* CBN's Alexis Brudnicki revisits the big Blue Jays-Marlins trade of 2012, and catches up with some of the players, including Jeff Mathis, who was out deer hunting when Alex Anthopoulos called with the news. .... 2014 Canadians drafted … Canadians in Minors … Canadians in college summer ball …. Canadians in College 2015 Canadian draft list Letters of Intent
By Alexis Brudnicki
Phoenix, AZ – Jeff Mathis had no idea that he might be a piece in the puzzle that Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos was putting together just two off-seasons ago.
Toronto’s backup backstop had just signed a two-year extension to stay with the club when Anthopoulos began to make a flurry of changes within the organization in an attempt to bolster a clubhouse looking for an immediate shot at the playoffs and a potential World Series championship. So Mathis figured his own winter would be a quiet one.
“I definitely thought I was going to be in Toronto for two or three more years,” he said.
Because of that feeling of stability, Mathis figured he would be okay to postpone any discussion Anthopoulos wanted to have on a busy morning in November.
“I was [deer] hunting,” Mathis said. “I was in a tree stand in Illinois. I saw that the GM called me, and I didn’t answer because it was right in prime time. I had talked to him a couple times a couple weeks [before] about different things, so I didn’t think it was that important.
“So I hit the ignore button because I was going to get down in like 10 or 15 minutes, and when I hit the ignore button it hangs up and he calls right back and I saw he left me a message, so I knew something was up.”
Something certainly was up. The Montreal-born general manager was about to let Mathis know that he would be taking his talents to South Beach. And he wouldn’t be the only one.
In exchange for current Blue Jays Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes, plus Josh Johnson, John Buck and Emilio Bonifacio, Toronto sent Mathis, Henderson Alvarez, Yunel Escobar, Anthony DeSclafani and top prospects Jake Marisnick, Justin Nicolino and Adeiny Hechavarria to the Miami Marlins.
“I got a call from one of the assistant GMs from the Toronto Blue Jays one day in the off-season,” DeSclafani said. “It was actually a boring day, raining and [I was] staying inside. Out of nowhere I got a call from the assistant GM from the Blue Jays saying that I was traded, and everything started going a hundred miles an hour from there.”
The 24-year-old right-hander was a sixth-round pick of the Blue Jays in 2011 out of the University of Florida. DeSclafani spent his only season in Toronto’s system with the Lansing Lugnuts in the Midwest League, sharing a rotation with the three-headed pitching monster of top prospects Aaron Sanchez, Nicolino and Noah Syndergaard.
“I don’t think I was overlooked organizationally,” DeSclafani said. “It’s just a lot of people get caught up in prospects and stuff like that. I know what I can do and what I possess and…what I’ve got to work on.
“Those are all young guys [who signed] out of high school with a lot of talent and they’re really good. They were prospects, so maybe from outside looking in and fans looking at prospect-wise, maybe I was No. 4. But we were all good and had competition against each other which helped us all out in the long run.”
Syndergaard, a powerful righty selected by Toronto in the first round of the 2010 draft, was sent to the New York Mets during that whirlwind winter, along with catcher Travis d’Arnaud, young Venezuelan outfielder Wuilmer Becerra and Buck. In return, the Blue Jays received R.A. Dickey, current Blue Jays backup backstop Josh Thole and Buffalo Bisons catcher Mike Nickeas.
Following the moves, Sanchez remained as Toronto’s lone top prospect in the farm system, his friends gone and his eyes opened to the business of baseball.
“We were one of the most thought of pitching rotations in the minor leagues that year,” the 21-year-old Blue Jays reliever said. “To know the next year it’s all gone is kind of crazy. But you never know. One day you can be here and one day you can’t.”
Marisnick certainly understands that, learning of the trade while he was still out on the field wearing Blue Jay blue.
“I was actually in the [Arizona] Fall League when I found out,” Marisnick said, recently traded from the Marlins to the Houston Astros. “We were just finishing up a game and I had some missed calls and I heard some of the messages and I called them back. It was pretty big news. I was actually with a bunch of my teammates from the Blue Jays.”
Reactions from the players varied.
“I didn’t really know what to think at first,” DeSclafani said. “I was kind of surprised. I didn’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing. Later on I found out that it was [good], I had been traded over to a team that wanted me.”
