It is now just over 13 months into the Mark Shapiro presidency and just over a year since Ross Atkins followed him over to become GM. It's too soon to evaluate much definitively, with a mixed record of some great moves (signing J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada, nabbing Joe Biagini) and some mind boggling ones (Liam Hendriks trade, Jay Bruce pursuit(s?), Justin Smoak extension). But they have certainly started to put their stamp on the organization
Perhaps the biggest changes have been on the player development side. This of course was Atkins' bailiwick in Cleveland, and Gil Kim was quickly brought in as director of player development. Angus Mugford was added as director high performance. Longtime minor league coordinator Doug Davis was fired. Ben Cherington came in as VP of baseball operations, with an emphasis on development.
This made sense as an area to target for significant improvement, for the simple reality is that until the emergence of Kevin Pillar as an everyday regular in 2015, the last everyday regular to come though the Blue Jays' system was Aaron Hill. He debuted in 2005, and its virtually impossible to regularly contend in the AL East going a decade between developing regulars.
Granted, from the outside it's difficult to disentangle drafting and development. Did the Jays fail to develop position players because they were failing to evaluate amateurs well, or because the players stalled/failed to develop once they got into the system? One hint is the change in leadership from J.P. Riccardi to Alex Anthopoulos, which led to a wholesale change in drafting personnel and philosophy. That's increased the amount of talent coming in drastically, at the top but also a lot of diamonds in the rough later on; on the high school side but also on the college side where less professional development usually occurs. Conversely, the development side was left largely intact through in that transition.
I want to highlight three things that stuck out to me following the minor leagues this past season, that I think represent shifts or changes compared to the past. Happily, I view all three as positive.
1. Young starters turning over lineups
Teams rightfully want to protect the arms of their young pitching prospects, and almost every team does this by limiting their workload, and building it up progressively over time. That said, there's a trade-off between development through more experience, and preventing injuries down the road (the best way to prevent injuries would be to never allow prospects to pitch!). But even once the workload limits have been determined, is the question of how to distribute that workload to optimize development.
In 2016 at the short season levels (Bluefield and Vancouver), the Jays had six-man rotations at both levels for most of the season. At the same time, young pitchers were allowed to pitch deeper into games then in the past, including not infrequently going the third time through and sometimes deep into that third time. Looking at the youngest pitchers (GCL and Bluefield), 94 times a pitcher faced at least 20 batters in a game, and 27 times at least 25. While I don't have the same numbers for previous seasons, it's definitely a lot higher.
This model of fewer, deeper outings to reach the same workload is in my view superior to more, shorter outings where the pitcher might only go twice through the order (or partway through a second time). Back in 2012, early in the season the young starters were limited to 3 innings or 50 pitches (whichever came first) to limit their innings. I can distinctly recall a bunch of Justin Nicolino outings were he breezed through three innings facing 9 or 10 batters on 30 pitches, then was pulled and in some cases threw on the side to get more work in. What purpose did overmatching a batter once and a handful twice serve from a development perspective? Seeing batters at least twice and maybe three times is harder and forces counter adjustments to the adjustments batters make.
2. Relievers having longer outings
Another thing that stuck out to me is that relief prospects, particularly the more promising ones, were making more multi-inning and length relief outings compared to previous years. Again, I like this from the perspective of raising the degree of difficulty, and forcing pitchers to make counter adjustments as batters have more chances to adjust to them.
The other angle here I like is what it could maybe portend about how they make be thinking about the bullpen in the future. I'm of the view that bullpens would generally benefit from moving away from defined one inning roles to fewer, longer outings (as the situation dictates). A first step in this would logically be acclimating prospects in your system to pitching more extended outings.
3. More consistent progression paths
This last point is a bit more tenuous than the other two. One of the hallmarks of the Anthopoulos Blue Jays was some prospects being called up aggressively to the big leagues, some might say rushed. Henderson Alvarez and Drew Hutchison were called up after a handful of starts in AA. Sam Dyson called up his first professional season, Sean Nolin for that one start in 2013. Kendall Graveman going from low-A to MLB in one season. Dalton Pompey inserted as the starting CF in 2015. Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro making the opening day roster in 2015 despite not pitching above high-A.
What was doubly weird about this is that at the lowest levels of the minors, the Jays were generally very deliberate when it came to moving prospects level to level. High school players started in complex leagues in their draft year, the next season in short season leagues, and then the following season in low-A. Until Sean Reid-Foley in 2015, this was invariably the case, even for pitchers who were more polished and could have handled more sooner.
So developmentally, there was this really weird dichotomy of a very deliberate path through low-A, and then almost a rocket ship through the big leagues. Castro is the extreme example. He signed at 17, spent a year in the Dominican and returned there for most of 2013 before coming stateside. He started 2014 in Vancouver, was promoted in early August to Lansing then rapidly Dunedin, and then 2015 all the way to Toronto. 20 months after signing he was still in the DSL. 20 months later he was in the big leagues.
There's certainly a fine line and inherent tension between challenging players appropriately and pushing them too fast, and it's far from always clear on the outside. But I think the balance was a lot better this past year. Promotions so far are more measured and linear, but also sometimes more aggressive were appropriate at lower levels.