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Deep Dive: How Did the Blue Jays Approach the 2018 MLB Draft?

Sometimes the story focuses on the methodology, or perhaps about the patterns which may or may not have been the result of an intentional plan. Other times it’s more personal stories, or “behind the scenes” intrigue. As an example of the latter, one of the stories of the Toronto Blue Jays 2016 draft was Bo Bichette’s revelation that he’d rejected bonus offers from several other teams prior to the Blue Jays selecting him in the third round. He said this was because he liked the approach the Toronto organization took, and their willingness to allow him to keep his unorthodox swing rather than trying to “fix” it in order to make it more typical. Such stories are catnip that turns a dull report into something alive. Of course, not every pick - not most of them truth be told - can be crammed into a narrative other than the boilerplate “best player available” cliche. Most are, though, simply that.

However, player personnel executives for any team will tell you, as Toronto’s Director of Amatuer Scouting Steve Sanders said to my friends at Future Blue Jays last year, that as you get deeper into the draft every player selected had someone in the draft room passionately arguing for him. Still, the reality is that most of them the average fan never hears about. For example, if we skip back five years to be fair, from the 2012 draft which produced Marcus Stroman, the Jays selected 44 players. Twelve of whom didn’t sign. Of the remaining thirty two, twenty four are out of the system and most are out of baseball altogether. Of the eight still around, the average fan at a typical Jays game could, if they are pretty well informed, probably name three (Stroman, Anthony Alford, and Ryan Borucki). That’s very typical, and it’s not a “bad draft”. If a team scores as many as three players who make a legitimate contribution in the major leagues over the course of his career, that’s a job well done.

To narrow the focus to the current management team’s work for the Blue Jays, the early returns are positive. In 2016, before Sanders came aboard, they added Bichette and first rounder TJ Zuech, both are consensus top 10 prospects in the system, and three others who appear on many professional Top 30 rankings for the system and that doesn’t include breakout 2B prospect Cavan Biggio who’s lept onto every radar this year. From last year’s group the feelings are even more positive. Nate Pearson came into the year as the team’s highest ranked pitching prospect (albeit he’s sidelined with injury after having made only one game appearance this spring) and all four others among their first five selections are considered legitimate exciting prospects, and at least five others are intriguing enough to warrant keeping more than an eye on. This is to say, the draft room team for the Jays has shown themselves skilled, based on early returns, even if the player chosen at a given spot may not be a player with a “narrative.”

Which brings me to the 2018 draft. I confess, even as a prospect wonk most of the selections this month left me at a loss for narrative. With few exceptions, there was not much to get a “handle” on. But here’s some of the things I’ve learned since, mingled up with some speculation on my part.

The initial story on first round selection Jordan Groshans was that they left a couple of very highly regarded pitchers on the board in order to select him, which raised some eyebrows on Day One. Yes, he’s a high school shortstop (and almost certainly soon to be 3B given his size) with prodigious power potential, one who’d been seen as a likely choice 8-10 picks further down the board but those pitchers were thought to be obvious steals. That question  lingered until the early stages of Day Two.

With their second choice, they leaned into perhaps the most obvious narrative related to their farm system - bloodlines. RF Griffin Conine, son of Jeff, was still on the board (in February he was being projected as a top 10 choice) and they did just what the story would want them to do and scooped him up. This was a pick I’d anticipated and for which I’d rooted. Another guy with really big power, he’d had a lot of struggles at the plate for much of his college season at Duke, but he heated up down the stretch and the Jays think it’s real.

On Day Two, with their first pick (in the third round), the other shoe dropped on the Groshans pick. The team selected a RHP named Adam Kloffenstien, one of the youngest pitchers available in this draft, and not at all coincidentally, a high school classmate of Groshans.  They are, as it turns out, best friends who’d unrealistically fantasized about being selected by the same team. Beat writers quickly picked up on the backstory and it became the dominant narrative of their draft this year. Kloffenstein is a fringe first round talent who’d fell from what had been projected as a possible compensation round choice down the board as teams concluded, often with his input, that it would cost too much to sign him away from his college commitment.

For them, it would have. Implied in all this, though not admitted to by the parties or stated in so many words by the reporters, is that the three, the two players and the Jays, had come to an understanding that Grosahans would take an under-slot bonus which would, will, give the team flexibility to meet Kloffenstein’s number.A local paper reported it was all but certain he would sign and it defies reason that he would do so and his buddy wouldn’t. Conine isn’t in doubt, so the best of their selections seem to be a simple matter of paperwork. As it turned out, news broke Tuesday that this whole “narrative” was more than just journalistic license

The team announced that Groshans signed for $3.4m, saving the team about $00k on their bonus pool. In the same announcement they reported what had already been rumored, that Kloffenstein had agreed to $2.45m which is $1.8m over slot and that would have been unrealistic without the first round discount. Though you can’t trade (most) draft picks in MLB, the outcome here is as if the Jays traded down to a lower first round pick in order to advance their third round selection into the late first round. The two bonuses are near equivalents to the slot for the 18th and 27th selections which would both have been a realistic spot for the two to go, respectively.

After initial appearances in the Gulf Coast League, Conine is near certain to get a ticket to Vancouver where the team tends to place their college draftees. The other two, if one assumes the team will let them play and room together initially, will probably get most of their appearances at Bluefield.

Other players who got some buzz as being more than low-bonus organization filler are scattered through the list. Sam Wymer, a RHP in the 4th round, who’s one of those “tweeners” who can probably move quick as a reliever but has enough skills for the team to give him an initial try as a starter. Sixth round selection Addison Barger, a shortstop from the Tampa area, may be the 4th best guy in their group and is expected to sign. Various reviews have commented on 7th round 2B Nick Podkul, 8th round RHP Joey Murray, and 14th round 3B John Aiello. Team personnel praised 11th round CF Hunter Steinmetz as well. 

Others that have been mentioned in various reviews as worth watching include RHP Troy Watson (15th), Austin Havekost (17th), and Fritz Stadler (18th), and shortstop Vinny Capra (20th). There’s also the standard “guy who was supposed to go high but was impossible to sign but what the heck, we’ll take a flyer” guy in 36th round catcher Kameron Guangorena. It would be a massive coup to sign him but remember, Toronto took Kris Bryant once on a similar flyer, and Aaron Nola the next year. Don’t get your hopes up.

Finally, file under the heading “feel good story”, a few courtesy picks. RHP Cobi Johnson (30th) is the son of Jays coach Dane Johnson and has a sliver of a chance, Cole Beverlin in the 39th is also the offspring of a team employee, and their final selection was South Alabama SS Drew Labounty who’s career is already over after he fouled a ball into his own eye.

Postscript: As of this writing, Baseball American shows that the Jays have inked 21 out of their first 25 selections (Conine not among them and he seems a certain sign) and 26 out of 40 overall. Nine of the unsigned are 4th year college players though who tend to be relatively straightforward signings unless they’ve redshirted in the past and have a remaining year of eligibility (except, of course, Labounty which is not a financial question).

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