"I work very closely with JP and I basically do whatever JP doesn't have the time for. It is very seasonal. From now until the draft I work closely with Jon Lalonde. From the draft through the end of the season I work closely with Dick Scott, and I talk with him after I watch each (minor league) club. Throughout the year I am always working with JP and in the off season we work closely together." LaCava's responsibilities cover amateur scouting and professional scouting, or to put it another way, LaCava brings players into the organization through the draft or through advising on free agent acquisition and trades.
LaCava spent ten years with the Angels as a scout and cross-checker, then worked for the Braves, the Expos (as farm director) and the Indians before coming to the Jays four years ago. LaCava brings a little of them all to the Jays. "I have been in five organizations and I benefited from that as you realize there are different ways to do things. It's not one size fits all, you have to look at where your club is in the winning cycle, you have to look at where your prospects are and when you expect them to arrive, and what your major league payroll is. Do you have the resources to plug holes with free agents, and so on? Each club I worked with has a different way of doing things, it's not one size fits all. You have to look at where you are in your circumstances and come up with a plan that best suits your organization." Tomorrow we will learn a little more about the Blue Jay's plan, but today we are talking about the draft.
The US college baseball season has just started and LaCava is heading out for a ten day scouting trip. The Jays have the number fourteen pick in the June draft and LaCava is starting to work his way through the list. "We have fourteen guys identified who we think are strong candidates and we have another fourteen or fifteen possibles that we will watch to see what way they go. Our first round pick should come from that list, usually it does, it has the last few years, we had Ricky (Romero) identified at this stage last year." Understandably LaCava would not comment on who was on the list or what the split is between hitters and pitchers. "You always have to take the best athlete. Ideally we could use a thumper, a big bat, but at fourteen you have to take the best player available and not force anything. If all the bats are gone then you have to take a pitcher." Ultimately the final decision on who the Jays select will come down to JP. "Jon Lalonde is the point man for the amateur draft, and does a great job, but the first round pick is the general manager's decision."
Baseball America projected the first round of the draft last week, for subscribers only. BA had pitchers listed as seven of the top ten picks and twenty-one of the thirty in the first round. If position players are in short supply it could push the Jays to taking another pitcher. BA showed three "thumpers" being selected just before the Jays pick at fourteen. The three big bats were Evan Longoria, Matt LaPorta and Wes Hodges. The projected draft can change a lot between now and June but one of those three might fall into Blue Jay territory at number 14.
Some draft years are stronger, some weaker, how does 2006 look? "I think it's a bit early, we've been looking at it since the last draft ended. We start on the next draft right away (after the current year one finishes). Last summer we were out looking at the amateur leagues, the Cape Cod league, and the high profile high school events. I think it's at least an average draft, we will have to see what way the top prospects go and we are optimistic of finding a good player at number 14." Baseball America's opinion is that there are few premium players at the top of the draft, but the draft looks like it should be deep.
One topic that always comes up when discussing the draft, and player development, is makeup but what actually defines makeup? Competitiveness, drive and the ability to handle adversity are all components of makeup but how a player puts it all together is still one of the big unknowns of scouting. Do different teams have different definitions of makeup? "Scouts Honor" is a book published in 2005 that details the Atlanta Braves way to build a winning baseball team. The number one item on the list was makeup. The Baltimore Orioles are so enamored with makeup that they don't draft or sign players unless they score highly on their psychological tests. In the 2002 draft the Orioles used their first round pick to select Canadian pitcher Adam Loewen. When Loewen first completed the Orioles psychological test he scored poorly, Loewen attributes that to fatigue as the Orioles test was the tenth he had taken in about a week. The Orioles were nervous as they had spent over $8 million to sign previous first rounders, Beau Hale, Chris Smith, Richard Stahl and Mike Paradis, all for no return. When Mike Flanagan wanted to sign Loewen before his name would go back in the draft they flew a scout down to visit Loewen in Florida and this time Loewen scored "off the charts". Peter Angelos was persuaded and the Orioles signed him. Those two teams might be the top of the scale in their quest for players with strong makeup but what is the Jays perspective?
