If one thing became clear about the Blue Jays after Wednesday’s baseball trade deadline, as the updated top prospects lists started popping up following all the wheeling and dealing, it was that the farm system is now thoroughly the work of Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins.
A combined 35 Jays prospects made one or both of the team top-30 lists that are looked to most often, compiled by Baseball America and MLB Pipeline. Thirty-one of those players have joined the organization since Shapiro, president and CEO, and general manager Atkins took the reins from Paul Beeston and Alex Anthopoulos, who is now running the show with the Atlanta Braves. The outliers: outfielder Anthony Alford (drafted in the third round in 2012), plus right-handers Patrick Murphy (third round, 2013), Sean Reid-Foley (second round, 2014) and Yennsy Diaz (international signing, 2014).
Add that to the 20 players on the active big-league roster who were brought in by the current regime and it’s clear that whatever the future holds is on them.
Like it or not — and some Jays fans clearly don’t like it, after a week in which the franchise said goodbye to fan favourites, and controllable talent, led by Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez — the front office’s fingerprints are all over this team after nearly four years in the job. Outside of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., they are responsible for bringing in just about every player who is now stirring up excitement at the major-league level — featuring Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
They are also on the hook for weaknesses in the system, particularly when it comes to front-line pitching and the outfield, and at least the perception that they didn’t get enough in return after trading away Stroman (Mets) and Sanchez (Astros) this week, as well as Josh Donaldson (Indians) and J.A. Happ (Yankees) last summer.
The questions now are: Can this front office put together a winning team with what they’ve got? If yes, when does contending for a playoff spot become a reality, after earlier hopes that it would be as early as 2020?
The answers will depend heavily on the Jays’ ability to develop starting pitching, and the recent acquisition of Simeon Woods Richardson in the Stroman deal offers some insight. Atkins was thrilled to get the 18-year-old right-hander from the Mets. The Jays had scouted him ahead of the 2018 draft, and after Sunday’s trade he quickly became Toronto’s No. 7 prospect on MLB Pipeline’s list, No. 8 according to Baseball America.
“I think the great thing about young players is, one of the most exciting things about young players — and (Woods Richardson) was one of the youngest players in (that) draft — is how much they can improve in a short period of time,” Atkins said this week. “We’ll see where he is. Our projection is that he is one of the most exciting young pitchers in the minor leagues.”
Where he is for the moment is with the Class A-Advanced Dunedin Blue Jays. Meanwhile, at the big-league level, the starting rotation is sorting through a mix of Reid-Foley, Ryan Borucki, Jacob Waguespack, Trent Thornton and, coming soon, Anthony Kay, the other half of the Jays’ return in the Stroman deal.
The next wave, however, offers a higher upside and the pace of their progress will be a major factor in the Jays’ timeline for contention. That includes Woods Richardson along with top pitching prospect Nate Pearson, Alek Manoah (their first pick in this year’s June draft) and Eric Pardinho, the highest-paid Brazilian prospect ever who received a $1.4 million U.S. signing bonus in 2017.
The young core of position players — Guerrero, Bichette, Biggio, Gurriel — is already putting up runs at the big-league level, but with most of their highly anticipated arms not estimated to crack the majors until 2022 — with Pearson the exception, perhaps early next year — the playoffs could still be a few seasons away.
The Jays are now one of the youngest teams in baseball with several players under long-term control. Shapiro and Atkins are playing the numbers game by stockpiling pitching depth that is inching closer to their wealth of position players, in the hopes that at least a few good stories come out of the lot.
“Where those different names end up and how good they become, only time will tell,” Atkins said. “That’s the beauty of sport and the beauty of this game, why we do it. I don’t think anyone claims to know exactly what’s going to happen and become of a young player.”
The Jays’ system has developed under Atkins and Shapiro, but there’s still a long way to go — and that’s the part that will matter most.
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Laura Armstrong is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @lauraarmy