During his three years at Duke University, Griffin Conine worked toward the goal of being drafted by a major-league team. Ever since the Toronto Blue Jays made him their second-round draft choice, he has had another goal in mind, this one a little loftier than the last.
“My goal now is to get to the big leagues as quick as I can,” said Conine, who made his professional debut for the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays Wednesday after officially agreeing to terms. “Now that’s all signed and done my next goal is to advance through the system as quick as I can.”
Conine points to Andrew Benintendi and Michael Conforto, two other left-handed hitters who excelled in college, became high draft picks and debuted in the big-leagues just one year after being selected.
“We’re moving to where guys can fly through the system when they show good numbers and advance,” he told reporters on a conference call Thursday.
Benintendi debuted at age 22 in 2016 and has since become a mainstay in the Red Sox outfield. Conforto debuted at age 22 in 2015 and made his first all-star team with the Mets last year.
Conine, who turns 21 next month, threw out a runner at the plate in his pro debut Wednesday. That throwing arm is another reason that some observers compare him to Conforto.
“I like that comparison, both based on it’s a left-handed bat, he’s got power to all fields and a strong arm,” he said. “I think those are my two biggest tools.”
Along with Conforto, Conine has been compared to Jay Bruce, also a left-handed hitter. “I like those two a lot,” he said. “Those are unbelievable players.”
Two years ago, it wasn’t clear whether Conine would become this highly touted. He had zero homers with a .247 slugging percentage as a freshman at Duke, but afterwards, he worked to add muscle in the hopes of regaining the power stroke he’d shown in high school.
“I really wanted to get back into my strength at the plate, I knew that was one of my biggest tools going into D1 baseball,” he said.
His strength training paid off, as he went from 190 lbs. to 205 lbs. after his freshman year. When he paired those gains with adjustments to his swing and approach, his numbers improved. Conine hit 13 homers with a .546 slugging percentage as a sophomore and 18 homers with a .603 slugging percentage as a junior, earning second-team All-ACC selections both seasons.
In one game this May, the full extent of that power was on display. To the surprise of Conine and his teammates, he hit a ball 497 feet against Gardner-Webb University–impressive even considering he hit it with an aluminum bat. According to Duke’s batted ball analytics, the ball left the bat at 111 m.p.h.
Still, Conine did strike out often in 2018, with 74 whiffs in 224 at-bats. As his professional career continues, he hopes to improve his plate approach with two strikes to put the ball in play more often.
“That’s something I’ll absolutely work on,” he said. “I don’t want to be a guy that you look at and say home run or strikeout.”
Conine agreed to a deal worth $1,350,000 – the exact recommended bonus for the 52nd overall selection. Now that he has signed, the Blue Jays have locked up all of their picks within the first 15 rounds, including high school teammates Jordan Groshans and Adam Kloffenstein, who were taken in the first and third rounds, respectively.
Conine’s already better-known than most draft picks because his father, Jeff Conine, spent 17 seasons at the MLB level from 1990-2007. A two-time all-star who earned the nickname Mr. Marlin in Miami, Conine hit .285/.347/.443 in the big-leagues.
Within the Blue Jays’ system, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Kacy Clemens, Cavan Biggio and Dwight Smith Jr. are also sons of big-leaguers, while Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (brother), Josh Palacios (uncle) and Brandon Grudzielanek (uncle) also have family connections to the majors.
“I didn’t really know the full extent of the bloodlines in their system,” Conine said. “Everyone hears about Guerrero’s son who’s been tearing up minor-league baseball so I knew about him obviously and Bo Bichette I knew about, but I didn’t know the full extent of Biggio, and Clemens and Gurriel … it was really cool to see.”
Adding to the intrigue, many of the players could end up arriving in the big-leagues at the same time.
“I’m looking forward to playing with a lot of those guys at the big league level,” Conine said.