Beneath the surface of the games on the field, beyond the daily routines part and parcel to baseball’s daily grind, the themes of teammate values and purposeful practice underpinned the Toronto Blue Jays’ approach to player development in 2018. The manifestations of those focal points ranged from prospects role-playing different scenarios to the staging of need-specific camps, new elements integrated into the organization’s holistic vision for grooming players.
The goal, ultimately, is to ensure that the base of talent which fuelled GM Ross Atkins’ recent assertion that he’d never been as confident "about the future of an organization" provides the framework for the Blue Jays’ next competitive window. Whether or not that happens in the two- to three-year timeframe Atkins described as looking realistic fully hinges on the club’s ability to successfully transform minor-league potential into major-league production.
"Teammate and practice are two areas we’ve taken to a lot in terms of how we think about development and how to create the best training and practice environments so the players can get better," says Gil Kim, the Blue Jays director of player development. "Those have been two areas that have been successful this year."
Buzzwordy as it all sounds, this isn’t just lip service to pacify a fanbase struggling to reconcile the fall from the heights of 2015 and ’16. Last month, in laying out the approach he believes the Blue Jays must employ to succeed in the American League East, president and CEO Mark Shapiro said "we need to be a team and to do that we need to have players that outperform expectations. Those players are high-character, tough, resilient and good teammates."
To that end, the Blue Jays are trying to develop that kind of player by ensuring their prospects pass through the farm system with those points of emphasis becoming ingrained along the way.
In one vein is the abandonment of the traditional fall instructional league, replaced instead with a series of more focused programs:
• A rookie camp aimed at recent draft picks and Latin American signings with focuses on being a good teammate, participating in a winning culture, developing strong practice habits, acclimating to pro ball and the Blue Jays;
• A camp for players in need of game reps because of injury or other reasons like Nate Pearson, Shawn Morimando, Gabriel Moreno and Adam Kloffenstein;
• A specialty camp for pitchers seeking to make mechanical adjustments using video and analytical feedback led by pitching co-ordinator Jeff Ware and player development co-ordinator David Aardsma;
• A similar hitting camp led by hitting co-ordinator Guillermo Martinez and player development co-ordinator Joe Sclafani;
• A cultural experience camp taking newly drafted players to the club’s complex in the Dominican Republic to gain insight into what Latin players go through so they are more understanding once those players arrive in North America.
"Overall it was a specific focus on putting players in different buckets of priority needs and then attacking those buckets," explains Kim, "versus bringing in your best guys for instructs and putting them into basically an extended affiliate schedule. We certainly could have done a better job, like we always could, but at the end of the day we were able to reach a large number of players and develop specific needs for them."
In another vein is the active work aimed at creating a set of expectations in terms of behaviour and approach.
How is that done?
"There were a handful of teammate sessions led by one of our mental performance coach or one our co-ordinators or one of our on-field coaches to highlight what being a good teammate looks like," explains Kim. "It means picking up your teammates, it means being positive and supporting your teammates, it means holding them accountable, as well. They go through different skits, different role playing on it, an activity like that.
"Or it can be asking guys what is their definition and putting it up on the board and creating buy-in and a definition of what a good teammate is based off what our players are saying," adds Kim. "It could be out there on the field just emphasizing and calling out what good teammate behaviour is just as much as you call out a good play on the field or vice-versa, calling out what non-optimal teammate behaviour looks like."
The goal is that aside from on-field basics like improving a swing or refining a pitch, players understand that being a good teammate and showing leadership is "important in order for a championship organization to exist, and to foster a winning atmosphere," explains Kim.
By turning intangibles into focal points, the Blue Jays hope players end up "discussing them openly just as much as you’d discuss a swing or a delivery with a player," he adds.
Thirteen players made their big-league debuts with the Blue Jays in 2018 and many more from a farm system Baseball America ranked third in August will do so next year and beyond.
Between those who have already broken through such as Ryan Borucki, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Thomas Pannone, Sean Reid-Foley, Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire and Anthony Alford, and those to come like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Nate Pearson, T.J. Zeuch, Patrick Murphy and Kevin Smith, the Blue Jays’ approach to player development is going to be tested.
In the interim, the Blue Jays are an organization ripe with opportunity, a reality recognized up and down the system.
"A lot of guys are talking about it," says Kim. "You go through the Lansing, Dunedin, New Hampshire of Buffalo clubhouses and it really has been a consistent topic over the last couple of months. ‘You see what Borucki did last night?’ Or ‘It’s great that Jano is up there,’ or ‘Look at Rowdy, look at Reese.’ It means a lot to these players."
And to the future of the franchise, too.