Since taking over, second year general manager Alex Anthopoulos has embarked on the rebuilding process in earnest. Gone are veterans Alex Gonzalez, Lye Overbay, John Buck and Scott Downs, replaced with younger, untested players like Yunel Escobar, Brett Lawrie Jo Jo Reyes and Brandon Morrow. However, the one trade that signaled the Jays were in full rebuild mode was that of Roy Halladay for Kyle Drabek . While painful, the move allowed the Jays to focus on their stable of young arms in order to find out who can help them compete in the tough AL east.
In an equally important trade, last week Vernon Wells was exchanged for catcher Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera. The move relieved the club of a large chuck of their payroll and moves the 32 year old OF who would likely provide reduced offensive and defensive production in the final years of his contract. The move also allows the Jays to sign a long-term deal with heart of the order OF Jose Bautista and at least consider free agent additions when needed. In addition, the extra money will afford the Jays the freedom to draft and sign the type of high-ceiling prospects they are clearly interested in stockpiling. Combined with the new emphasis on scouting, the chances of seeing a cohort of homegrown stars in the Rogers Center improves dramatically. And a cohort it must be. One or two impact players will not win an AL East title. No, the Jays are in a position where they need an entire group of young, contributing players.
Towards that end, Napoli has now been shipped to Texas for reliever Frank Francisco. The move was made in part to give young catching prospect J.P. Arencibia a chance to develop. Arencibia hit 300 with 32 home runs at AAA last year, so it is time to see how those skills translate at the big league level. Although he has struggled this spring, two home runs in his first big league game last year certainly suggests that big things are possible.
The biggest move of the offseason was signing Jose Bautista, who can play infield or outfield. If Bautista ends up in right field, then the Jays will allow Lawrie to take over at third base. However, if Bautista plays third, then the Jays can play Juan Rivera in right. The priority is to make sure Bautista, as the engine to the offense, is comfortable with his position. However, Rivera is 32 and not part of the long-term future. Earlier in the year, the team was open to trading the outfielder, but nothing materialized. In contrast, the young Lawrie has submitted a strong spring performance, and has Jays fans eager to see what he can do at the major league level. The time is fast approaching where the Jays won’t be able to deny prospects like Lawrie, Reyes and Drabek spots on the big team. Yes, youthful reinforcements are pushing their way on to the roster.
For comparison, a current example of how an emphasis on youth can pay off is the trade that brought pitcher Brandon Morrow from the Mariners. Morrow was taken fifth overall by the Seattle Mariners in the 2006 draft, ahead of Washington native Tim Lincecum. With heavy expectations, Morrow was bounced between the starting rotation and the bullpen for several years. Not surprisingly, injuries began to accumulate and his effectiveness in either role diminished. His scorching high 90’s fastball was never in question, but his offspeed repertoire generally lacked control and worse, seemed to be getting worse. Eventually, a new general manager came to Seattle who was not invested in Morrow and Anthopoulos was able to scoop the underperforming pitcher up for reliever Brandon League. For all the technical changes that Morrow would see, the most important adjustment was simply being given a defined role. The Jays did well to label Brandon as a starter once and for all. Morrow started slowly in early 2010 (5.46 ERA in April, 6.52 ERA in May), again struggling to gain his command. However, given some time to work himself out, Morrow made incremental improvements as the months passed and his high strikeout potential began to show. His August 8 domination of the division leading Tampa Rays (17 strikeouts) hinted at what was possible.
So Morrow enters 2011 as the type of pitcher the Jays covet, one that misses bats. In the AL East, with opposing lineups that know how to relentlessly work counts and grind out hits, the Jays appear to be targeting pitchers that can blow through hitters rather than finesse around the edges. This philosophy is consistent with the moving of Shaun Marcum, their staff ace in 2010, who was effective at getting hitters out without dominating stuff. The player returned for Marcum was highly touted second base prospect Brett Lawrie. True to form, the Jays were trading an above average pitcher of the present to take a chance on an ultra high-ceiling prospect of the future. These are the kinds of gambles that the Jays apparently feel they need to make to avoid simply keeping pace with the rest of the division, and instead leapfrog to the front of the pack.
So who else might fit the Jays philosophy of stockpiling these types of young, high ceiling prospects? Well, Canadian pitcher Phillippe Aumont in the Phillies system fits the bill. The 6’7” pitcher has an easy fastball in the upper 90’s and an unreal curve that he combines to strikeout hitters at a high rate. Just ask David Wright, Kevin Youkilis or Curtis Granderson about Aumont’s nasty stuff . Aumont’s ascension has been slow, perhaps due to having very few professional innings under his belt. When Aumont was in the Seattle farm system, the Mariners switched him to closer in hopes of speeding his arrival at the big league level. Sound familiar? Aumont’s stock might be down a little this year and he remains in the lower minor leagues, so perhaps Anthopoulos can pull something off.
The big question now is whether this youth movement approach will work. Predicting how young players will develop is difficult, but can we look for short term clues? Take team pitching and compare the top three teams versus the bottom three teams, and an interesting pattern emerges (see figure). If we consider strikeouts of the top 6 starters + closer, the top pitching teams appear to have slightly more success at finding young strikeout pitchers. So, the Jays approach seems to be consistent with the manner in which the top pitching teams are built.
Nothing better than springtime hope!