James Paxton is probably busying himself these days thinking of ways to spend the multi-million dollar signing bonus soon to come his way (Car? House? Go to the strip club? Buy the strip club?). He's probably given little if any thought whatsoever to the historical importance of his selection in the MLB Draft the other night. But I have. To me, Paxton might come to be regarded as the most notable Blue Jays draft pick since the Club settled on some kid from Arvada, Colorado named Halladay back in 95.
This is not to suggest the left-handed pitcher from Vancouver will ever enjoy the same kind of success on the mound with the Jays as the Good Doctor. With the frequency and severity of arm injuries to young pitchers, he might not ever make it to the big leagues. If he does make it, it might eventually be with some other team. But none of that can take away from the significance of his selection and the major shift it signals in the Club's philosophy and direction.
1) They Are Going to Stop Playing the Slots
Paxton was widely regarded as one of the top talents in this year's draft pool and yet he was still available to the Jays in the supplemental round with the 37th pick overall. Why? The answer lies in the peculiar and somewhat broken nature of the MLB Draft. Agents will sometimes hang such exorbitant price tags on their amateur clients before the draft begins that all but the wealthiest teams are scared off. Rather than going at the top of the draft board, these players go instead to the top-paying teams. In that sense, the "haves" in baseball truly do get the proverbial best player available...the "have-nots" get the best player they can afford to sign.
For the past seven drafts, the Jays were confined to "have-not" status, because they carefully followed MLB's recommended signing bonus plan, or slotting process, at all turns. Not once in any of those years did the Jays ever break the rules to pay anything more than slot money for a player's signing bonus. They are the only team in all of baseball that can make that claim over that time period. In truth, this was done more out of deference to the accountants at Rogers than it ever was to Commissioner Selig who makes a weak attempt at best to enforce the slotting rules.
Blue Jays Interim President Paul Beeston indicated before this year's draft the Club would finally be willing to break those rules. Picking Paxton shows he wasn't bluffing. It also demonstrates the good folks at Rogers headquarters might finally be getting the message that in baseball you sometimes have to spend money to make money. It's a good thing they understand this because they'll be spending gobs of it to get this particular pitcher signed.
2) They Are Ready to Shake Hands With the Devil
Try to imagine that menacing music from Star Wars right about now, because, Toronto, here comes super agent Scott Boras, the baseball equivalent of Darth Vader! At least that's the perception of Boras among the MLB club executives whom he has repeatedly pummeled into financial submission. But you can't count J.P. Ricciardi among that number. He and his scouting director Jon Lalonde might actually have to wear those "Hello My Name Is...." stickers when they sit down to talk about a contract for Paxton with Boras. I kid...but not much. At no time during Ricciardi's tenure have the Jays ever traded for or signed a Boras client.
That wasn't a coincidence. Why? Well, Boras is smarter than everyone in baseball by a half and is greedier too. Armed with the best of the best players at the pro and amateur level, Boras makes an annual habit of wresting from MLB Clubs the kind of cash that could have bailed out General Motors (and had leftovers for Bear Stearns). That simply wouldn't work for a cost-conscious team like the Jays, only to their detriment.
For you hockey fans, try to imagine if your favourite team deliberately avoided drafting or signing any player connected to Don Meehan. Given all the "name players" Mr. Meehan has come to represent, that wouldn't exactly be a winning strategy now, would it? Now understand this -- Scott Boras is like Donny Meehan on steroids! With no disrespect intended to Mr. Meehan, he would be lucky to have half the influence over the NHL that Mr. Boras holds over MLB. They aren't in the same league, figuratively or literally.
Drafting a Boras client shows the Jays really are serious about playing - and paying - with the big teams in the big leagues, like the Evil Empire from New York and the Evil Empire 1A from Boston.
3) They Decided to "Buy Canadian"
This is not to suggest the Jays don't draft Canadian-born players. They do. In great numbers. But they had never before taken one as high in the draft as Paxton. Maybe all of the scouts in the draft room broke into a rousing rendition of 'O Canada' when the Club made Newmarket's Jake Eliopolous its second round choice, 31 picks later.
Do you think this is really a coincidence in a season in which the Jays take the field with a maple leaf crested on their uniform sleeve? Or when home games start with an elaborate maple leaf graphic sequence shown on the video board? Or when reporters flip through a media guide that has a maple leaf on each and every page?
No - all of this Canadiana is fittingly the work of a member of the Order of Canada, the aforementioned Beeston. The inclusion of that maple leaf in the pages of the media guide is every bit as deliberate as the absence of his name from the staff directory at the front of the book. He's been very clear that he's a temp. But even if he's not around for a long time, he's going to make sure it's a good time. For Beeston, that entails making decisions that make sense from both a baseball and business perspective.
Look, Beeston knows the very best thing for baseball in Canada is to have Canada's team stacked with the very best players....regardless of their nationality. But if you're ever faced with a choice between two players of seemingly equal talent, by all means take the Canadian. That Canadian player might not win you any more games than the other guy, but he will most assuredly sell more tickets, t-shirts and hats and get more eyeballs on your TV broadcast. These things are almost as important to an MLB team as wins and losses. A better bottom line gives the Club more financial resources to pursue even better players into the future.
It's clear the Baseball Ops department picked up on Beeston's wise "Buy Canadian" message.
Ultimately, James Paxton might have as much of an on-field impact on the Jays as other first round picks like Miguel Negron, Kevin Witt, Eddie Zosky and Augie Schmidt, which is to say, little or none. But it's still hard to ignore the message his selection sends; that the Jays 1) are finally prepared to pay a premium price for a premium talent, the kind of player they used to let slide right by their draft position to Boston or one of the New York teams, 2) are financially prepared to go to war with the kind of agent they scurrilously avoided at all costs (pun intended) in the past and 3) aren't above a little jingoist nationalism because it makes good business sense and what's good for business eventually translates into a better on-field product.
It's not often the direction or fortunes of a franchise turns on one solitary draft pick, but that might just be the case here regardless of whether Paxton proves to be more like the entirely forgettable Earl Sanders, a pitcher drafted by the Jays in the first round in 1986, or like that Halladay kid a near decade later.
Will Hill is a former PR Director for the Toronto Blue Jays, with a keen interest in all things baseball.