The Blue Jays Aren't Getting Enough From Their Young Players

The Anthony Gose hit is far too much of a rarity. - Tom Szczerbowski

Last season Blue Jays were disappointed by the contributions of known quantities like Melky Cabrera, Maicer Izturis, and Josh Johnson, but the young guns haven't been much good of late either.

Yesterday morning Keith Law released his rankings of all of the farm systems in the major leagues and found the Blue Jays system wanting, giving it the 24th rank. In recent years the Blue Jays farm system has been ranked among the best in the league, but the flurry of trades made by Alex Anthopoulos has cleared out the cupboard somewhat. Given the disastrous nature of last season, it really hurts to be without big time young talent like Travis d’Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino, Jake Marisnick, and even Adeiny Hechavarria, although he was an unmitigated disaster for the Marlins last year. Not all is lost as Law has ranked the Blue Jays system lower than others like Jason Parks who assign more value to the young high-ceiling talent in the Blue Jays organization. However, whichever way you slice it this farm system has been weakened. Outside of Marcus Stroman there aren’t many prospects that look capable of helping the big league squad in the immediate future. While it is unfair to say that this organization is completely without young talent, there is a problematic lack of affordable and effective talent coming through the pipeline. In fact, getting production from young players has been a problem for the last couple of years.

If 2013 had gone the way many Blue Jays fans had hoped, it wouldn’t be too concerning that the Jays lack the kind of production from their young players that many of their rivals enjoy. It’s OK to be old as long as you are good, and last year it looked like the Blue Jays were going to be good. In 2014 it is very unclear how good this team is going to be. However, in the AL East this team is never going to be able to outspend the Yankees or the Red Sox and as such even when the payroll is at its highest the Jays will need to have better young players than the "big boys" in the division. In order to put themselves over the top. That hasn’t happened over the last two years. The following sortable chart shows the production each team in the AL East has gotten from their players between the ages of 20 and 25 (an admittedly arbitrary definition of "young") in 2012 and 2013:

Team Position Player WAR Position Player PA Pitcher WAR Pitcher IP Total WAR
Blue Jays 4.1 3059 1.7 588.2 5.8
Yankees -0.1 419 2.3 445 2.2
Red Sox -0.2 1585 5.1 444 4.9
Orioles 4.9 1074 5.5 836.2 10.4
Rays 5.5 962 14.8 1106 20.3

While the Blue Jays have outpaced the Yankees and Red Sox in production from young players, they have done so by a very slim margin. They are well behind the Orioles and way behind the Rays. The most problematic element of the numbers here is the volume of at-bats the Jays have given to young hitters only to see a relatively meagre return. Toronto gave more at-bats to hitters aged 20 to 25 than the Yankees, Orioles, and Rays combined and have only 4.1 WAR to show for it. In terms of pitching the Jays are the worst in the division with a paltry 1.7 WAR in enough innings to include a single season from three durable starters. Long story short, this looks grim.

However, that's not all. In fact, if we look a little deeper it seems that the word grim is a very weak word to describe what's going on. The reason for that is that almost all of the positive value from the chart above was accumulated by two players: Brett Lawrie and Aaron Loup. If we take out those two performances then we are looking and an apocalyptic wasteland of production. In order to maintain the fairness of the comparison to the other teams in the AL East I removed the top position player and top pitcher in the aforementioned age bracket from each team in the division. That resulted in the following chart:

Team Position Player WAR Position Player PA Pitcher WAR Pitcher IP Total WAR
Blue Jays 0.3 2081 0.1 488.2 0.4
Yankees -0.5 319 0.9 284.2 0.4
Red Sox -2.5 925 0.4 121.2 -2.1
Orioles -1.3 364 2.2 544.1 0.9
Rays 2.2 399 10.4 826.1 12.6

When we are forced to look beyond each team's top performer on each side of the ball things don't really look very promising for any team except for the Rays. This table is a pretty good example of their seemingly infinite stock of young pitching and a testament to the unbelievable job they've done with drafting and player development in recent years. The biggest difference between the Blue Jays and their competition is that they've giving their young players far more of a chance to play and gotten virtually nothing out of them. The Jays have given 74 more plate appearances to players 20 to 25 than the other four teams here combined and yet have come up with 0.3 WAR for their trouble. Guys ranging for top tier prospects like Anthony Gose to sleeper types like Kevin Pillar simply have not played well.

This may seem like a pessimistic overview, and in most ways it is, but the reality is that all of this in the past. Whether you like the current Blue Jays farm system or not it seems evident that the Jays will not be pumping out young talent like the Rays in the next couple of years, barring extraordinarily successful debuts from Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez. However, perhaps there is a lesson here for the future regarding the next wave that is more like four years away at this point. The Blue Jays are unlikely to beat the Yankees and Red Sox with a team of veterans because in general New York and Boston can go buy better and more expensive veterans. I would absolutely love for the 2014 season to prove me wrong on that count, but I wouldn't bet on it. If the Blue Jays are going to break through and win this division they are probably going to do it with homegrown talent, perhaps with a sprinkling of free agents for seasoning. Spending money is an essential part of winning in this division (if you go with a bare bones budget you have to draft and develop better than the Rays which seems borderline impossible) but it must be supplemented by young, cheap, and effective players. That is far, far, far, easier said than done but it needs to be a priority for this franchise. In 2013 the Blue Jays gambled on beating the powerhouses of this division at their own game at a time where they appeared vulnerable. So far results have not been good. While their chances to compete in 2014 are not completely non-existent if Alex Anthopolous could go back in time and undo "The Trade" knowing what he knows now you'd have to think he would. If optimists regarding this farm system are to be believed there is another surge of quality young players on the way a couple of years down the line. It might be nice to hold onto to them this time around.

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