Toronto's Draft strategy shows club chasing upside

July 18th, 2022

TORONTO -- Deep in the Blue Jays’ farm system, change has come.

For years, the organization took a safer approach to acquiring and developing pitching, stocking its system with arms likely to reach the big leagues but unlikely to dominate. Look back to 2015 and ‘16, for example, with first-round picks Jon Harris and T.J. Zeuch both representing “safe” NCAA arms at the top of the Draft.

Those days are over. The lower levels of the Blue Jays’ system are suddenly churning out success stories tailored for the modern game. Earlier this season, when the Single-A Dunedin Blue Jays struck out 24 batters in a 1-0 win, general manager Ross Atkins mentioned that the club was actively taking more risks with its pitching development. What seemed like a passing comment at the time hinted at an extremely important philosophical shift that is tied closely to the Draft strategy.

“We’re shooting for really high outcomes with our pitchers,” Atkins said. “We’re looking for more velocity, looking for more depth to their pitches and knowing that command comes potentially at an expense when you’re hunting those things.”

That’s exactly what the Blue Jays did with their No. 23 pick in Round 1, selecting high school lefty Brandon Barriera. It’s the first time that the Blue Jays have selected a high school pitcher in the first round since 2013, when they selected Phil Bickford but never came to an agreement. The same happened in ‘11 with Tyler Beede.

The last high school pitcher to actually sign with the Blue Jays as their top pick in the Draft? Roy Halladay in 1995. It’s been a while.

“We’re swinging big for talent on the swing-and-miss rates,” Atkins said. “We need to be better with them and we want to be better with them. Maybe ‘risk’ is not the perfect word for it, but we want to be better in those areas.”

It’s working. Down in Single-A, Dunedin leads the Florida State League in strikeout rate. There have been some incredible successes already when it comes to strikeout rates, including Dahian Santos and Nick Frasso, but nothing compares to Ricky Tiedemann, the 2021 third-rounder who has already earned a promotion to High-A Vancouver.

“His stuff is elite. His velocity has a lot of athleticism behind it, so his spin rate is high and his slider is elite. He has the stuff to compete right now in the Major Leagues,” Atkins said earlier this season, “it’s a matter of just being really consistent with it and building up a workload. He’s obviously very young. Player comparisons are tough, but finding one for him is hard to do. That’s usually a good sign.”

You’ll see some of the same adjectives with Barriera.

“It’s obviously about the arm talent that Brandon possesses, the big velocity and the plus slider, but most importantly the athleticism is what really stood out to all of us,” said Shane Farrell, the club’s director of amateur scouting.

Barriera and Tiedemann are different pitchers, even as lefties, but you can see a trend developing here. The Blue Jays have targeted NCAA bats with above-average contact rates and plate approaches in recent years, which they’ve continued in this Draft with Josh Kasevich in Round 2 and Cade Doughty in Round 4, but now there’s a much clearer identity emerging on the pitching side.

After Nate Pearson and Alek Manoah graduated from the Blue Jays’ Top 30 Prospects list in recent years, the club’s pitching depth is now a couple of years away. Led by Tiedemann, the No. 3 prospect and No. 63 in MLB, the Blue Jays have a deep group of young arms that Barriera will join if he signs.

This includes Dutch right-hander Sem Robberse (No. 7), but perhaps Irv Carter (No. 10) is a better fit for this new philosophy. Carter was selected in Round 5 last summer and was signed away from his NCAA commitment with an $850,000 bonus, nearly $500,000 over the slot value, because he represents an opportunity for the Blue Jays’ player development group to swing big.

Barriera will be next in line, along with plenty of others from Day 2 and 3 of the MLB Draft. Besides, coming out of the ‘21 Draft, Tiedemann looked like a longer-term project for the Blue Jays, then he showed up to Spring Training this February and you couldn’t have a single conversation around the club’s Player Development Complex without hearing his name.

That’s the best-case scenario. The Blue Jays are giving themselves more shots at these outcomes now, which always started at the Draft, and when they hit, the results can be franchise altering.