure the development of the Jays’ young prospects and foster a positive environment.
In Dunedin, the sun beat down on sixty-one faces in a tightly packed locker room. Now, there are twenty-five players which remain. Distant shouts, jeers, and laughter filled the air as legs churned and blades of grass flew. The chalkiness of the freshly painted lines and the smell of fresh cut grass conjured up hope and potential of the future. While some roster spots are a sure thing, there is a purity to watching players battle it out for a final spot with their sights set on the realization of their dream. Trust the process, embrace the changes, and relish in the potential of the 162 games to follow. Johnny Bench once said, “That’s the remarkable thing about baseball. The game has a way of having you scratch your head one minute and drive you crazy, and then the next, you’re entertained beyond your wildest hopes. That’s why it’s the best game.”