Blue Jays must take advantage of 2014 draft

Ricky Romero. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – Lasting lessons sometimes come from the most painful of memories, and the Toronto Blue Jays will be drawing heavily upon one such experience this week when they choose ninth and 11th overall in baseball’s annual draft.

Back in 2005 a highly touted college shortstop named Troy Tulowitzki unexpectedly dropped to them in the sixth spot, and suddenly their plans to select college lefty Ricky Romero were thrown into doubt.

The Blue Jays system desperately needed a stud arm, and 2002 first-rounder Russ Adams and 2003 first-rounder Aaron Hill were already in the majors, ready to man the middle infield for years to come. Taking Tulowitzki would be a redundancy when Romero filled a void, some argued, while others pushed for the best player available, regardless of the position, and allowing time to sort everything out.

The Romero crowd won the day, the Colorado Rockies selected Tulowitzki with the next pick, and you can only wonder how differently the past decade might have played out for the Blue Jays had the decision been reversed.

That’s why Brian Parker, the Blue Jays director of amateur scouting, says, “You can’t really look at what you’re doing as far as holes in the organization or whatever. When you’re this high especially you’ve just got to take the best player.”

Those words are worth keeping in mind ahead of the 2014 draft, which begins Thursday with the first two rounds and a total of 74 selections that also include one compensation round and two competitive balance rounds. The Blue Jays will also pick 49th overall, and with their three selections on the opening night, they have an opportunity to significantly impact the franchise given where they’re picking.

This draft class is described as pitching heavy, with a particular depth of talent in high school arms. The Blue Jays system is pitching heavy with a wave of young shortstops coming in the lower minors, but as Parker notes, “you can’t go against the strength of the draft.”

Mock drafts by Baseball America and link the Blue Jays to North Carolina State shortstop Trea Turner at No. 9 and Florida high school right-hander Touki Toussaint at No. 11, while ESPN has them taking Toussaint at nine and East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman, who recently underwent Tommy John surgery, at 11.

While the Blue Jays often surprise – no one had them taking Tyler Beede in 2011 or Phil Bickford last year (interestingly, neither signed) – the names they’re most often connected to would offer more of what they already have in the system.

That’s okay, and the bigger question is how the Blue Jays plan to exploit their total signing bonus pool allocation of $9,458,500 – including $3,080,800 for the No. 9 selection and $2,888,300 for No. 11.

The Blue Jays’ draft budget may be tighter than it’s been in recent years, and Parker and his staff have been told to negotiate hard since every dollar counts. Whether that’s simply strategic planning or a real issue is unclear.

Consider that under the old system, the Blue Jays spent $11.6 million signing their picks in 2010 and $11 million more in 2011, despite failing to reel in Beede, who was initially offered $2 million and eventually $2.4 million, but wanted $3 million to pass on Vanderbilt.

Under the new signing bonus pool system with harsh penalties for exceeding spending thresholds, the Blue Jays spent $9,272,000 in 2012, just under the limit that would have led to draft pick forfeiture.

Their bonus pool last year was $6.4 million but the Blue Jays spent just over $3 million after failing to sign Bickford, the No. 10 pick with a slot allotment of $2.9 million. They offered him at least 40 per cent of that total, a minimum of $1.17 million, in order to ensure they received the compensatory pick for failing to sign him, but what happened was never really explained, with speculation that something with Bickford’s physical kyboshed an agreement.

“Once we made the selection you still have some things you’ve got to do before you can actually get signature on contract,” Parker says vaguely. “We’re just doing the same thing this year.”

What will be different is the way Blue Jays weigh risk, something that emerged as part of a wider-scale re-evaluation of their draft process.

“Ultimately all these guys have risk, but how much risk are you willing to take on? That factors,” Anthopoulos says in a recent interview with Sportsnet Magazine. “I’d say a big part of refining our process is maybe we’re starting to examine the level of risk we’re willing to take.”

How so?

“Just anything,” he replied. “More risk, most likely, more reward, and we may just modify it slightly. It doesn’t mean we’ll be risk-averse, but maybe not take the same level of risk. We’re just trying to balance it out a little bit more as we’re going through it. That’s not to say we’re not looking for talent, upside, all that kind of stuff. We’re trying to balance it.”

So perhaps such thinking scares the Blue Jays way from someone like Hoffman, given that he’s coming off Tommy John surgery, or Beede, who signed a consent to redraft card but has a walk rate of nearly four per nine innings that may give them pause.

Or maybe they have several plans in place and react accordingly since, as Anthopoulos put things last week in a discussion with reporters, “it all depends on what’s out there in the draft as well, what the opportunities are.”

“I think the draft is something that’s always very important to us,” he continues. “It’s something that you can never neglect. It’s just so key, it’s so important especially with where some of the salaries have been going, free agency and things like that. The draft is always going to be extremely important for us.”

With the ninth and 11th picks in hand, this one matters more than others, and the Blue Jays must make sure their hard lessons learned pay off.

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