By Wesley James
Blue Jay from Away
This is the second part of an eight-part series by Wesley James that looks into the eight levels of minor league baseball that the Blue Jays participate in.
It’s a long way from Florida’s Gulf Coast League to the major leagues. GCL teams are filled with newly drafted players and newly signed international talent, almost all getting used to using wooden bats for the first time. Younger than most college teams, they play amongst snakes, enormous dragon flies, and work in the sweltering Florida afternoon summer heat. Some players call it the “Gulf Roast League.” In short - it’s anything but glamorous.
The GCL is a short-season, Rookie league that gets under way in mid-June. Teams play out of spring training facilities where admission is free and there are no concessions. So, those looking for novelty hot dog toppings and twelve dollar beers will probably be out of luck. It is the lowest level of the North American minor leagues and crowds sometimes consist only of young boys holding radar guns.
The league’s priority is player development over winning. Players who do well in the Dominican Summer League can get promoted to the GCL but for most players this is their first professional stop.
The GCL Blue Jays play out of the Bobby Mattick Training Center in Dunedin, Fla. When the facility was re-named, one local headline read: “Jays, city get into a fresh rhubarb.” As everyone knows, rhubarb can be quite sour, so, as the city technically owned the rented facility, Dunedin didn’t want the center named after Mattick because he had no formal connection to the area.
Bobby Mattick was a renowned scout, former big-league manager, and a Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee. But as a player he was, let’s say, not the best player the Chicago Cubs fielded in the 1940s. In his 206 career games he batted .233 and had zero home runs. It is, perhaps, fitting then that those who play for the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays - in a low home run, pitcher friendly league - play out of the Bobby Mattick Training Center and struggle to be recognized.
Sixty-hour plus work weeks are the norm and many of the players get paltry signing bonuses and only receive pay during the season. All in, less than minimum wage is to be expected. Even when a player does perform well, nothing is guaranteed.
High priority prospects - usually very young teenage and international players - do appear in the GCL. Jon Berti, Logan Warmoth, Reese McGuire, Danny Jansen, Anthony Alford, Rowdy Tellez, Dalton Pompey and Bo Bichette have all played for the GCL Blue Jays in recent years but older players like Berti and McGuire make a stop there to get their game rhythms back after recovering from an injury. Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto both started their careers in the league for other teams as well but that level of success is rarely expected from players at this level.
There are three levels of rookie ball - the Dominican Summer League, Rookie, and Rookie Advanced. Toronto has fielded a Rookie team in the GCL three times in its history: 1981-1985, 1991-1995 and 2007-2018. Teams make agreements with local affiliates through Player Development Contracts for two- or four-year terms and often times the depth and number of minor league teams changes over time depending on the big club’s needs and development philosophy. The "Complex-Rookie" teams (called that because the games take place at a team's minor league complex) like the GCL Blue Jays are owned outright by the major league club.
Much like the Dominican Summer League, scouting plays a huge factor in advancement and rosters are sometimes filled by non-drafted players with no signing bonuses. Some of these non-drafted players have major league potential but most are hired just because a spot is needed.
Chris Rowley, a non-drafted college pitcher, played to a 4-0 record with a 1.10 ERA in his first season in the GCL. The report back to Toronto? “100 per cent bullpen, zero pro value.” Last year he started several games for the Toronto Blue Jays. But such undrafted journeys are rare.
Numerous factors play into the messy game of projecting player value in Rookie league baseball. Rowley was a college graduate, older than the average player in the GCL and, as a graduate of West Point, had military duties that would take up much of his early twenties and valuable development time.
On the flip side, young, highly touted prospects are still duly promoted despite poor showings. Yeltsin Gudino, a Venezuelan middle infielder, signed with the Jays out of Venezuela for $1.29 million. Baseball America ranked him as the eighth-best international free agent in 2013. He joined the GCL Blue Jays after being signed in July of that year and played in 40 games as a 17-year-old, hitting just .145/.219/.167. Still in the system this year he will probably play in A-ball.
Some older pitchers dominate in the GCL and are hard to project. Mathew Gunter threw a no-hitter in his senior year of college but wasn’t drafted until the 33rd round by Toronto. In 2017 he pitched 38. 1/3 innings as a 22-year-old, relatively old for the GCL, but logged a 0.94 ERA and a 0.81 WHIP while walking only 2.8% of batters. In 2018, he should be skipped to Vancouver’s Short-Season A Canadians but time will tell if those numbers hold.
More often than not, however, student debt, low pay, and the long odds get the better of college graduates.
Corey Gorman pitched for the 2013 GCL Blue Jays as a 23-year-old and performed well - 1.91 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP in 37 2/3 innings. “Twenty thousand in school loans every year for five years, car payments and insurance, and my car’s parked back at my parents,” Gorman told Sportsnet in 2013. “I barely cover the interest. In two years, I might have to give up the game and work to pay my way out of debt.” Gorman was released the following spring. Life can be short, but baseball life at this level can be even shorter.
Perhaps this is why success stories make the journey seem even sweeter for those who do succeed.
Dalton Pompey (Mississauga, Ont.) was drafted in the 16th round in 2010 and played two seasons with the GCL Blue Jays. To put into perspective how hard it is to be drafted in such a late round, play for the GCL Blue Jays, and still make it to the major leagues, consider this. Since the current iteration of the GCL Blue Jays began in 2007 only eleven players have been drafted in the tenth round or later and made it to the The Show. Of those only seven have played more than 100 games or are still making an impact on the current roster. Of more than 330 players drafted over the last 11 years in round 10 or later and have played Rookie league baseball for Toronto only four are still relevant to this year’s major league Blue Jays roster: Pompey, Ryan Tepera, Matt Dermody (who was designated for assignment on Wednesday), and Danny Barnes.
Up next: The Bluefield Blue Jays.
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The 2018 Toronto Blue Jays Minor League Handbook is coming soon! Visit the Handbook page for more information!