While the MLB All-Star game is nothing more than an exhibition, the event will have symbolic value for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Although the team is in the midst of an up-and-down season that’s seen it hover around the .500 mark, the club’s four representatives — and MLB-high three starters — at the Midsummer Classic serve as a symbol of its team-building successes.
There’s plenty of work to do with the Blue Jays roster, some of which may be done at the July 30 trade deadline, but each of the team’s four all-stars is a success story from a different method of roster construction.
The can’t-miss prospect: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Method of acquisition: International signing on July 2, 2015
It’s tough to give the Blue Jays too much credit for identifying Guerrero Jr.’s prodigious talent. In 2015 he was Baseball America’s top-ranked international prospect, and his name made him pretty hard to miss. To be fair, MLB.com had him ranked second behind Jhailyn Ortiz — who’s currently plying his trade in High-A with the Philadelphia Phillies organization — so he wasn’t seen as head-and-shoulders above the rest.
Still, the story of Guerrero Jr.’s acquisition isn’t a tale of finding a diamond in the rough, it’s about the conviction the team had about the player, which led to an industrious pursuit, a side trade to free up international pool space that cost them two future major leaguers — Chase DeJong and Tim Locastro — and a willingness to forgo other international prospects with a signing bonus north of $10,000 that year.
The Blue Jays believed in Guerrero Jr. strongly, and they were willing to make sacrifices to bet on him. That took nerve, especially considering he was just 16 years old at the time, but it paid off massively. While it's easy to conceptualize Vladdy as a stroke of incredible fortune considering many teams go decades without developing a hitter of his calibre — if they ever do — the Blue Jays’ previous regime deserves credit for doing everything in their power to bring him into the fold.
The player development success story: Bo Bichette
Method of acquisition: Selected 66th overall in the 2016 draft
Thanks to his famous name, his longtime presence alongside Guerrero Jr. on top prospect lists, and immediate MLB success, Bichette feels like a guy with a similar can’t miss-aura to his slugging teammate — but that’s not the case.
Prior to the 2016 draft there were concerns that his violent and unconventional swing wouldn’t play at the highest level. That allowed him to fall to the Blue Jays in the second round with the 66th overall pick.
While that’s still a relatively high selection, only 37 percent of 66th picks have made the majors, and the best three by WAR are Chase Headley, Ryan Dempster, and Trevor Cahill. Just 159 games into his career, Bichette is already fourth on that list. He wasn’t exactly destined for greatness the moment the Blue Jays picked him.
The marriage between Bichette and the Blue Jays proved to be perfect, though. The young shortstop told the Tampa Bay Times that was where he was always hoping to go and that he turned down four offers earlier in the draft. Bichette was drawn to how they’d handled hitters like Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson with unconventional swings, and suspected they wouldn't try to change him.
Bichette was on the money. The Blue Jays let Bo be Bo. He destroyed the minor leagues, and quickly became an impact player in the majors. Sometimes player development isn’t so complicated.
The rebuilding deal: Teoscar Hernandez
Method of acquisition: Traded from the Houston Astros with Nori Aoki for Francisco Liriano at the 2017 trade deadline
One of the most important tasks of any rebuild — like the one the Blue Jays underwent after their brief 2015-16 window of contention — is to turn veteran talent into younger players who will play a role on competitive iterations of your team in the future.
This is getting harder and harder to accomplish as even the teams in “win-now” mode think long-term, and building sustainable winners that perpetually reinforce themselves is more fashionable than throwing caution to the wind in search of single-season glory. Although that climate has made it tougher to get top prospects, an effective rebuild usually includes winning a trade or two.
Hernandez is the biggest addition the Blue Jays managed from the veteran players they sold off between 2017 and 2019. When the club got him he was a walking toolbox who lacked the polish to break through for a contender with a crowded outfield.
Toronto was able to give him enough playing time to harness his prodigious power and become an intimidating middle-of-the-order hitter. Hernandez can still play a touch out of control — both at the plate and in the field — but he’s an important cog in an elite lineup. Getting him for a couple months of Liriano, and a willingness to eat some of Aoki’s contract, was a coup for the Blue Jays.
The veteran reinforcement: Marcus Semien
Method of acquisition: Signed to a one-year, $18-million contract on Jan. 30, 2021
The last step of a prototypical team-building process involves bringing in veteran help to buttress an existing core. The Blue Jays started that process prior to the 2020 season when they added Hyun-Jin Ryu, and the franchise-record $150-million deal they gave George Springer cemented their status as a team willing to spend at the top of the market.
While the Semien signing seemed far less significant than the Springer addition at the time, the veteran infielder has been truly outstanding in a Blue Jays uniform. The 30-year-old has hit .277/.345/.528 and his WAR of 3.9 ranks sixth among all position players thanks to his elite defence and newfound affinity for base stealing.
An offseason or two ago the Blue Jays wouldn’t have seen the value in signing a relatively pricey veteran to a one-year deal because it would’ve been unlikely to affect their competitive fortunes. Now that the club has entered its window, it should be exploring deals like the one it struck with Semien every winter — adding competent veteran help to a group that’s worthy of sizeable payroll investment on a yearly basis.
Semien has been more than competent, and they’ll be lucky to nail a signing to this degree again, but he represents the value of bolstering the team’s youngsters, even if you have to pay sticker price and have already made a big splash.
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