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The Toronto Blue Jays: Prospect Drafts, Waves and Tides

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Photo credit:© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Ritchie
1 month ago
Baseball America recently published their organizational rankings of MLB prospects, and the Toronto Blue Jays slipped into the bottom third of teams. Unsurprisingly, Toronto’s Management has received much criticism regarding the Blue Jays ranking. Some observers have opined that Toronto, under the Ross Atkins Regime, has drafted poorly. Let’s dig into it to see if that assessment is valid.
In a September 17, 2018 Toronto Star article, Mark Shapiro said, “… you need to have waves of talent coming, and you need to have dozens of prospects — not two, three, five prospects.” In surfing terms, did the prospect wave ever come? If yes, is the tide currently out, but new waves are unlikely to form soon? Let’s take a deep dive into the Atkins Regime and prospects.
There are a few ground rules to acknowledge. First, when I mention drafting, I refer to the MLB June Amateur Draft, not the Rule 5 or any other draft.
Second, I determined each team’s draft success by using bWAR. For each player drafted, I applied their MLB bWAR total to date. For this draft evaluation, there are two limitations to bWAR.
  • A team’s bWAR total may initially be skewed positively if they drafted a disproportionate number of college players compared to high school players. All things being equal, college players, who may not ultimately be as good as high school players, will be on an MLB roster sooner and begin accumulating bWAR.
  • Any numerical-based assessment is for a given point in time. I determined each team’s bWAR total at the end of the 2023 season. Accordingly, the bWAR totals will differ after the 2024 campaign and possibly the team rankings. However, despite these limitations, bWAR is a good, objective measure of a team’s drafting success.
Third, Baseball America’s prospect rankings include drafted and signed players, international signings, and those acquired by trade. I will discuss Baseball America’s rankings, but my primary focus will be players drafted in MLB’s June Amateur Draft.
Fourth, readers should note that a team’s ranking can change for many reasons, including prospects traded or acquired, promotions to the Big Show and updated prospect projections.
Fifth, I don’t believe hindsight should be used to determine whether a draft selection was good, bad or indifferent. Drafting is made with incomplete, imperfect information, like making a player trade. In other words, player drafts are inherently risky because much is unknown when the team makes the pick selection. Therefore, after the fact, I prefer to look at a draft selection as either working out or not, as opposed to whether the pick was good, bad or indifferent.

Baseball America

Baseball America ranked Toronto’s system as #24 among MLB organizations. In previous rankings, starting in 2019 and continuing to 2023, the Blue Jays were #3, #6, #4, #19, and #15. It should be noted that Baseball Prospectus scored Toronto as the twenty-third best, and The Athletic’s Keith Law positioned Toronto in the twentieth slot.
As part of my research for the article, I listened to two podcasts concerning Baseball America’s evaluation of Toronto’s system. On February 5, Baseball America’s Geoff Pontes appeared on the JD Bunkis Podcast. Then, the next day, Baseball America released a podcast with Pontes and colleague J.J. Cooper, discussing Toronto’s prospects. Here are the highlights from these two podcasts.

JD Bunkis Podcast

  • Pontes discussed Baseball America’s ranking process, which assigns points to prospects, which are then accumulated to produce the organizational rankings.
  • He noted that the point differentials between the 13th and 25th-ranked clubs are small. Pontes stated that there is a clear distinction between the top-7 and bottom-3.
  • According to Pontes, one of the reasons why Toronto’s rating has slipped is because of the type of players drafted.
  • Generally, Toronto has opted for high-floor prospects over high-ceiling prospects. Accordingly, the Jays have many fringe regular players, fourth outfielders and relievers. These players are valuable depth pieces but not exciting prospects.
  • On the positive front, Pontes noted that Toronto ranked sixth in Baseball America’s 2023 MLB Farm System Statcast Pitching Rankings report. Below is an excerpt.
The Blue Jays are the surprise at sixth overall, but when you look under the hood, there’s sound reasoning behind it. The Blue Jays rank first in chase rate across all pitch types and sixth in xwOBA against. They rank first in curveball chase rate, third in four-seam fastball chase, fifth in sliders and eighth in changeups. Their pitchers also throw the flattest four-seam fastballs of any organization, ranking first in vertical approach angle. That hints at possible characteristic Toronto targets.

Baseball America Podcast

  • Pontes is very high on Ricky Tiedemann and Orelvis Martinez. He sees both players as candidates to play in the Majors in 2024. Martinez may even break with the club out of Spring Training.
  • From a potential perspective, Toronto’s system has many contributors but not stars.
  • Pontes said, “A lot of guys, not many dudes.”
  • However, the system is indicative of Toronto’s approach. Like the Guardians, Toronto has targeted hitters with low K and high BB profiles. Whereas other teams have opted for more hit tool risk (offset by potential impact, on-base ability or defensive value), the Blue Jays have not.
  • Yet, Pontes observed that Toronto had acquired potential impact bats (Martinez and Enmanuel Bonilla) from the international signings market.
  • In Baseball America’s 2023 MLB Farm System Statcast Hitting Rankings report, the following opinion appeared:
The Dodgers, Brewers, Blue Jays and Padres rank within the top 10 in contact rate and chase rate, giving these four organizations the distinction of the teams with the best plate skills.
  • In Pontes’s opinion, Toronto has done a “Good job of identifying pitching throughout the draft in a variety of roles.”
  • According to Pontes, Toronto’s approach has not worked in the first two rounds (skilled, higher floor, college players such as Austin Martin) but has in the later draft rounds.
  • Arjun Nimmala, the Blue Jays 2023 first-round pick, differs from previous round-one selections. He is a young, toolsy player who profiles as an everyday shortstop with power.

