The Toronto Blue Jays used their first round picks on two top college prospects Thursday in the hopes that they can bolster their farm system in the short term and form a battery at Rogers Centre in the long term.
Toronto selected East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman and Kennesaw State catcher Max Pentecost with the ninth and 11th selections of the draft. With the 49th overall pick, the Blue Jays selected six-foot-three right-hander Sean Reid-Foley out of Sandalwood High School in Jacksonville, Fla.
After touching 98 m.p.h., Hoffman was in the mix for the first overall pick early on. Instead, the 21-year-old required season-ending Tommy John surgery which will sideline him until 2015.
“We thought for most of the spring we wouldn’t even get a chance to take this player, and when the injury happened it was something that we jumped on and made sure we did all that we could,” Blue Jays scouting director Brian Parker said.
The Blue Jays like Hoffman’s confidence — something that certainly didn’t suffer as a result of the injury.
“Whatever team takes the so-called risk and drafts me is going to get the best player in the draft,” he told the New York Times.
Hoffman told reporters on a conference call that the experience of getting selected ninth overall exceeded his expectations.
“It still really hasn’t hit me right now, but when it all happened it took my breath away,” he said, after celebrating with family, friends and coaches. “I really didn’t know what to think at all.”
Pentecost, who was named Cape Cod League MVP in 2013, should stick at catcher, where his above-average bat will play up. The 21-year-old is also viewed as skilled receiver behind the plate.
“There’s a lot of positives with him,” Parker said. “A bat at a premium position that can help out offensively and defensively is something that attracted us to him.”
Pentecost batted .423/.483/.631 with nine home runs and 23 doubles in 62 games for the Kennesaw State Owls this year, and area scout Mike Tidick also came away impressed by the prospect’s glove.
“This is a guy we have above-average catching grades on,” Parker said. “We think he can be an asset behind the plate for us.”
The Blue Jays scouted both of their first-round picks in the Cape Cod league last summer and again this spring. Area scout Chris Kline and others watched Hoffman weekly before his injury and the Blue Jays came away impressed by his three-pitch mix of fastballs, curves and change-ups.
“We’ve seen three plus pitches out of him, both this spring and last summer,” Parker said. “This is a college arm that we thought was a guy that could come in and help us in this rotation and help lead this rotation going forward.”
Hoffman is thinking along similar lines. He got to know some Blue Jays personnel, including general manager Alex Anthopoulos after his injury and came away impressed.
“They’re an organization that’s up and coming and they’re ready to win and they’re ready to win now,” he said. “My feeling on that is as soon as I can, as soon as I’m back on the mound, I’m going to get as far as I can and try to make an impact as soon as possible on that team.”
After watching Hoffman and meeting with him this spring, the Blue Jays gained confidence in his stuff, command and athleticism. They just didn’t expect him to be on the board when they picked.
Hoffman describes himself as a pitcher who’s “going to pound the fastball in there until the other team proves they can hit it.” If and when he signs, he’d rehab in Florida in the hopes of getting his pro career started in a year or so.
“Even with the Tommy John, this was a good gamble for us,” Parker said.
As for the injury, Hoffman says he’s “feeling absolutely phenomenal” and has resumed some activity such as riding a stationary bike.
The Blue Jays have two first-round picks because they failed to reach a deal with 2013 first-round pick Phil Bickford, the high school right-hander who declined the Blue Jays’ offer in favour of attending Cal State Fullerton.
As a result, the Blue Jays can spend $9,458,500 on players selected in the first 10 rounds, a total exceeded by only the Miami Marlins, Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox. The Blue Jays didn’t sign Bickford or 2011 first round pick Tyler Beede (the Vanderbilt product went 14th overall to the San Francisco Giants, by the way), but are hopeful they’ll reach deals with their top 2014 picks.
“Once the draft wraps up, we’ll start moving forward and taking the steps we need to get them done,” said Parker.
The Blue Jays have done background work on both players’ signability, but say their decision came down to talent, not finances. Hoffman, who happened to be watching Toronto play the Detroit Tigers on TV Thursday, said he hopes to strike a deal with his new organization.
“I’m looking forward to getting something done and as soon as the Blue Jays are ready, me and my family are going to sit down and we’re going to try and get something done as soon as possible,” he said.
Now that Toronto’s first-round selections are in the books, they’ll continue seeking impact talent through the 40th and final round.
“You always want to find players that can help impact the organization,” Parker recently told Sportsnet. “We are looking for players that can help our major-league club directly or provides Alex with pieces that he can use to go get other players in trades.”
It’s in the late rounds that area scouts such as Tidick and Kline become crucial to the success of the draft.
“Some of the best later round picks are “gut feel” guys,” Parker said. “More times than not they are the only scout that has seen the player, but if they are pounding the table for a guy, I want to get as many of those guys each year as we can. When you start hitting on some of those types of players, that’s when you can make a difference with quality depth.”
MLB recommends a bonus for each draft slot, and determines each team’s bonus pool by totalling the slot values of the club’s picks. The pools cover the first 10 rounds of the draft — 11 selections in Toronto’s case. If teams exceed their draft pools, they pay harsh penalties that escalate in proportion to the excess spending.
The Blue Jays have until July 18 to reach an agreement with their first-round selections. If they sign both, they’ll give their farm system the biggest infusion of talent it’s had in a while.