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Blue Jays stock cupboard with strong arms

Beginning with Bickford, club targeted young, high-upside hurlers in 2013 Draft

The motto for the Blue Jays was to take pitching early and often in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft. Of their first 12 picks, 11 were pitchers, highlighted by first-round selection Phillip Bickford.

Bickford, like 17 of his Blue Jays Draft brethren, was drafted out of high school, a sign that Toronto coveted those high-risk, high-upside arms.

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"I think it's something we look for," Blue Jays director of amateur scouting Brian Parker said during a conference call Thursday night. "I think athleticism is something we focus on with pitchers, especially high school kids. Those are the types of frames and athletes that we're looking to get into our rotation and hopefully lead our rotation one day.

"It says something about our Minor League staff and our player-development guys that that's something we do well. I think it's an advantage that the Blue Jays organization has, and if that's an advantage that we have, we're going to try and get as many of those guys as we can."

The one thing the Blue Jays clearly targeted with these youngsters was a strong throwing arm. Secondary pitches can be taught and learned, but a strong arm is the result of natural talent and ability.

Bickford, like many of the newly minted Toronto arms, throws in the mid-90s and can touch 97 mph on the radar gun.

"We think [Bickford's] fastball is a very polished pitch, a very effective pitch he can use to get outs right now in pro ball," Parker said. "We think his secondary stuff is developing, we think his changeup is his better pitch right now, but we think he has a chance to have a pretty good changeup and breaking ball."

It should come as little surprise that the Blue Jays wanted to stock up on arms, after trading away two of their three highest pitching prospects over the winter.

Toronto let go of both Justin Nicolino and Noah Syndergaard in acquiring R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle during the offseason, leaving the farm system short on those young, high-upside arms.

If the Blue Jays can sign a sizeable number of their draftees, Toronto's selections would clearly fill the void left by their departure.

The farm system isn't completely bare, however -- boasting the likes of Roberto Osuna, Daniel Norris, Marcus Stroman, Matthew Smoral, Sean Nolin, John Stilson and Adonys Cardona before the 2013 First-Year Player Draft.

In total, the Blue Jays drafted 22 pitchers, compared to only 18 position players. Among those was Canadian Sean Ratcliffe.

In the 18th round with the 535th overall pick, Toronto selected Ratcliffe, a native of Ajax, Ontario. He's a 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher out of Pickering High School. The 18-year-old plays for the Canadian National Junior Team, and the Ontario Blue Jays, doubling up as both a catcher and a pitcher. But, clearly, Toronto covets his arm, not his bat.

Of the positional players drafted, the Blue Jays clearly felt they were thin behind the plate after sending Travis d'Arnaud to the Mets. Despite trading their top catching prospect, the Blue Jays still had A.J. Jimenez in the pipeline to fill the void. Jimenez, however, is not as offensively gifted as d'Arnaud. Replacing d'Arnaud's bat behind the plate may by Garrett Custons, who among the four catchers taken wields the best bat.

The 10th-round pick, however, is an interesting one. Custons was drafted out of the United States Air Force in Colorado, and it's not immediately clear what commitments he may have with the military.

If he's pursuing professional baseball, the semifinalist for the 2013 Johnny Bench Award, given to the top Division 1 collegiate catcher, may make a nice addition. Custons can play both sides of the ball, as the 22-year-old hit .353, with .441 on-base percentage, 22 doubles, a home run and 25 RBIs in 53 games. Defensively, he has thrown out 20 of 37 would-be basestealers.

Another strategy seemed to focus on shortstops, as Toronto drafted five of them -- with the highest selection coming in the 13th round in the form of the strong-hitting Timothy Locastro.

Currently, the Blue Jays don't have a lot of organizational depth at shortstop, with only Ryan Goins at Triple-A Buffalo, and 2011 draftee Christian Lopes with Class A Lansing among the top 20 Blue Jays prospects.

In the Pipeline

Although eight of the top 10 Blue Jays prospects are pitchers, the club decided that there was no such thing as too many arms. The Blue Jays picked up 22 pitchers in the 2013 First-Year Players Draft, including 11 of their first 12 selections. First-round pick Bickford and company join a system that includes Aaron Sanchez, Osuna, Norris, and Stroman.

Evan Peaslee is an associate reporter for

Toronto Blue Jays