Graduating players through minors essential for Blue Jays’ success

Ben Nicholson-Smith joins Sportsnet's Starting Lineup to discuss the Jays season and whether they should salvage this season.

The past few weeks have given many Blue Jays fans pause, and maybe set their sights toward the horizon to wonder what the future may hold.

Three-game win streaks and 4.5 game deficits notwithstanding, it’s hard not to begin looking at the ways in which the currently-struggling group can begin to be turned over without necessarily initiating a full-bore strip down and multi-year refashioning of the franchise.

Drafting well, signing international amateurs and developing them will always be the key to any team’s success. This is easier said than done, and a lot of luck enters this equation. Moreover, this is less a stratagem that you adopt when reshaping the team than it is the underlying foundation.

You can also build your team through bold or astute free agent signings, which one would hope could speed the process of a revitalization over the course of a single offseason. For an aging team whose current competitive window was closing, you could make a salient argument for the Blue Jays’ approach this past offseason. As it has played out, though, adding aging, slow and defensively-challenged players in prominent roles may have only served to deepen the team’s existing weaknesses.

But if the goal is at some point to have the Blue Jays get younger and more athletic, the next two years’ free agent classes are unlikely to suit this purpose. Aside from the extraordinary Bryce Harper and Manny Machado two years from now, the free agent ranks will mostly be comprised of players over the age of 30 who may be past their prime, and would at best be fill-ins for a short period.

Getting younger, more agile and most importantly, better, will require the Blue Jays to do something which they haven’t in recent years: Graduate players from their own system. To some extent, this does go back to the draft/develop concept mentioned above, but it’s not simply about nurturing top prospects along the road to future stardom.

Outside of the most heralded prospects, the Jays’ recent approach has been much more deliberate in moving young players from the upper reaches of their system into roles on the major league club.

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At The Letters
At The Letters - July 6th
Originally aired July 06 2017

A prime example of this is Ryan Schimpf, a long-time Jays farmhand who languished for years before having a breakout rookie season last year with the San Diego Padres. Certainly, one could argue that given the rapid 2017 regression that yanked Schimpf backwards and sent him back to the minors bears out the decision not to include him in the Jays’ plans in previous seasons. But if the goal is to be competitive while not selling the farm to acquire impact players, wouldn’t there be some value in giving opportunities to players already in the system?

Maybe a player like Schimpf isn’t a long term solution, but his 2.4 WAR and 129 wRC+ in just over half a season could have provided short-term value to any team at a negligible cost.

And maybe you’re thinking that these are the things that only teams at the bottom of the standings attempt, to which the response is: Have you seen where the Jays are in the standings lately?

With injuries and underperformance, the Blue Jays have already been pushed into a slightly more aggressive approach with their left fielders this year, giving surprise call ups to Dwight Smith Jr. and Anthony Alford. But both seemed destined to be temporary fixes until the veterans with a low ceiling but close-ish to replacement-level floor could return.

There are players at triple-A Buffalo who in the coming weeks might be worth a look in a regular role for the Blue Jays. Jason Leblebijian has stood out for most of the year for the Bisons, and has enough positional flexibility that he could slot in wherever needed and still get at bats.

Roemon Fields is another who has raised his game this season, and who provides game-changing speed as well as a left-handed bat. At a point where there is almost nothing to lose, isn’t it possible that he could squeeze onto the roster and into a role, if only to give a jolt to a lineup that has mostly been profoundly slow, dull and ineffective for two out of three months this season?

And when the time comes in a couple of years for the dynamic duo of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, would the team be willing to get them MLB at bats in their age-20 seasons if they could provide more value than veteran role players? Or will the club wait until they can demonstrate a mastery of each level?

And as we ponder the trade deadline, rather than seeking out veterans for short-term help at a substantial payroll and asset cost, couldn’t the focus be on shaking loose some secondary prospects who could either fill in immediately, or develop into a better supporting cast in future seasons? There are plenty of everyday contributors in MLB who never made a top 100 prospect list.

This isn’t to suggest that there are all-star performances withering on the vine, but it takes a lot of players to make it through a season. The Jays needn’t wait until a full-blown rebuild to mine their own system’s depth.