So how do the Jays use makeup in evaluating a prospect? "There are three primary criteria we use when we look at players. The first is ability, that's like a barrier to entry, the guy has to meet that threshold or there is no point in going further. The scouts obviously have to make the determination that the player has major league ability. The second criteria we look at is his history, his statistical history. If the guy meets the first criteria he gets on our radar. Then if his statistics are poor, and he has come out of nowhere, then we discount him. On the other hand if his statistics were good then we would put a premium on that player. Then the third criteria is makeup. That is harder to get, takes a little longer and you don't see that necessarily the first time you see the player play. You see hints of this or hints of that, but that is when the area scout has to get very involved and talk with coaches, teammates, opponents and the player himself, trying to gather as much information as he can. Makeup is very big, it's not only important for the amateur draft but JP has emphasised it at the major league level too. It starts from the top all the way down. The information is gathered sequentially, the player has to have major league ability to get on the radar, he has to have the stats, and then the last thing we look at is the makeup of the player and we make an adjustment to our rating based on that."
Studies have shown that the draft has a low rate of success. Each year clubs select fifty players in the draft, sign about forty of them, and expect one to three of them to have an impact in the major leagues. Small improvements in a team's success rate can have a big impact on the major league club. LaCava is not ready to evaluate JP's drafts yet. "A year is too soon to evaluate a draft. You have to wait five years before you pat yourself on the back or say you didn't do very well. Some guys start fast, you feel good about them, and then they stumble. Others take a while to get going. You don't really know until they reach AA and you don't want to overweight short season results. The longer they are in the system the more you know what you have."
It might take five years to evaluate a draft but the Jays are very happy with one draft in particular. "2004 stands out, we had a couple of extra picks and that one, so far, is the most encouraging one we had." In 2004 the Jays selected David Purcey, Zach Jackson, Curtis Thigpen, Adam Lind, Casey Janssen, Chip Cannon, and several other players still in the system. "I wasn't here for JP's first draft, when we got Russ Adams and David Bush, and traded Adam Peterson for Shea Hillenbrand, that one has already paid off for us. But 2004 is pretty exciting to see the way those guys are progressing through the system. This style of drafting was designed for what our club was when JP took over."
If it takes a long time to evaluate a draft how do you know you are doing the right thing when you make your picks? The Jays might not have had time to fully evaluate JP's drafts but they still know what they want. "One thing the Blue Jays have done better than anywhere I have worked is clarity over what we are looking for. We have a very defined way of doing things here, we know the type of player we want, and because of that we are able to put those guys in order better and know who to pick when its our turn. It fits what we are trying to do, players who are predisposed to doing what we value. We try to stay disciplined to that type of player."
Might we see a few high school players mixed in, like Wes Stone in 2005? "I think high school hitters are something we have looked at, and we looked at them a little stronger last year, and we will do more of that this year. I don't think we will be involved with high school pitchers."
So draft watchers, expect more of the same from the Jays this year. The Jays have a plan and they are sticking with it. Like it or hate it, the Jays are consistent and consistency is good, as long as what you are consistent about is worth it. The Jays under JP have been successful in bringing players to the major leagues, they have not yet produced stars. The Jays are hoping to get lucky one of these days.
While most fans are now looking to the beginning of spring training and then the start of the major league season, Tony LaCava, Jon Lalonde and the Blue Jay scouts and cross checkers have started their four and a half month marathon to find, evaluate and select the best possible player for the Blue Jays with the fourteenth pick of the draft. Best wishes from Batter's Box to the team, and a big thank you to Tony LaCava for sharing his time and opinions with us.
Tomorrow LaCava will discuss the Jays master plan; give us a scouting report on Dan Marino the baseball player; and tell us if the Jays really did have a scout at every one of AJ Burnett's starts in 2005.