Marisnick added: “It was a little bit of a shock, just being surprised. I wasn’t aware that there was a chance of being traded and when it finally happened it was just kind of like, 'whoa, I’ve got to go to a new organization and meet all these new people.' At first it was a surprise, and then it was excitement at the opportunity.”
One guy who wasn’t surprised at the gust of transactions was Mike Redmond. Hired by the Marlins as the team’s newest manager just over a week before the blockbuster trade, the former skipper of the Lansing Lugnuts and the Dunedin Blue Jays shared his knowledge of Toronto’s farm with Miami’s decision-makers and he had an idea of what was coming.
“I knew there were going to be some changes so I was prepared for all that,” Redmond said. “We haven’t talked about the trade in a long time, but we got a lot of great young players from Toronto and I know we’re starting to see a lot of those guys either here in the big leagues or on their way to the big leagues.
“Guys like Nicolino and Jake Marisnick…are continuing to progress. Adeiny Hechavarria and Henderson Alvarez, all of them came over and some of these guys from that trade are making an impact right now. The other ones will make an impact here shortly.”
Alvarez is in the midst of the best season of his four-year career, though he is recently sidelined due to a shoulder injury. Named a National League all-star in July, the 24-year-old righty is 8-5 with a 2.48 ERA over 22 starts and 137 2/3 innings for the Marlins. The native of Venezuela has walked 27, struck out 83 and held opponents to a .269 clip this season.
“[I’ve seen] him maturing and really understanding how to pitch,” Mathis said of Alvarez. “Understanding the importance of getting early outs, going deep into ballgames, and really what that does for us as a team, too. Not only for the bullpen but for all the guys playing behind him.
“It’s been really fun to watch. He’s starting to really mature, and that’s the best way to describe it because he’s always had the sinker. He’s always had a really good sinker and he throws hard but now he’s starting to pitch and really learn everything.”
In 94 games with the Marlins so far this year, Hechavarria is hitting .277/.304/.343 with 15 doubles, four triples and 21 runs driven in, to go with a .974 fielding percentage as the squad’s shortstop. With the double-A Jacksonville Suns, Nicolino is 9-3 with a 2.95 ERA over 22 starts and 134 1/3 innings. The 22-year-old lefty has walked just 17, fanning 60 batters.
“I had familiarity with the system so they asked me some questions about some of the guys,” Redmond said. “They asked me about guys and I was honest with what I thought they were and what type of players they were. It’s like anything in this game, you try to gather as much information as you can. I think we did a great job in that trade with the guys we got and we’re very happy with our system.”
After spending two years down on the farm with Redmond, it was extra special for Marisnick to be able to make his major league debut with the skipper to whom he grew close over the years.
“That was awesome,” Marisnick said. “Being able to play with him before and [getting] to know him, and then when I first went up having him there. He keeps everything loose and he’d still joke with me and everything, so that transition was awesome. He’s a great guy and a great manager so being able to play for him in the big leagues was awesome.”
Of the players in the 12-man exchange, Toronto’s former minor league skipper had the most familiarity with Marisnick. The two spent both of Redmond’s seasons in the Blue Jays system together and rumour has it that the Marlins manager made his case for the young outfielder with a little extra emphasis.
“I definitely heard about that,” Marisnick said. “Some people talked about that. I know we had a great relationship and if that played into it, it worked out pretty well. It was a good situation for both of us.”
The change of scenery was a good situation for DeSclafani as well, who believes he moved up to the big leagues much more quickly in Miami’s system than he might have if Toronto had held onto him.
“It was just the way the organization runs,” DeSclafani said. “The Blue Jays like to take it slowly through the minors, going through each level at each year. With the Marlins, if they think you’re doing well and they think you’re ready for the next step, they’re going to move you accordingly.
“Once I got in the Marlins organization, I got off to a good start and they moved me up to the next level. As long as you do well in the organization you can get a chance, where I guess the Blue Jays might just take a little different route.”
Outside of five starts with the big club this year, the New Jersey native has split his time between Jacksonville and triple-A New Orleans. Between the two levels, DeSclafani has posted a 3.72 ERA over 84 2/3 innings with 20 walks and 82 strikeouts.
