“The draft is what we work for,” says Jon Lalonde, Blue Jays Scouting Director. “We spend 364 days a year getting ready for it.”
Major-league baseball’s First-Year Player Draft, held every June, is unique among the major sports drafts. It’s the only one not televised (though there’s been some talk of it lately), and it’s the only one to go an exhausting 50 rounds. Every so often, an Orlando Hudson or Chris Woodward (43rd and 54th round, respectively) will make it to the bigs, though rarely (especially as a double-play combination).
A good draft replenishes your farm system and provides future stars; a bad one can send shock waves throughout your organization for years. The stakes are incredibly high. The first five rounds are where you often find your future stars, but Jon thinks the real make-or-break decisions come after that.
“In the first two or three rounds, everybody knows about those players,” he points out. “There are no surprises, for the most part. When we get excited is from about the 5th round to the 15th, where you can make some key decisions and score some great players. Those are the rounds that can make a good draft great.”
The first player chosen, though he has the highest profile, normally isn’t much of a risk. “Your first-rounder should make the big leagues; if he doesn’t, you're disappointed, especially with the money you're investing,” Jon observes. Sure, injuries can sink the best-laid plans, but otherwise, nabbing an Eddie Zosky or a Joe Lawrence is just painful. The same goes, to a lesser degree, for players taken in the next few rounds.
“But from the 5th to even the 20th round, you can really make hay,” Jon says. “If you get a player the scouts really like, and you've done the research, and you get him in one of those rounds, that's what makes a draft a success. Players like Joey Reiman [Pulaski catcher/first baseman, .301/.416/.422 in 206 AB, taken in the 16th round in 2003] and Ryan Roberts [Auburn third baseman .278/.370/.440 in 248 AB, chosen in the 18th round] -- we were doing cartwheels when we got those guys.”
So let’s talk about some of those lower-round guys. How about ….
1. Jamie Vermilyea (9th round)
“Our area scout Tim Huff was a big fan of the young man, really pushed him in all our meetings,” Jon informs us. “We looked at the statistics – out at the University of New Mexico, which is traditionally a very strong hitter's environment, Jamie had been very successful. Again, you combine that success with the opinion of Tim Huff, who is a very good scout, his recommendation on the player's toughness and ability, and you say, ‘This is a guy who has a chance.’”
Was he ranked higher than the ninth-rounder he eventually became? “Certainly, if we had to take him earlier, nobody would have been disappointed. It just happened that the way we played the board, that's where he fit into our scheme. Draft day takes a lot of twists and turns,” Jon points out. “To predict where someone is going to go is quite difficult. So that's where we felt most comfortable taking him, and it worked out very well. Because he played at a smaller school, maybe we were able to get him a bit lower than if he played at an SEC school or some other traditional baseball power.”
2. Vito Chiaravalotti (15th round)
“We had an area scout up there [the University of Richmond], but he was easier for everyone to scout, because he was on the same team as Tim Stauffer, who was the fourth overall pick,” Jon explains. “So all of our scouts got a chance to see him, and we all liked his ability as a hitter. He'd had great success there, had shown leadership, was a good athlete – he was an all-state swimmer in high school. When you combine those things, you come up with a very solid player. Fifteenth round was where he fit into our mix, but if somebody had taken him tenth, it still would have been a great pick.”
3. Matt Foster (13th round)
The Blue Jays surprised a lot of people by reaching into the ranks of the Navy to grab southpaw Matt Foster. “Left-handed pitching is hard to find,” reasons Jon. “Matt was a lefty with a very good arm. Sure, the Naval Academy is not a traditional baseball power, but the Major League Scouting Bureau had him evaluated quite highly.”
The X-factor with Foster was his service commitment – this was one of those deals “where you sign him, but you know you're going to lose him right away for a year. It was similar to 2002, when we took Chris Leonard, who we knew had just had Tommy John surgery. Talent-wise, he could have been a second-rounder, maybe even a sandwich pick, but because of the injury, he slid a little bit. We took a chance, knowing that if he comes back and pitches the way he's capable of, it'll be a very good pick.
Foster stuck around till the 13th round, which pleasantly surprised the Jays. “Our scouts had him rated much higher than where we took him. He was still on the board, he was a left-handed pitcher and you have to figure he has good makeup, coming out of Navy,” Jon laughs. “Discipline shouldn't be a problem. He's doing his commitment right now, and we'll have him back in the middle of next summer. Sometimes you just have to be creative.”
And what about that first-round pick? After the draft this past June, Sportsnet aired a clip of the Blue Jays’ draft room, which showed the tension building as the clock counted down to the Jays’ spot. Tulane slugger Michael Aubrey was reportedly high on the team’s list, but when he went to Cleveland, the cameras showed J.P. Ricciardi getting excited. Within minutes, Aaron Hill was property of the Blue Jays.
