Blue Jay Way: Q&A With Jon Lalonde
A native of Wyevale, a small town 120 kilometers north of Toronto, Jon Lalonde is living the
American Canadian dream--well, at least those who, like Lalonde, favor baseball over hockey. You see, at the age of 29, Jon is the Scouting Director for the Toronto Blue Jays.
A graduate of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario with a Bachelor of Commerce specializing in Sports Administration, Lalonde joined the Blue Jays in November 1999 as Service Coordinator in the Corporate Partnerships department. His duties included organizing stadium giveaway days and assisting Blue Jays sponsors leverage their sponsorships effectively. He joined the Scouting Department as Scouting Coordinator in January, 2001 and accepted the position of Scouting Director in July of 2003.
To the credit of J.P. Ricciardi & Co., the Blue Jays have already agreed to terms with 23 of the 49 players selected in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft. The team's number one pick, Ricky Romero, just completed his junior season on Sunday when Cal State Fullerton was defeated by Arizona State in the Super Regional. Lalonde is very high on Romero and the direction of the Blue Jays.
Pull up a chair and find out what he has to say about the draft, various players, scouting, and the Blue Jay Way.
Rich: This year marked the first time since the draft's origin in 1965 that no pitcher was taken in the top five. What do you think accounted for this change?
Jon: I actually wasn't aware that this was the first time that a pitcher wasn't selected in the top five overall. Each draft is so unique that I would have expected there to have been a year somewhere along the line where the overwhelming strength was position players. This is also probably indicative of the fact a prevailing thought has always been to build a team through its starting rotation. I guess this year the talent pool, combined with the needs of the teams selecting in the top five, dictated position player selections one through five.
Rich: The Toronto Blue Jays then broke the trend and selected Ricky Romero with the sixth pick in the draft. Romero was the first pitcher chosen. Why did you go with Romero over some of the more highly ranked pitchers, like Mike Pelfrey, Luke Hochevar, and Craig Hansen?
Jon: Firstly, we believe that Ricky possesses that unique combination of "stuff" and "pitchability." He's not what you would necessarily consider a true power pitcher, but he's not a finesse pitcher either. He's able to change speeds and locate all of his pitches in the mould of a finesse pitcher, but then he's also able to run his fastball into the mid 90s with a plus curveball and a plus changeup.
Rich: Does Ricky throw any other pitches?
Jon: We also believe his slider has a chance to be a real weapon for him. He's very aggressive and does a great job of pitching inside. But, in all honesty, as much as any physical attributes, it's his competitive nature, his will to win that really sets him apart in our minds. When Ricky does get into trouble on the mound, he shows the aptitude to make in-game adjustments and even pitch-to-pitch adjustments. That's not real common in a pitcher Ricky's age.
Rich: How much importance do you put on "pitchability" vs. "signability?"
Jon: Pitchability and signability are mutually exclusive and we treat them as such. Both are important when discussing a pitcher, but because the two items are so unrelated, we don't really put emphasis on one vs. the other.
Rich: Are you a proponent of getting a college workhorse like Romero signed and onto a Minor League team right away or do you think it makes sense for a pitcher that has thrown as many innings as he has over the past year (including last summer with Team USA) to sit out the remainder of the current season?
Jon: I certainly think it's to our benefit and to Ricky's benefit to have him report at some point this summer. He has been a workhorse and he's pitched many innings over the last couple of years when you factor in his postseason innings and time with Team USA. It's not really about how many innings he throws this summer, it's more about introducing him to the professional baseball lifestyle. Things like riding buses, meeting coaches and teammates, adjusting to a pro-style pitching program (every fifth day vs. once a week). I believe it would be a big advantage for him to begin his pro career this summer.
Rich: Toronto has had a recent history of getting its top picks signed shortly after the draft.
Jon: Yes, we've seen that the last few years with Russ Adams, Aaron Hill, David Purcey and Zach Jackson. We were able to get them out playing the summer of their draft years, and they're either in the big leagues or appear to be on the fast track. That said, we certainly would want to be cautious in terms of Ricky's workload. Having seen him compete, I'm sure he'd want to take the ball and pitch a complete game as soon as he arrives. In some instances it's best to protect the player from himself.