Organizational Rankings

Baseball America is a valuable resource for prospect information. However, they are not infallible. Please take a look at Table 1.
I selected Baseball America’s top five organizations from the 2015-2019 publications (this timeframe provides enough runway to evaluate the team ratings). Furthermore, I compiled bWAR (to the end of the 2023 season) for the top ten players for each of the top five teams. As a point of comparison, I included the top 10 prospects of the 19th-ranked organization. Why #19? Toronto was the 19th-ranked team in BA’s 2022 report, between 2024’s 24th slot and 2023’s 15th grade. Lastly, I ranked the six organizations (Top Five and the 19th-ranked club) by bWAR.
The reader can see that in two of the five years, the 19th-ranked club slotted last. However, in 2018, Miami’s Top-Ten prospects scored the second-most bWAR, and the 2015 Oakland A’s bWAR from their Top-Ten was top of the charts.
The conclusion I draw from Table 1 is that a high organizational Baseball America ranking does not guarantee a bright future, nor does a lower-level ranking mean certain bleakness. Furthermore, the 2015 Oakland example illustrates the challenge of reliably projecting future performance levels of prospects.

First Round Selections

MLBAM’s Tom Tango produced an interesting chart, which I present below. Unfortunately, I could not retrieve a link to Tango’s post containing the chart. The data is from the MLB June Drafts for the years 2005-2015. As a % of total WAR produced by players drafted during the noted period, first-round selections accounted for 50% of total WAR. Expectedly, drafting success in the first round is important.
Let’s examine the first-round picks by the Atkins Regime in two ways. First, using perfect hindsight (highest bWAR to date), what available first-round selections should the Atkins Regime have made  (Table 2)? Second, what would Toronto’s first-round picks look like if, instead of choosing the player they drafted when they drafted, the Blue Jays used Baseball America’s draft list to make their selection (Table 3)?
Unsurprisingly, the Blue Jays score poorly if hindsight is used. Given the inherent randomness of prospect success at the MLB level, the hindsight evaluation approach is interesting but unrealistic.
Toronto looks much better when the next-best-Baseball-America-prospect-availability method is utilized. On this basis, compared to other available first-round selections, Toronto’s first-round picks have worked out (6.7 bWAR versus 4.4).

All Draft Picks

Let’s examine the draft results for all rounds after 2015, Toronto’s last draft before the Atkins Regime came to power. Consider Table 4, Table 5 and Table 6.
The highlights from these tables are as follows:
  • Concerning the number of players with bWARs greater than zero, Toronto is T-14.
  • Starting with the 2016 Draft, Toronto’s draft picks have generated the fourth-highest bWAR.
  • When I included negative bWARs, Toronto’s #4 ranking did not change.
  • Of all draft selections, Bo Bichette has posted the highest bWAR.
  • Regarding each team’s second-best pick (by bWAR), Alek Manoah’s 7.8 slots in at #6.
  • By bWAR, Toronto acquired Daulton Varsho, Arizona’s best selection and Santiago Espinal, Boston’s second-best pick.
I circled back to Pontes’s opinion that Toronto’s approach has not worked in the first two rounds (skilled, higher floor, college players such as Austin Martin) but has in the later draft rounds. Pontes is correct. Among non-high school players drafted in the first two rounds, Toronto ranks #15 (Manoah at 7.8 bWAR). Concerning players selected after the first two rounds, Toronto slots in at #10 (16.3 bWAR).
The results of Table 4 may surprise some people. Based on total bWAR, Toronto’s draft selections have worked out well. Also, Pontes raised an optimistic point during the Baseball America podcast. He commented that Toronto is one of the few organizations with more than one 2024 Top 100 prospect (Tiedemann and Martinez) who may make an impact in 2024 at the MLB level.

The Last Word

Has Toronto had the waves of prospect talent that Shapiro said was needed? The answer is yes, albeit with some caveats.
On the positive side of the ledger, I note the following details:
  • Bichette (17.7 bWAR) and Cavan Biggio (7.0 bWAR), both 2016 draftees, appeared for the first time in an MLB game in 2019.
  • Alejandro Kirk (6.9 bWAR), a 2016 international signing, debuted in 2020.
  • Manoah (7.8 bWAR), who Toronto selected in the 2019 Draft, first appeared on an MLB mound in 2021.
  • According to Pontes, both Tiedemann and Martinez could make their MLB debut in 2024.
Concerning the negative side, the points to consider are as follows:
  • The number of players who have posted positive bWAR totals ranks #14, which is okay but not great.
  • Concerning players drafted after 2019, Toronto’s selections have not made their MLB debut. Hence, in surfing terms, Toronto’s best waves are at high tide, and the tide was low regarding the 2020-2023 selections.
Overall, Toronto’s drafts have worked out well. There was an initial wave during 2019-2021, but the wave subsided, and a new Tiedemann-Martinez wave is looming.

ARTICLE PRESENTED BY BETANO

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