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The 2016 prospect bonanza and the future of the farm system

The 2016 draft and international free agent classes have provided a windfall for the Jays already. Was it an annus mirabilis, or heralding something much bigger?

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Toronto Blue Jays Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Having completed the Top 40 Toronto Blue Jays prospect series, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. Throughout the various segments, the system’s strengths and weaknesses were alluded to. At the very top, the top 3-4 prospects stack up well with other systems. But overall, in my view, this is probably a bottom top system in baseball at this point.

To be clear, this not a criticism or indictment. The point of a farm system is not to win farm system rankings, it’s to provide major league value—either directly by graduating players to the big leagues, or by producing trade chips that can be exchanged for major league value. The Blue Jays have done both in spades in the past few years, and having a big league roster stocked with impact regulars recently graduated or acquired is the best reason for a depleted farm system

After all, the easiest path to having a high ranking farm system to be terrible for a prolonged stretch, receive high picks and sell off quality big league talent for prospects. By contrast, the much harder path is to constantly be making the most of the limited inputs. maximizing the outputs from limited inputs. This is what organizations like the Dodgers, Rays and Giants have done in recent years, and it’s a big factor in why they’re constantly competitive.

Though the “new” front office has now been in place for over six years (which almost feels surreal, longer than Alex Anthopoulos was in charge), in many respects it’s still too early to really assess their amateur record. While impact college draftees can be expected to make to the majors within three years and establish themselves, it’s more like 4-5 years for high school draftees and 5-7 years for international signees. We’re just now approaching that window for even the earliest classes.

With that caveat, nonetheless the 2016 amateur classes are looking very good. On the draft side, after the magical ALCS run in 2015 the Jays were at the back end of the first round with the 21st overall pick. They did have an extra second rounder after not signing Brady Singer the year before, so overall their position was about average.

They did whiff on their first two picks. It wasn’t a deep draft for obviously impact talent, but a lot of the college pitching slipped down the board. The Jays took T.J. Zeuch ahead of others such as Eric Lauer (25th), Dane Dunning (29th) and Dakota Hudson (34th), so they passed over some better options (and others who haven’t, Cody Sedlock, Anthony Kay, and Daulton Jefferies being notables). Will Smith and Dylan Carlson went shortly after from other demographics.

The bigger mistake was 56th overall, when the Jays reached for J.B. Woodman after he had a hot last month of the season. Bryan Reynolds of Vanderbilt had been expected to be a first rounder, but had a shocking slide down the board and was available. The thought at that point was perhaps he would require big overslot dollars to sign, but two picks later the Giants took him and signed him for $1.35-million (just $260,000 over slot, not a pool-buster). It was a huge bargain.

Nonetheless, that was all redeemed with their other second round pick, getting Bo Bichette 66th overall. He’s already an impact big leaguer and borderline star, and 10 years from now could plausibly be the best player to come out of the draft. That alone makes a draft. Even if Bichette’s career really tailed off, approaching 10 WAR is already a big success.

Furthering that, in the 5th round the Jays grabbed Cavan Biggio out of Notre Dame. While the last 13 months have at least somewhat clouded the outlook for what appeared to be a surefire regular projection after his first two years, the reality is his career is already a success. Very few draftees will ever accumulate the ~5 WAR he has, never mind doing it over little more than seven months of baseball as an above average (borderline impact) regular.

That’s not the end either, even though the latter half of their top 10 rounds looked questionable at the time. Josh Winckowski was an interesting high school flyer who is tracking as a big leaguer (likely reliever, but perhaps starter). Josh Palacios will have some sort of big league role, and could end up a low end regular. Kirby Snead’s already made it, and has the arsenal to carve out a solid career in the pen. Chavez Young was another interesting high school flyer who was really interesting a couple years ago, and probably is a big leaguer in some capacity.

In other words, if the Jays didn’t get a single ounce of further value out of the 2016 draft class, it would already be a modest success. If Bichette continues on his trajectory and Biggio rights the ship to end up as even a low end regular, and some value ends up emerging from the others, it could be class for the ages.

But it’s the international side that’s more interesting as it’s perhaps the even more resounding success from the point of view of judging outputs to inputs.

In 2016, the Jays were limited to bonuses of $300,000 as a result of exceeding their bonus pool the previous year to land Vladimir Guerrero Jr. That shut them out of the bidding for the premium 16-year olds, and of course evenn if that meant they didn’t get a stitch of value in 2016 as a result, seven years later it’s obviously a more than justified tradeoff given Vladdy’s excellence. But nonetheless, the Jays found plenty of value spreading that pool money around to a huge 45-man class.

When the signing period opened, the Jays landed Otto Lopez $70,000. A month later at the beginning of August they signed Gabriel Moreno, then an infielder, for $25,000 from Venezuela. Then for good measure, at the end of September they added a stocky catcher who was about to turn 18 from Mexico in Alejandro Kirk.

Right there alone is an embarrassment of riches, a guy who’s already holding his own as a big league catcher, one of the top prospects in the baseball, and another top prospect in the system now on the cusp of the big leagues. And again, that haul despite significant restrictions.

That isn’t even the complete extent of it, In January 2017 they added an undersized righty pitcher from Mexico who went completely under the radar in Adrian Hernandez. I’m still not exactly sure what to make of him and his one-trick-screwball-from-hell, but it’s now blowing away Triple-A hitters so he’s very much in the big league picture. In addition, there’s a few further interesting prospects such as Naswell Paulino and Rafael Lantigua.

The necessary caveat here is it’s still very early. None of these players have established themselves in the major leagues, with most of them not even reached Toronto. It’s possible in five years we’ll look back and be disappointed by the outcome. But equally, it’s plausible the 2016-17 IFA class ends up a veritable bonanza of talent. That that’s even a possibility represents a resounding success given those inputs.

Incidently, this doesn’t even consider signing Lourdes Gurriel Jr., signed late in 2016 to a major league deal. He was a 23-year old with professional experience in Cuba, so it really isn’t in the same category, but he was much more in the prospect boat than anything else. It’s yet another investment that has paid out quite handsomely for the Jays.

Taking the draft and international results together, preliminary as they are, the Blue Jays’ acquisition of amateur talent in 2016 represents an extraordinary outcome both in absolute terms and relative to a reasonable expected baseline based on available inputs. At worst, it’s already provided significant value. At best, it may define the decade of the 2020s for the franchise.

The term annus mirabilis, from Latin for miraculous or wonderful year. is used to denote windows of exceptional results in history. I think there’s a good chance that looking back definitively in ten years, the Blue Jays 2016 amateur haul will qualify from a baseball perspective. The bigger question is, was it a one year aberration, or just the vanguard of a player development machine that powers a prolonged run of success?

In this respect, the draft side is clearer. Nate Pearson looked like a tremendous find from 2017, Jordan Groshans is tracking a regular from 2018, and Alek Manoah has already established himself as an above average, arguably front line starter. The 2017, 2018, and 2019 international classes were similarly gigantic, with some interesting under-the-radar names emerging and high-end investments like Orelvis Martinez looking promising.

What one thinks of the state of the farm system is largely a reflection of the answer to this question. If 2016 is just the start of things to come, then the farm system quality and depth should bounce back very strongly over the next couple years. If it was more an aberration, it’ll be much leaner times given the much more restricted opportunity set post-2020 with the return to contention.