TORONTO — The story has been repeated many times within baseball’s chattering classes, and a version of it can also be found in the 2004 book, Chasing Steinbrenner.
Andrew Tinnish, then a young scout for the Toronto Blue Jays, was relaying coverage plans ahead of the 2003 draft to J.P. Ricciardi that included watching little to no high school action.
“That a boy,” Ricciardi, the general manager at the time, is quoted by author Rod Bradford as saying in his reply to Tinnish. “If you’ve got absolutely nothing else going on, go to a mall or to a beach. Then, if you have nothing else going on, go to a high school game.”
Tinnish shakes his head when it’s brought up now.
“I don’t remember it being quite so dramatic,” he said.
“But it was clear back then that our emphasis wasn’t on high school players.”
Over time Tinnish has became convinced of the flaws in that approach, and when he begins making picks in his first draft as amateur scouting director today, Tuesday and Wednesday, the Blue Jays will have an entirely different mindset.
The emphasis will be on choosing players with “tools” — scouting vernacular for pure skill — rather than safer, more easy to project collegians. The Blue Jays want to draft players with superstar potential, and are willing to shoulder the potential of more bust picks to get them.
They’ll have ample opportunity, with four of the first 41 picks (11, 34, 38, 41) and nine of the first 113, the range where most of the top talent is found.
“The way we look at it is we’ll take a risk on a player that we feel has a chance to be a star,” Tinnish explained.
“Maybe it’s a 20 per cent chance to be a star versus a 75 per cent of another player being any every day player.
“I think that the every day player on our scale, which is let’s say the 50s, the 55s in the system we use, those players are easier to get through trades, free agency or minor-league free agency, whereas the players who are 70s and 80s are a lot tougher to get.
“I’m not saying they’re out there, but that’s what we’re shooting for.”
The new approach is rooted in a study Tinnish, new GM Alex Anthopoulos and others conducted tracing the roots of every big-leaguer. They found the vast majority of elite players were drafted out of high school and since the best of the best rarely made it to college, they figured they needed to pluck them after their prep years to get them.
Hence Anthopoulos’s aggressive expansion of the team’s scouting department this off-season, when he looked to poach some of the best evaluation talent around the majors from other teams. The draft will put to the test the work of 25 area scouts in the U.S., four more in Canada plus eight amateur crosscheckers.
“We’re getting more coverage than we’ve ever gotten,” said Tinnish. “We’ve got basically twice the man-power than we had in the past.
“The more you see a player, whether it’s in high school or in the big leagues, the more comfortable you get with that player. Having more scouts, I think we have a little bit of an advantage as far as just mass looks and getting more players seen … so they walk into the draft room with hopefully more conviction in the player.”
The Blue Jays also broke with another longstanding team dogma last year when they handed out some signing bonuses that exceeded Major League Baseball’s slot recommendations. The top talent often signs for well above slot money and a player’s price has been a factor in their drafting.
The US$1 million given to outfielder Jake Marisnick underlined the new aggressive approach, as the bonus was more than three times the slot recommendation of $309,600. But the Blue Jays also demonstrated a new line-in-the-sand approach in some of their negotiations by letting supplemental first-round pick James Paxton of Ladner, B.C., and second-rounder Jake Eliopoulos of Newmarket, Ont., go unsigned.
The Blue Jays received equivalent compensatory picks for Paxton, Eliopoulos, and third-rounder Jake Barrett, who also didn’t sign. All three players could be redrafted by the Blue Jays, provided they sign waiver forms granting the team permission. It’s unclear if that’s the case.
“I think it’s always a factor to a certain extent,” Tinnish said of the signability issue. “The one thing I’ll say is we’re going to line our board up on the players’ ability, and I think we’re going to smart about things, we’re going to be prudent, but at the same time we don’t want to pass up on ability.”