TORONTO -- It's that time again, the part of the season that sends scouts scurrying in a last-minute frenzy. The First-Year Player Draft is right around the corner, and the Blue Jays have their plans laid out for them. "Our draft is our lifeblood," said J.P. Ricciardi, Toronto's general manager. "I don't think the draft will ever get old hat. Especially in our situation, where the younger players are the more important guys."
In two previous drafts at the helm, Ricciardi has flushed Toronto's system full of prospects. He's a tough grader, though: His early returns indicate a C-plus grade for his first draft and a B last season. Those grades may change as the prospects progress through the system, but the early returns are encouraging.
The Blue Jays have followed a formula in the last two drafts, concentrating heavily on college players -- and more specifically, college pitchers. Don't expect that to change. Ricciardi said that pitchers dominate this draft, June 7-8, and he also said he doesn't think Toronto is in position to reach for high school players.
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"I still think we're two more drafts away from a system that's totally fruitful and flexible. At that point, we may be ready to draft some higher profile high school kids, because you can allow them time to play," he said. "The number one thing for us is to get guys that can get here quickly and be Major League players. I've said all along, we're not good enough to tell you if they'll be stars. We're good enough to tell you if they'll be able to contribute as Major League players."
That's why Ricciardi nabbed two shortstops -- Russ Adams and Aaron Hill -- with his last two first-round picks. He was looking for pitching, but he couldn't resist the value of an everyday player. This year, frankly, he has all but ruled out that strategy.
The Jays will start looking for pitching in the first round and they'll continue that approach throughout the first day. Toronto picks at number 16, which means that Ricciardi will be poaching whatever top talent slips through the cracks.
"I think this year more than ever," he said of the pitching-first attack plan. "The pitching is more predominant -- it's deeper. The everyday players are few and far between, and there's not one right there that we'd take at 16. There's really not one I can see in the top 10 or 12 picks that you'd sit there and say, 'He's the best player.' "
Past five No. 1 picks Year Player 2003 Adam Hill, SS 2002 Russ Adams, 2B-SS 2001 Gabriel Gross, OF 2000 Miguel Negron, CF 1999 Alex Rios, 3B
So who are they looking at? Early word has narrowed the field down to five or six possible players. If the Jays change tack and go for a position player, they'll likely nab either Oklahoma State's Josh Fields or Stanford's Danny Putnam. Fields is a two-sport star -- he starts at quarterback and third base for the Cowboys.
Putnam, an outfielder, is the exact type of offensive player the Jays covet. Baseball America explained exactly why in a recent comment on his abilities: "A prototype pick for a team that covets plate discipline, his tools are marginal beyond his bat, but he's a proven offensive performer with a great eye."
Moving back to the pitching department, a few names stand out as potential draftees. One of them, Rice right-hander Wade Townsend, is projected as a top 10 pick. Two other pitchers -- Oklahoma left-hander David Purcey and right-hander Justin Orenduff of Virginia Commonwealth -- have been linked to the Jays in several publications. Purcey is touted as the best left-hander in the draft, and Orenduff distinguished himself for Team USA last summer.
One thing's for sure, in Ricciardi's mind: There will be plenty of chances to get a decent pitcher. He said that this year's draft is comparable to last year's, with the caveat that there are a lot more available pitchers.
"The first round isn't as strong, but the second, third, fourth and fifth rounds are similar," he said. "You may get a guy in the first round, then the same guy you duplicate in the second or third round."