Jon wasn’t involved in the first-round draft selection, but he agrees that had the choice been between Aubrey and Hill, it might have been a tough one. But he also says of the LSU shortstop: “We had him evaluated very highly, and that's why we were so shocked to see him fall. That could have been one of those contingencies where you have to call an audible; you love Player X, but Player Y, who you didn't anticipate would be there, is still available.” Hill tore up Auburn and did very well at Dunedin, and already looks like Toronto’s shortstop of the future.
Jon simply loves the draft. “The atmosphere is hectic, but a lot of fun,” he says. “It can be very emotional -- we all like players, we get connected to them, and when we don't get the ones we want, we get upset. When we do get the ones we want, we love it. It's a huge adrenaline rush. Once it's over, you feel like you could sleep for about two weeks.”
Baseball America called the Jays’ 2002 draft the best in baseball. Now, after the stunning performance of the Auburn Doubledays and some terrific player debuts at Pulaski, one wonders what they’ll make of the Class of ’03. “Obviously, the success of our draft this year was borne out by the success that Auburn and Pulaski had, and that's two years in a row we feel we've done well,” Jon says. “We're just really excited, and we're going to keep on doing the same things. Time will tell if it's the right way to go, but so far, the results have been outstanding.”
Although no one can argue with the results so far, still there are more than a few people who do question whether the Jays’ way is the right way to go. Plenty of clubs still grab high-school pitchers early and often, and view an emphasis on statistical analysis with outright disdain. Anyone who’s read Moneyball, particularly the chapter detailing the showdown between Billy Beane and his scouts over Jeremy Brown, knows that the philosophical gap between those two camps is tremendous.
Which camp do the Blue Jays fall into? Perhaps surprisingly to some, Jon reports that “we try to take the best from both worlds. Traditional scouting has been successful for a lot of years; some great players have been found that way. What we try to do is take advantage of some information that maybe wasn't available in the past, to shape our decisions and make better decisions.
“That's not to say that we're right and everybody else is wrong, or that there's a right way and a wrong way to do it,” he adds. “That's just the way we operate. It's been very productive so far, and maybe it will continue to be that way. It's about trying to integrate information. I don't think a computer will ever tell you who the best player is.”
Jon himself was not a sabrmetrician from day one. “A couple of years ago, if you asked me, I would have said I was in the traditional scouting camp,” he says. “I looked at tools -- I went to scout school, where they preach tools, and you look at physical ability. Since J.P. came on, it's been an educational process. I've learned a lot more about the other way of evaluating, and I try to marry them both together, to find that happy medium.”
Not everyone was able to make that marriage work, however; the baseball world took notice over the past several months as the Blue Jays let go many scouts, including a number who had been with the organization for years. Perhaps the highest-profile departure was that of Tim Wilken, the onetime Scouting Director who helped bring Shawn Green, Roy Halladay and Vernon Wells into the organization, among many others.
On this serious and controversial topic, Jon adopts a considerate approach. “Change is never easy,” he notes. “Obviously, with J.P. coming in, he wanted to implement his views, which ran contrary to some of our traditional views. That played a part, and finances played a part. We had a very large department compared to the rest of baseball, and we had to make some adjustments.
“There are some very good people who aren't with us any more, but I still consider them very good friends and excellent scouts. Change was mandated, and we adapted to that change. We did the best we could with it, and the staff that's in place now is great. At the senior levels, we have J.P. and Keith and Tony LaCava, and we have great area scouts to go forward with. I'm really excited about what we've done, and where we're going.”
Jon has good reason to be excited, as do Blue Jay fans generally. And some of those fans must surely now be wondering: how can I become a part of this amazing experience? Are there opportunities in the scouting department in Toronto or elsewhere? What advice can the Jays’ current Scouting Director offer to fellow Canadians who want to follow his path?
He starts with some cautionary words. “I think the industry in general is going to smaller staffs,” he advises. “I don't have anything scientific to back up that opinion; it's just my feeling about the trend.” As for entering this field, “there's no road map for getting into it.
“You have to work hard to get a foot in the door, and continue to work hard. One of the negatives is the sacrifice in time. I don't have much of a social life or a family, which means I'm able to be here for long hours and long periods without days off, especially during the season.” The job, like the game, is extremely demanding. It is not for the casual or the merely curious.
But Jon is also very clear that if there’s a better job out there, he doesn’t know what it is. “If you're a baseball nut like I am, there's nothing you'd rather do. I'm here late, but I'm here watching baseball, so that doesn't seem like work.
“I played until I couldn't play any more; then my goal was to stay involved with the game on some level. I found a curriculum in school, in sports administration, that I felt would point me toward that goal. I was able to get good grades, which helped me get a job; then I worked my tail off. I was here on weekends. I tried to show everybody the desire I had to advance my career, and it's worked out.”
So what’s the bottom line? “My advice would be to study hard, set a goal, look for people who will help you, and do volunteer activities that will help keep you on that path. Once you get the smallest opportunity,” he adds, “you can make it happen.” Jon Lalonde of Wyevale, Ontario, is living proof of that.