Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The drafting and development of D.J. Davis

Baseball Cards -60
In 2014, center fielder D.J. Davis played in 121 of the Lugnuts' 139 games, topping the team. He batted .213 with 167 strikeouts, 20 times caught stealing and 18 errors. Davis was the Toronto Blue Jays' top pick in 2012, selected 17th overall. He entered the year as Baseball America's #3 Blue Jays prospect.
Going into the 2014-15 offseason, where is D.J. Davis now?
And, more pressingly, did the Blue Jays waste their pick on him?
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It is important to note that draft picks aren't made in a vacuum. This past June, when the Blue Jays chose with the ninth overall pick a pitcher named Jeff Hoffman from East Carolina, it was understood to be a gamble. Hoffman had undergone Tommy John reconstructive surgery in mid-May and wouldn't be available to pitch again for a while... and who knew how effective he'd be once he returned to the mound?
But it was understood that the Jays could afford to take a chance on Hoffman because they also had the eleventh overall pick in their possession due to being unable to sign their top pick, Phil Bickford, in 2013. They used this second pick to balance their gamble on Hoffman, snapping up the top collegiate catcher in the country, Kennesaw State's Max Pentecost. Even if Hoffman were to bust, conventional wisdom said, Pentecost was at least a safe bet to make the Major Leagues and contribute.
This is well remembered because it is so recent.
Was 2012's strategy forgotten?
Two years ago, the Blue Jays were presented with the same opportunity. They had failed to sign their 2011 first rounder, pick #21 overall Tyler Beede, and so were given the 22nd overall pick as an additional selection in the first round. Again, the Jays counterbalanced a gamble with a safer bet. At 17th, Toronto chose the high-ceiling, super-raw Davis -- power for days, ridiculous speed, his father a former Toronto Minor Leaguer, yes, but a recent bloomer who had played sparingly few games and was only just starting to understand how his physical talents translated on the diamond. Five picks later, the Blue Jays opted for polished Duke ace Marcus Stroman, considered one of the most Major League-ready pitchers in the country.
(The rest of the Jays' early-round picks in 2012 are now fascinating to look over: gargantuan but injured prep pitcher Matt Smoral at #50, a bet that's looking like it will pay off; high-ceiling prep third baseman Mitch Nay at #58, one of the system's top hitters and Lansing's likely 2014 R. Howard Webster Award winner as team MVP; and promising prep pitcher Tyler Gonzales at #60, who has disappeared off the radar.)
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This is the first qualifier to present in the case of D.J. Davis: that he has been a gamble all along, with the Jays hedging their bets from the beginning. As much as we might like Toronto to hit on all of its first rounders, it is adequate to appreciate that Marcus Stroman looks like a future ace, justifying his selection. (Going through the rest of the draft, I'm impressed by the talent production of many other teams' picks... but I'm not so certain that Arizona feels as confident in its lone first rounder, 26th overall selection Stryker Trahan.)
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The second qualifier is this: D.J.'s skills are undiminished. He is not a young pitcher losing ticks of velocity off his fastball, thus raising red flags. His power is as impressive as ever, and getting mightier. His speed remains electric, and he's learning how to use it. The tools that earned his high draft position are still in place; he can dash from gap to gap to haul in fly balls as well as any other center fielder at his level.
I distinctly remember two different games this year when he dominated the game and carried the Lugnuts to the win, drawing walks, crushing liners, making things happen. There was a third game where he did virtually nothing the entire afternoon... and then smoked a game-winning home run off the center field batter's eye in the bottom of the tenth.
He is only 20, and he won't turn 21 until next July. If he improves a little next year, and then a little more the year after that, he'll be 22, in Double-A, and knocking on the door.
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The biggest area where D.J. Davis needs to improve from 2014 to 2015 is more intangible than tangible: understanding who he is and how he can help his team win.
Dalton Pompey was born in December 1992, struggled with the Lugnuts at the tail end of 2012, began to figure it out mid-2013, and crushed it this year. If you ask Dalton what made a huge difference for him, chances are he'll say - paraphrasing - that he learned when he did things to help the team, it helped him, too. The more he helped the team, the more he was helped. D.J. Davis was born in July 1994. He has more power than Dalton, and he has more speed than Dalton. If he learns the same lesson, he'll meet with the same rapid success.

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