Blue Jays minimize risk with emphasis on college draft picks

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins, left, and Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays went heavy on college pitchers in their first draft under president and CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins, a shift that may mean less risk but perhaps also less upside in the club’s 2016 draft class.

Seventeen of the 25 pitchers selected by amateur scouting director Brian Parker, including first-rounder T.J. Zeuch, were collegians, while nine of the 16 position players, intriguing second-round shortstop Bo Bichette among them, came from the prep ranks.

The Blue Jays didn’t take a single high-school pitcher in the top-10 rounds, the draft’s most fertile ground, a deviation from the club’s successful approach in recent years.

“Everything is based on experiences,” Atkins said in an interview Sunday. “We tried to balance what we’ve done well here, and then what we can add to it and try to learn from things we’ve done, our success in the past and things we could have done better in the past. Fortunately, you’re able to do that with the way data is held and stored these days. Really, it was, at each juncture, about taking the best player, and we felt like after the board was built we had already factored for diversifying a portfolio or diversifying our risk. At each pick it was about taking the highest guy on the board.”

Zeuch, the 6-7 giant from the University of Pittsburgh, in some ways exemplifies the balance the Blue Jays tried to strike in this draft. At only 20, he still has upside and room to develop but with three years of college under his belt, he is also much more of a known commodity than a typical high-schooler.

The Blue Jays weren’t specifically looking for that combination with the 21st overall pick, but it added to their interest.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” said Atkins. “Power, durability, love the delivery, love the athleticism, love the fact that his dad is a former professional baseball player, extremely open-minded, accountable with development and upside. We didn’t think he’d get to us, very glad he did.”

Bichette, chosen from Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, Fla., with the club’s with the latter of the club’s two picks in the second round, sits toward the extreme end of the risk/reward spectrum, a toolsy player with big-league bloodlines but also a violent swing that has multiple moving parts.

“You always have the outlier in the evaluation where someone is going to be lower, but with him it was unanimous that our evaluators felt like if he was still around for us at that round, we would be absolutely elated,” said Atkins. “The ability to hit, the athleticism, the pedigree, the drive, the passion, it was really our scouts’ evaluations that we really liked as an organization.”

On the opposite end of Bichette is fifth-rounder Cavan Biggio, the Notre Dame second baseman described by Baseball America as a player with “a very intelligent approach to the game” while noting that “his tools are modest.”

His selection came a round after the Blue Jays picked Auburn outfielder Joshua Palacios, the nephew of former big-league infielder Rey Palacios. The picks – along with Zeuch, whose father pitched in the Royals system – suggests the team is placing a premium on a player’s bloodlines.

“It’s the kind of thing that could potentially top the scales when it’s close,” said Atkins. “(Biggio) was the highest guy on our board when that came around. We’re trying to factor in every piece of data we possibly can to understand what’s going to be predictive of success. There’s still so much subjectivity to it, if you’re close in the end, and you feel you also have that Hall of Fame dad around him, it’s something that certainly factors in and could tip the scales.”

The focus for the Blue Jays now shifts to signing players and they have a bonus pool of $6,665,900 to work with. Chris Cotillo of SB Nation reported that the Blue Jays had reached agreement with Bichette on a $1.1 million bonus, slightly over the 66th’s pool limit of $978,600.

On Thursday, Parker said he didn’t expect any issues getting a deal done with Zeuch, either.

Once all that is settled, the Blue Jays can begin taking stock of all the players they’ve added, and assess their performance in the draft room.

“It went about as smooth as we could have expected, a lot of that has to do with Brian Parker and Joe Sheehan, those guys worked exceptionally well together,” said Atkins. “Mark and I were really the new pieces to the puzzle, Mike Murov was a great addition, Gil Kim was a great addition. But it was more about us combining the collective experiences of different organizations, different philosophies and deciding together what we felt would be best to give us the best process and we’ll see about the results. At first glance, we feel really good about it.”

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