“He’s a little bit older, he’s been around a little bit more, and he’s been great,” Redmond said of DeSclafani. “He’s got great stuff and he’s going to be a great pitcher up here for a long time. There’s definitely some stuff he needs to continue to work on, but he’s gotten a taste of the big leagues and he understands what it takes to be consistent and pitch up here.
“He’s down in the minor leagues working on a few things, like everyone does when they’re in the minor leagues. But the good thing is we got him up here, we got him some experience, and we got him to understand and feel what it takes to be successful up here. We’re very happy with him.”
Added Mathis: “I really like his stuff. He’s got a really good arm, good fastball, good slider, and he has really good command of it too, which was impressive for me. It was fun working with him. He’s got a bright future.”
Mathis was a key piece of the big trade, and Redmond can attest to exactly how much the veteran backstop brings to the table. Having the 31-year-old on the roster in Miami has been a great resource for not only the young hurlers, but the entire pitching staff, something Redmond, the former catcher, certainly appreciates.
“He’s definitely stabilized our catching,” Redmond said. “That’s a huge part of our team, our pitching, and we need a catcher to be able to put down the fingers.
“He's a veteran. He’s been around, he’s very stable, he does a great job with our pitchers and I got a chance to play against him when I was still playing so I know him quite a bit. I’m really impressed with the way he handles himself and the way he handles our pitching staff. He’s a huge asset to us.”
Of his strengths behind the dish, Mathis said: “I just try to help the pitchers in any and every way I can. [I take] the advice I’ve been given throughout the years and kind of funnel it to them. I do the best I can to help mould them and help them grow as pitchers.”
Sam Dyson is one of the recipients of Mathis’ assistance over the last couple of seasons. The former Blue Jay was welcomed to a familiar clubhouse after being selected off waivers by the Marlins in January last year and currently holds a 1.98 ERA over 10 relief appearances with Miami.
“I was definitely more comfortable coming here because I knew a bunch of guys that came over in the big trade between the Marlins and the Blue Jays,” Dyson said. “Then having known Red the year before made it a little easier to get acquainted with everybody.”
Redmond went from being Dyson’s skipper with the Dunedin Blue Jays one season to welcoming him to South Beach the following year.
“[Dyson] is great,” Redmond said. “I was there for his first win in Dunedin and I was there in the big leagues for his first win here. Believe me, as a manager that stuff is cool. That stuff is fun for me because I saw these guys when they were in A ball [when] sometimes the big leagues seems like such a long ways away. But they’re here and I just want these guys to continue to have success.”
Said Dyson of Redmond: “He’s a pretty energetic guy. He wants it just as badly as we do. He brings a lot of energy to the field every day and with his work ethic, it kind of rubs off on everybody else…We have our own little humour, I guess, and we get at each other a little bit, but it’s a good time. He’s a great manager in the minor leagues and up here he’s doing pretty well for himself right now.”
Miami is exceeding expectations in the National League East this season, sitting third in the division and just five games out of a wild card spot, much better than last year when the team finished second-to-last in all of baseball with a 62-100 record.
“It’s really good [from last year to this year],” Mathis said. “It’s a better environment, a better clubhouse, everybody’s having a lot more fun. All that happens when you’re winning. That makes everything better. So it’s been a lot more fun this year.”
Before heading to the Astros as part of the six-player deadline deal for Jarred Cosart last Thursday, Marisnick was enjoying the progress the club was making and looking forward to the future of the Marlins.
“The direction they’re going is awesome,” Marisnick said. “You look at the big-league team and the youth they have up there and how well they’re playing this year and it’s exciting. We’re all excited, everybody up and down the system is excited for where this organization is heading. The amount of young players we have, it’s amazing to be able to play alongside them.”
Already attempting to keep up with former Blue Jays teammates, Marisnick has another organization’s worth of friendships to try to maintain as he moves forward in his career.
“The great thing about this sport is that you make relationships that last forever,” the California native said. “Even though we’re not in the same organization and don’t always see each other, we’re still talking and keeping up and rooting for each other.”
Redmond echoed the outfielder’s sentiment, and the skipper will have to add Marisnick to the list of former players he continually tries to keep tabs on beyond his time on the diamond with the Marlins.
“For sure, of course,” Redmond said. “When you coach these guys you invest a lot of time and energy and you want them to be successful whether they’re with Toronto or not. So, I do, I follow all those guys and root for them and pull for them and would do anything for them.”
-- Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis