Jays' farm system stockpiled with character
Converted outfielder Loewen 1 of many players exhibiting willingness to learn
They come from different backgrounds, some from different countries.
But the pool of high-ceiling prospects rising in the ranks of the Toronto Blue Jays' farm system is all bound together by two common threads: talent and character.
Most are the by-products of general manager Alex Anthopoulos's master plan to develop from within through an expanded scouting department.
Assistant GM Tony LaCava has over two decades of experience in evaluating players. He works hand-in-hand with Anthopoulos in determining the true value of prospects and knows what kind of qualities a player should possess.
"There's on-field makeup and off-field makeup," LaCava said in a phone interview with CBCSports.ca, "And [with] on-field makeup you want the guy to be a competitor, and you want him to show good leadership if possible, good work ethic, reliable, and dependable.
"Off-field makeup, [the player should be] more law-abiding, where the guy doesn't have problems off the field with the law or anything like that."
So far, so good for the Jays.
A prime example of LaCava's definition of makeup is Canadian Brett Lawrie, who has been on fire since being recalled recently from the Las Vegas 51s — Toronto's AAA affiliate.
LaCava gives credit to the intangible qualities the 21-year-old possesses.
"His drive is off the charts, he's a very intense competitor," said LaCava, a former Los Angeles Angels scout. "His will to get to the major leagues is as good as I've ever seen and his desire to be great is as good as I've ever seen."
Las Vegas manager Marty Brown saw Lawrie's drive on a daily basis, noting the Langley, B.C., native always wanted to get out on the field and play and didn't like to sit still for very long.
But it was his team-oriented attitude on and off the field that drew his former manager's praise.
"That's one of the reasons why he's about the team, he hates to lose," said Brown, "And in the one-on-one confrontation between him and the pitcher, he does not like to lose that either, he takes a lot of pride in that for a young man only 21 years old."
To make room for Lawrie's call-up, another player had to take the roller coaster ride to the minors. Travis Snider, who has seen flashes of big-league action over the last few seasons, was the odd man out.
The 23-year-old outfielder struggled for the Jays this year, hitting .225 in 49 games with three homers and 30 runs batted in. But Brown believes Snider is taking his demotion in stride, trying to absorb as much as he can to help himself grow as a baseball player.
"The one thing about Travis is if he has a question he's going to ask the question," said the 51s manager. "There's no hidden agenda with Travis. If he doesn't understand something he'll say he doesn't understand it."
Canadian Adam Loewen is another one of Brown's every-day players exhibiting inquisitiveness and willingness to learn. Drafted fourth overall by the Baltimore Orioles in 2002 as a pitcher, the 27-year-old Surrey, B.C., native has made the transition to left field throughout his minor league journey and has embraced the role.
"[I admire] his athleticism, and the fact that Adam is like a sponge," said Brown. "He knows he has a lot to learn, he's very open-minded, and he really wants to give this thing his everything. He wants to do everything he can do to find out if he can make this transition [from pitcher to hitter], so I'm very pleased to have him."
As of Aug 12 he was hitting .317 with 42 doubles and 77 RBIs for Las Vegas.
Blue Jays fans are about to become familiar with another highly touted prospect, who received a major league promotion on Aug. 9.
Henderson Alvarez, who signed as an international free agent out of Venezuela in 2006, tore up AA hitting with a 2.86 earned-run average with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats — Toronto's AA affiliate.
LaCava said Alvarez can touch the mid-90s miles per hour with his fastball, but at age 21, he's getting better and better each day.
"He's got good life to that fastball and he commands it too," he said. "He's a guy that's on the attack and he goes right after hitters."
Toronto has recently made a push for pitching depth, drafting a towering trio of hurlers with their first-round selections in each of the last three seasons.
While 2011 first-rounder Tyler Beede has yet to be signed — the right-hander has already committed to Vanderbilt University and is in negotiations with the Jays — 2009 first-rounder Chad Jenkins and 2010 first-rounder Deck McGuire are currently pitching for the Fisher Cats.
Each one stands at least six-foot-four, with McGuire listed at six-foot-six, and LaCava believes their stature can create problems for opposing hitters.
"It's harder to hit a ball coming at a downward angle to home plate as opposed to a smaller guy, or a shorter guy whose fastball pitch is more in the plane of the bat of the swing. So it's definitely an advantage for a pitcher to pitch on a downhill angle."
He's also excited about an outfield prospect named Anthony Gose, someone he says exhibits the type of skill and character the Jays' brass looks for.
The 20-year-old, who was acquired from the Houston Astros in exchange for first-base prospect Brett Wallace, isn't hitting for average (.259 through 112 games in AA), but he's stolen 52 bases.
"I think he's got a chance to be pretty complete," said LaCava. "He's got very good tools, he really can run, he can really throw, and he's got the strength to hit for power. … He's an extremely confident kid who is driven and is on a mission to get to the big leagues."
Another player on a similar mission is shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, a Cuban defector who signed with Toronto in 2010. Sporting a career .968 fielding percentage with New Hampshire, the 22-year-old has plenty of upside but with a .237 batting average still has a lot to learn.
"It's been a work in progress but we do believe [Hechavarria] is going to hit," said LaCava. "He's got a good swing, the strength to hit, and right now it's a matter of him making the adjustments to playing every day, and the adjustments to the better pitching that he's seeing but he definitely has the ingredients to hit. As far as defence is concerned, he's got Gold Glove potential, he's that good."