Rich: After Oakland drafted Jason Windsor last year, Billy Beane complained that Titan Manager George Horton rode him too hard in the Super Regionals and College World Series. Romero threw nine innings last Friday night vs. Arizona State. Are you concerned about the number of pitches a draftee like Romero is asked to throw during the postseason?
Jon: When it comes down to elimination play and the College World Series, I think that we have to cut teams and coaches some slack. It's not uncommon in MLB's postseason to see a starter pitch out of the bullpen in an elimination game a couple of days after a start. Or like Brad Lidge in postseason last year being called upon to pitch multiple innings several times in a series. When your season's hanging in the balance you have to pull out all of the stops. For these college teams and many of the players, this will be the pinnacle of their careers so to begrudge a coach because he brings a pitcher back on short rest isn't really fair. I think where I get more concerned is when you see very high pitch counts and high innings early on in the season. When I see things like pitch counts of 165 and 150 in March, that's more disturbing than what might take place in elimination games in June.
Rich: That makes sense, Jon. Do you anticipate that Romero, once signed, will report to Dunedin (Toronto's high-A farm team)?
Jon: Depending on when we're able to get Ricky under contract, I would expect that he would initially begin his career at our New York Penn League affiliate in Auburn, NY. We have started most of our high drafts there the last few years, and it has worked out very well. It's an excellent league and Auburn is a great affiliate for us. That will likely be our plan with Ricky, but that decision would ultimately lie with our Farm Director Dick Scott and General Manager J.P. Ricciardi.
Rich: Zach Jackson, your #1 pick in 2004, was recently promoted to New Hampshire (AA). His first two outings were quite impressive. How far away is Jackson from the big leagues?
Jon: Obviously we were pleased to select Zach in the 2004 draft and felt he had an opportunity to help us. Following his progress this season has been enjoyable. In terms of when he will be ready to compete in the Major Leagues, that's a question that's better asked of either Dick Scott or J.P. Ricciardi. We like him alot though. He throws strikes, competes very well and has an out pitch in his cut-fastball.
Rich: Your first selections in 2002 (Russ Adams) and 2003 (Aaron Hill) made it to the majors in about two years. They both play shortstop. Are you of the belief that you take players as far to the right on the defensive spectrum as possible in anticipation that they can always be moved to a less-demanding position later, if need be?
Jon: Generally speaking if a player is capable of playing a quality SS or CF then he can be moved to another position. When drafting players this is something we consider strongly. The more defensive options a player offers, the more valuable he is. That having been said, most baseball people will tell you that the one area of a player's game that can improve the most is defense. Repetitions and quality instruction combined with a sound work ethic can help a below average defender become average or better.
Rich: I've noticed that the club has tended to emphasize pitching in its draft selections. Is there a general belief that drafting and developing pitchers over hitters is a more cost effective way to go, given the price of big league pitchers in the free agent market?
Jon: I think that when J.P. came into the organization, one of the first conclusions he reached was that pitching was an area of need through each of our minor league levels right into our Major League team. Therefore, in his first couple of drafts, he really wanted to emphasize pitching. Specifically, more mature college pitchers that could be pushed quickly through the system.
I think we have been very successful in that regard when you look at players like David Bush, Josh Banks, Shaun Marcum, Jamie Vermilyea and Adam Peterson who we were able to trade and acquire a quality Major League hitter in Shea Hillenbrand. Each of those players were selected in either 2002 or 2003 and are already pushing towards the upper tier of the organization. Acquiring quality pitching at the Major League level, either through free agency or trade has been very difficult recently; therefore, drafting and developing our own pitching is definitely one of our goals.
Rich: College players dominated the draft on day one but high schoolers made a splash on day two. In fact, the percentage of high school players drafted reversed a declining trend that has been in place since 1995. Does this suggest that college players are still the preferred way to go early on because they are both easier to project and more likely to pay dividends sooner but that it's more of a numbers game when it comes to high school kids?
Jon: I'm not sure what to make of the number of high school vs. college players drafted this year. I do believe that in some circumstances, when a Club believes it's close to contending that selecting more advanced college players might make sense. In most cases you can be more aggressive in your development of an advanced college player and challenge him with the higher levels of the minor leagues sooner than a high school counterpart. Also, I think there are many more variables on day two of the draft. Often times you don't know those players as well as your early selections and I think teams are much more open to higher risk/higher reward selections the deeper you go in the draft. So, taking the younger, more raw high school player, perhaps as a draft and follow, makes more sense on day two when the selections are not scrutinized as those earlier on.
Rich: I imagine you are much more dependent on your Area Scouts on day two than day one.
Jon: We're dependent on our Area Scouts right from Round One. They see these guys play more than any of us so to disregard or ignore their thoughts in any round is perilous. Our staff does a great job of identifying not only the best players, but focusing on those that play the game the way we like. Certainly on the draft's second day as you get into the later rounds, it's unlikely we've been able to cross-check those players; therefore, you do have to rely on your Area Scouts. We're very comfortable doing that and we really lean on them in every round, it's just in a different way on the draft's second day.
Rich: Of the 49 players drafted last week, how many did you see play in person? How many would J.P. Ricciardi, Tim McCleary, Tony LaCava, and Dick Scott see?
Jon: J.P. and Tim McCleary focus mostly on potential first round selections although while we're at spring training in Dunedin they like to travel around to see local college and high school games. Tony LaCava and I focus mainly on the higher draft choices, potential top 10 rounders.
Rich: How would you rank order the various tools when it comes to their importance in evaluating a position player?
Jon: We really do place great importance on a player's ability to hit, so that stands out. As I mentioned earlier, defense can generally be improved if the player is willing to work at it. It's much more difficult for a player to rise to another level as a hitter. Hitters can certainly improve and there are many examples of players that were late bloomers offensively, but predicting which players those will be can be perilous.
Rich: What do you most look for in a young pitcher?
Jon: Obviously the first thing you can measure is a pitcher's "stuff." How hard does he throw? What kind of breaking pitch, if any, does he possess? Does he have a feel for a changeup? Once you've identified Major League-type weapons, the most important thing to me becomes can the pitcher throw strikes with all of his pitches? That is so critical in the Major Leagues and specifically in our division.
There's nothing the Red Sox and Yankees love more than facing a pitcher that's constantly behind in the count. In those instances it doesn't matter how hard you throw, if quality hitters know a fastball strike is coming, they're likely to have great success. The last thought I'd offer here is you really want to identify pitchers that compete and aren't afraid to challenge hitters in big situations and in close games.
Rich: Here's a theoretical question: Would you prefer a young power hitter who doesn't strike out a lot or a young power hitter who does strike out in the hopes that you can help him put the ball in play more and make him an even better hitter?
Jon: All things being equal, you'd always prefer the player who strikes out less. That's an indication of hand-eye skills which are critical in successful hitters. The question we often are faced with in the draft room when comparing hitters is that Player A has fewer strikeouts but less power than Player B who strikes out more but has more power. We then have to discuss which player we think will have more value down the road.
Rich: Do you think MLB should allow teams to trade draft picks? If so, would a franchise like Toronto be helped or hurt by such a change?
Jon: I believe that the ability to trade draft picks would only serve to enhance the draft's appeal. As a scout, it would really test your evaluation skills. Not only now do you have to line up the players based on what you believe their abilities are, but now you'd have to consider the scenario "We like player X, but do we like him enough to trade player Y and our 2nd round pick for him?" I think that adds excitement for teams and fans alike.
Rich: I totally agree. Last question, Jon. Beer or tacos?
Jon: I believe that it's in any talent evaluator's best interest to use all information available to make decisions. As much as statistics can be extremely valuable in quantifying a player's accomplishments, there's no substitute for observing a player over a period of time to breakdown his physical abilities. At the end of the day, this business is all about making decisions and in any business situation, the more information the decision-maker can gather, the more accurate his decisions will be in the long run.
Rich: Thanks, Jon. I appreciate your time and insightful answers.
Jon: You're welcome, Rich. I hope you found the information useful.
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Update (Thursday, June 16): The Blue Jays announced the signing of Ricky Romero. Here's the Jon Lalonde quote from ESPN story: "We have followed Ricky for some time now and it's clear that he possesses that rare combination of physical ability and mental toughness."