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Projecting the Blue Jays' Minor League Rotations - Pt. 1: The Unwritten Rules of Development

A look at the Blue Jays' unwritten rules of player development with an eye to projecting the team's 2013 minor league rotations.


Despite more than a century of collective knowledge, there is yet to be a consensus formed on the development of pitching prospects. Each club must make important decisions about their prospects' development that could affect how successful they will ultimately be in the future. Any pitching prospect could turn out to be a future Ace but more likely, they'll become another burn out or injury victim and teams each have their own philosophy when it comes to the development of pitchers.

Each team must decide based on their prospect's own individual tools and skills where they will begin their professional careers and at what level of competition, their workload per year/outing/inning, their repertoire and pitch selection and how aggressively they will be promoted between levels among many more decisions.

Looking at the way the Blue Jays under general manager Alex Anthopoulos have handled their pitching prospects of a certain age/scouting report/profile/repertoire/stage of their development gives us an idea of where each prospect will be assigned in the coming year and a rough estimate of their career's trajectory.

Blue Jays Unwritten Rules of Pitcher Development:

The following is a non-exhaustive list of loosely-followed rules/strategies that seem to guide the Blue Jays' treatment of their young pitching prospects. Like all good rules, they are meant to be broken but are still valuable for predicting the development paths of the Blue Jays' current crop of pitching prospects.

Unwritten Rule




Relief pitchers are just failed starters

  • Starting pitchers are inherently more valuable than relievers because they are capable of pitching more than 3 times the number of innings than even the best relievers.

  • Even a league average starter will be worth more than the best relievers in the game

    • Per FanGraphs: "Average starting pitchers also are worth around +2 WAR, while relief pitchers are considered superb if they crack +1 WAR."

  • Jays' Assistant GM Tony LaCava explained the team's preference to have their prospects start to "With all the kid pitchers we get, we'd like to at least explore starting just to see, because starters are so much more valuable than relievers. If you can get 200 innings as opposed to 60, those 200-inning guys are so hard to find, so you want to make sure that you explore that."

  • You need to look no further than the Blue Jays bullpen to see this rule in action as the 2012 closer, Casey Janssen, started his MLB as a below-average starter in 2006.

  • Brett Cecil is currently undergoing the transition from starter to reliever after having failed to repeat his success from 2010 in consecutive seasons

  • Currently, two of the Blue Jays' top pitching prospects, Marcus Stroman and John Stilson, are being groomed as starters despite talent evaluators' questions about their long-term viability in a rotation. Stroman may not have the size to be a starting pitcher and Stilson may have too violent of a delivery to sustain himself as a starter but the team has given each a chance to develop as starters.

  • Javier Avendano, a Rule 5 pickup before the 2012 season, was used first as a reliever at Lo-A. But after experiencing great success in that role, he was given the chance to start for the remainder of the year at a lower level with the Vancouver Canadians.


Build innings gradually, especially with teenagers

  • Many teams have sought to build their starting pitching prospects' innings up gradually every year in an effort to protect the long-term health of their arms.

  • Though disputed now by many including Russell A. Carleton of Baseball Prospectus, the Verducci Effect had many General Managers believing that increases of more than 30 IP per year to a pitcher 25 & under greatly increased their risk of injury

  • The Blue Jays don't limit their prospects to increases of 30 IP per year and rightly so since if the Verducci Effect were even based in reality, every inning is not built the same. Instead the club has used a hybrid of innings per outing, pitch counts per inning and outing in addition to an annual innings cap in order to manage their pitching prospects' workload.

  • The Lansing 3 (Sanchez, Syndergaard, and Nicolino) were capped around 60 IP in their first full year in the system and reached 90.1 IP (limited by injury), 103.2 IP and 124.1 IP respectively. While Sanchez and Syndergaard missed out on some innings because of some minor injuries over the course of the season, it's unclear whether the Jays would have allowed them to pitch as many innings as Nicolino seeing as he was more than a half year older than them and more of a finesse pitcher.

  • Even Brandon Morrow had an innings limit when he was converted from reliever to starter upon being traded from the Mariners to the Jays


Caution with teenage promotions

  • The Blue Jays have shown in the past that they prefer to be cautious with their teenage pitching prospects' workloads and similarly seem to prefer to limit the level of competition that they face as teenagers.

  • Alex Anthopoulos spoke with during the 2012 season about the club's intention to keep the Lansing 3 at Lo-A for all of 2012 despite their dominance against that level of competition: "They're young, so we try to take it slow, especially when these guys are in their teenage years," Anthopoulos said. "Once they get into their 20s we can get more aggressive. You've seen that with guys like (Henderson) Alvarez in Toronto, and Drew Hutchison as well, who started here (in Lansing) last year."

