September 20, 2006
What's She Thinking?
I live in Chicago. Like many of you, we here in Illinois are currently in the midst of midterm election wackiness, and while Illinois is claiming no portion of the national spotlight, our gubernatorial race has given us a new cultural meme, at least on a regional level. Despite his share of scandals, the Democratic incumbent, Rod Blagojevich, continues to hold a substantial lead in the polls over Republican Judy Baar Topinka. In the end, people in this state, especially here in Chicago, are desensitized to improper hiring practices, while Topinka is still stuck in the shadow of our last Republican governor--the one who is going to jail.
Anyway, I digress. The point is that Blago (that's really what we call him) has a non-stop series of television commercials that talk about all of the things his camp wants you to think Topinka stands for, and the commercials end with a woman saying, with just the perfect sense of inquisitiveness, "What's she thinking?"
No matter how anyone is voting in November, "What's She Thinking?" has become quite the catch phrase around here. Cemented into our heads thanks to an endless barrage of commercials from Blago's deep coffers, it's become part of our daily conversation, with the 'she' replaced with whatever pronoun is needed for the conversation. Woman cuts you off in traffic? What's she thinking? Guy sends you an e-mail telling you that Chris Duncan could hit 60 home runs next year? What's he thinking?
This is far too long an introduction to illustrate my state of mind when I read last week that the Blue Jays were abandoning their Appalachian League team next year and going with just five affiliates--four full-season league teams, like all organizations, but just one short-season team, Auburn in the New York-Penn League.
What are they thinking?
Six affiliates is the standard, and has been for some time. All 30 teams had a full-season team at each of the four levels, and all had at least two short-season teams, with a pair of organizations, the Mets and Indians, working with three short-season squads. So while the Blue Jays talk the talk when it comes to spending big money at the major league level, why are they suddenly cutting corners when it comes to player development? With just 24 roster slots to fill, the Blue Jays have to be careful about selecting players who are ready to play in an advanced short-season league like the New York-Penn League, or even Low-A. According to a number of baseball officials I spoke with about the decision, the risks of doing so are two-fold.
With just 24 rosters slot at the short-season level, the Blue Jays are now in a position where they are cornered into their current draft philosophy, which is overwhelmingly college oriented--more so than any other team in baseball. In the last five drafts Toronto has selected just six high school players in the first 15 rounds, including none in 2003 and 2004. By simply signing half of their draftees, the Blue Jays are forced to send a number of players to either the significant challenge of a full-season league, or to no more than extended spring training and instructional leagues.
"Basically what they are saying is that they are only going to take college guys or advanced high school guys that can handle Low-A in their first year," said one team official on the condition of anonymity. "I have an issue with their philosophy, but if that's their philosophy, I guess [going to five affiliates] makes sense. They don't have a lot of Latin players, and then they don't take a lot of high school players in the draft, so they don't really need that lowest-level club."
"I think it's a reflection not only of the lack of talent within the Toronto system, but also of their mindset," said another front office member. "They seem to see the minor leagues as essentially a manufacturing line--almost treating players like an auto assembly line. By lowering their inventory, that have become leaner, but is that a good thing?"
With just one short-season team, the Toronto organization will now be making decisions about the development of young talent much earlier, including whether or not to release somebody, and based on far less playing time.
"Personally, I think organizations should try to go to more teams, not less," said one of the officials. "More teams mean more chances for players--I can think of some players in our system's history than almost got cut by us on numerous occasions, but they held on and ended up making it to the majors." Another club decision-maker felt that the decision could limit the amount of information Toronto can go on when it comes to player evaluation. "Time is the true test of what kind of players we have," said the executive. "Young players, as you know, are very hard to diagnose. We're of the opinion that you need that extra team to bring these players along at the proper rate."
The limited number of roster spots not only affects the way Toronto needs to draft, but also in the way they deal with bringing Latin American talent to the United States. While Toronto is not considered a major player in the international market, they do have a Dominican Summer League team, and have signed a number of players out of Taiwan recently.
"Our rookie club is very important for us in bridging the gap between our Latin operations and what we are doing in the U.S.," said one executive. "It gives us the ability to give these players an opportunity here in a very controlled environment."
A third executive also felt that starting international players in the college-heavy New York-Penn League could lead to some ugly results. "That's a tough jump for Latin guys--I don't know if any of our Latin players would hit .200 in that league if we had to send them there right off the bat," said the official. "I'm just imagining our guys facing polished college curveballs--they'd have no chance."
So Is It A Good Idea?
Only time will tell, and by next year, Toronto could scrap the idea and establish a Gulf Coast League team. Three years from now, we could see a number of teams copying the idea, which could mean big trouble for the Appalachian and Pioneer leagues. More likely is Toronto remaining the outlier. For now, other organizations remain skeptical.
"From the outside looking in, there is a cost savings there certainly," said one official. "But they are putting a lot of faith in their player evaluation abilities."
Other teams question the Blue Jays over-arching philosophies when it comes to player development, and see a return that has dwindled from Pat Gillick's heyday of the late '80s and early '90s. "The Blue Jays want players to rise to the major leagues quickly--heck, everybody does--but you need players to get to the major leagues for the right reasons," said another executive. "I don't see a lot of time spent improving their players," he continued. "Under old Jays regimes raw high school players were molded into major league players. Now it's likely low-ceiling major league players who breeze through the system and encounter problems in Double- and Triple-A before getting to the majors as fringy types."
"The way they do things, they can afford to make the decision to eliminate a short-season club," summed up another official succinctly. "The question is, does the way they do things make sense? Will it win a title? In that division?"
Writer's Note: Members of the Toronto front office were contacted and asked to contribute to this article and speak on the decision but declined to comment by time of publication.