2011 Blue Jays season preview: How to build a winner

It starts with a talented farm team and a major league approach

How to build a winner

Thomas Roy/Union Leader

Development always takes precedence over winning in the minor leagues. But if a farm team enjoys some success, all the better. The New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the double-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, succeeded on both fronts last season. Many of the Jays’ top prospects—including pitchers Kyle Drabek and Zach Stewart, as well as shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria—blossomed, and the club finished second in the Eastern League’s Eastern Division with a 79-62 record. The result: plenty of post-game dance parties. “There was a strobe light hooked up to the rafters in the clubhouse,” says left fielder Eric Thames, his face brightening at the memory, “and there was a fog machine.”

Though the party ended abruptly in the semifinals when the Fisher Cats were swept in three games by the Trenton Thunder (the New York Yankees’ AA club), the way the club groomed its players has become a model for what the Jays hope to achieve system-wide. This season, the organization will implement what assistant general manager Tony LaCava calls “a major-league-centric approach” to player development. The plan is to institute uniformity throughout the organization when it comes to coaching, ingraining the game’s fundamentals from one level to the next.

The goal is to create “an expectation that when you come to the major leagues, you do things a certain way,” says LaCava. “It’s really going to be a lot of the mechanical things. Certainly the different bunt plays, pick-off plays, our approach to stopping the running game—every aspect of the game.” In theory, this would prevent players from needing to decipher different coaching philosophies as they rise through the ranks, allowing them to focus instead on adjusting to the stiffer competition.

The new strategy is part of the grander plan the Blue Jays adopted when Alex Anthopoulos took over as general manager in October 2009. Under Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays dramatically increased their spending on scouting (their staff is now the biggest in baseball), the amateur draft (they doled out US$11.6 million in signing bonuses for their 2010 picks, the third-highest total in draft history), and international amateur free-agent signings (Hechavarria, who defected from Cuba, scored a franchise-record signing bonus of US$4 million as part of his US$10-million contract, while Venezuelan teenagers Adonis Cardona and Gabriel Cenas fetched a combined US$3.5 million). To avoid squandering the investment, says LaCava, all that talent must be developed properly. “If we have time and we have continuity with our staff, we should be able to implement everything.”

The 2010 Fisher Cats got it right. Manager Luis Rivera scored a promotion—he’s now a coaching assistant with the big club. Drabek, the farm system’s crown jewel, is opening the season in the Blue Jays’ starting rotation. Thames, New Hampshire’s most valuable player last year, earned a promotion to triple-A Las Vegas. Stewart and Hechavarria, entering his second season as a pro, are among the few big names from last year who will return to the Fisher Cats, at least to start. About the only thing that isn’t part of the new franchise-wide system is Basshunter’s Russia Privjet, the cheesy techno anthem blasted at the Fisher Cats’ post-game dance parties.

Shi Davidi is‘s MLB Insider

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