  • The Lansing 3 showed that despite their prospects' dominance of a particular level, the club will be in no rush to have their prospects moved up before they have accumulated the experience/maturity/physical development that comes to players entering their 20s

  • Similarly, Henderson Alvarez showed himself more than capable of handling Lo-A in the Midwest League in 2009 at age 19 but was not moved up midseason and wound up having a disappointing 2010 at Hi-A at age 20 (shortened by injuries) before being aggressively promoted all the way from Dunedin to New Hampshire to Toronto in 2011 at age 21.


Piggyback Young Starters to Stretch Their Innings Over a Full Season

  • Because of the Blue Jays' desire to gradually build up innings for their young starters, they have employed a piggybacking system in order to stretch their limited workload over the course of a full season.

  • Under a piggybacking system, pitching prospects are partnered up and each player pitches a predetermined number of innings which are increased gradually over the course of a season.

  • On the piggybacking system, Assistant GM Tony LaCava had this to say in an interview with Jared MacDonald of "Well piggybacking's been done in the past in other organizations, especially with younger pitchers. It's a way to get a five-month season out of pitchers who normally, if you just let them go full go, would run out of innings by, at the latest, mid-July. We're trying to get them into a mindset of going five months which is a full minor league season - ultimately we want them to go six months - and to protect them during their teenage years where they're being asked to do more and they're still growing, they're still physically growing. It's our way of making sure we do the right things by them from a health standpoint."

  • The Lansing 3 was the debut of the Blue Jays' piggybacking system that had been employed by other organizations in the past which saw the team limit the trio's (as well as Anthony DeSclafani's) innings to 3 per outing early in the season. After 5 outings and about a month of the season, each had their workload upped to 4 innings a game. By mid-June, each pitcher had been given their own spot in the Lansing rotation with the promotions of older starters Jesse Hernandez and Marcus Walden.


Promote pitchers to Toronto if they have a reasonable chance to succeed regardless of age/experience/pedigree

  • The Blue Jays under Anthopoulos have shown that they are willing to elevate young starters with limited experience to Toronto if they believe they will have a better chance of success than older, more experienced prospects

  • Often times, teams will be reluctant to throw their best pitching prospects into the fire believing that their development could be hurt by a confidence-shaking stint in the Majors, but the Blue Jays have shown they are unafraid of this possibility.

  • The Blue Jays surprised many observers by promoting Henderson Alvarez during the 2011 season despite being just 21 years of age and having pitched less than 90 innings above Hi-A and there being several older/more experienced options like Chad Jenkins, Chad Beck and Kyle Drabek. Not even the lack of a quality breaking ball prevented the Blue Jays from promoting Alvarez which the team felt confident could be developed at the highest level.

  • Drew Hutchison's promotion early in 2012 similarly turned some heads considering he'd only accumulated a handful of innings above Hi-A when the team had more experienced options including Chad Jenkins and Jesse Chavez


Real pitching prospects should not be exposed to the skewed environment of the Pacific Coast League

  • Because of the dry air and elevation in the PCL's parks, the Blue Jays have often avoided sending their best pitching prospects to AAA Las Vegas because it could harm their development

  • However, with the Blue Jays' recently inked player development contract with the Buffalo Bisons of the International League, the team will no longer be compelled to promote their pitching prospects directly from AA which can represent a huge jump for young players.

  • Kyle Drabek, Henderson Alvarez and Drew Hutchison were all promoted to Toronto directly from the New Hampshire Fisher Cats of the Eastern League (AA) and were not exposed to the unfriendly confines of the PCL.


Latin American pitchers should be given time to adjust to both the increased level of competition in North America as well as the culture

  • Latin American signings often speak very little English when they arrive in North America and can understandably have difficulty adjusting to life as much as the quality of competition.

  • The Dominican Summer League can often be the first stop for Latin American players, especially young ones, before making their mainland debuts in the short-season leagues (GCL/APP/NWL).

  • More mature Latin American signings and/or players with better pedigrees will often be the exception to this very loose rule

  • Henderson Alvarez pitched in the DSL in 2007 at age 17 in his first season for the Blue Jays organization before making his North American debut in the GCL at age 18.

  • Similarly, Joel Carreno started his career in the DSL, though he was already 19 years of age, before making his North American debut in the GCL the next year at 20 years of age.

  • The exceptions to this rule are numerous including highly-touted IFA Roberto Osuna who made his debut with the organization for the Bluefield Blue Jays of the Appalachian League at age 17

  • Similarly, IFA Alberto Tirado showed the organization enough to skip the DSL and start in the GCL before being promoted late in the season to Bluefield in his first season in the organization at age 17. However, unlike Osuna, Tirado was a relatively unheralded international free agent.

Are there any other rules/development strategies that you have noticed the Anthopoulos-led Blue Jays employing with their pitching prospects that could help predict the Blue Jays' minor league rotations of 2013?