TORONTO — As prospects continue to show up in waves at the major-league level, Steve Sanders is busy working to make sure that stream of talent doesn’t dry up.
About to preside over his third draft as Toronto Blue Jays director of amateur scouting, Sanders and his group have been holed up in draft meetings inside Rogers Centre, preparing for the start of the annual talent cull next Monday evening.
After selecting a pair of college players in the first round of his inaugural draft – North Carolina shortstop Logan Warmoth 22nd overall and JUCO right-hander Nate Pearson at pick No. 28 – Sanders turned around last June and nabbed Texas high school infielder Jordan Groshans 12th overall.
With the pipeline cycling out a number of its top prospects by the time this season is over, the group of talent will begin to look much, much different than the one that was headlined by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. over the past couple of years.
While Sanders wouldn’t tip his hand ahead of selecting 11th overall next week, the 31-year-old former member of the Boston Red Sox amateur scouting department sat down to talk everything draft related in a wide-ranging Q&A.
The first time we talked, ahead of the very first draft you were in charge of with the Blue Jays back in 2017, you had just moved to Toronto and were busy with draft prep and living in a bare-walled condo. Has that changed yet?
Sanders: “A little better. Definitely a little more settled. Toronto definitely feels more like home now, which is awesome. Looking forward to, again, spending more time getting that in order after the draft. We’re getting there, year by year. Baby steps.”
How much more comfortable are you heading into draft No. 3 than you were in 2017 or even last year?
Sanders: “I think like anything, every time you go through something you learn a little bit more, not only about the process but about yourself. Like we’ve talked about, we reflect back on how past drafts have gone and try to learn from how they’ve gone. I think the familiarity and comfort, not only with the group of people but our process, has grown. I’m fortunate to work with a really good group of people and, I think, going into this one we feel as good as we ever have about the process that got us to this point and the process we’re going through now that will, hopefully, lead to some more impactful additions.”
How have you grown as a scouting director?
Sanders: “Man, hopefully in a lot of ways. This job is really about listening – listening to our scouts, listening to information, listening to feedback, listening to feedback from our player development staff, from our analytics group, from our front office. It’s about listening to a lot of opinions and trying to do my best to weigh them all. I’m lucky I can rely on a lot of people to do that with me – this isn’t a one person job. There are a lot of opinions when you get into that draft room, but I think everyone on our staff is a keen listener and it makes our process really good.”
When you look back on your first two drafts, does anything stand out to you?
Sanders: “It’s less about evaluating the players themselves and more about being reflective on our process and trying to poke holes in it. Like anything, our goal is to get better year over year and learn from maybe areas we could’ve dug deeper or been more thorough. There are gems to be had in every draft later and, I think, we’ve done a pretty good job of finding some guys we’re certainly encouraged about. At the same time, you look around the league and sometimes there are some other teams that have picked up really good guys late, and just looking back and doing our work post-mortem to see where we could’ve been better positioned on some guys. I think it’s about being more efficient and opportunistic, but to this point we’ve been really pleased with the guys we’ve been able to bring in and it’s a testament to the work of our area scouts, first and foremost. We trust those guys with everything we do.”
How many hours do you spend on the road each year?
Sanders: “That’s a good question. I haven’t added them up. A lot. This time of year is probably single digit nights in Toronto per month. The summer is a little bit more even and things can slow down a little bit in the fall, but it’s a lot.”
How many amateur games do you see during draft season?
Sanders: “It’s a lot. Sometimes, it’s one game a day. Sometimes, it’s two or three or four if you’re at a tournament. I’d have to probably ballpark it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s in the triple digits.”
In your first year you had picks No. 22 and 28. Last year you had No. 12, and this year it’s No. 11. Obviously, every draft is different, but does having a first-round pick in the same range a year later provide any insight as to what will happen ahead of you or the types of players that could be available?
Sanders: “That’s a good question. Obviously, the players are completely different in every class and, really, every draft is different in terms of some boards come off a little bit more predictably and sometimes there’s more surprises and that’s really hard to predict. I think the work you do is a little bit different depending on where your picks are. If anything, what we learned from last year’s draft to this year is kind of expect the unexpected. We were surprised at the way some things happened last year and, I think, that was a good lesson.”
Do you think giving teams the ability to trade draft picks would be good for baseball?
Sanders: “I probably haven’t done enough work to answer that question. It would certainly add another moving part to our process that we’d have to account for. There’s a lot that goes on draft night as is. I don’t know. I think it probably has its pluses and minuses and it’s possible in a very small way right now with some of those competitive balance picks, which are tradable and you do see that happen over the course of the year. It would require a lot of dexterity on draft night. We know it’s a possibility at some point, but right now we’re okay with the way it is.”
Kyler Murray was an interesting prospect in last year’s draft and it didn’t turn out the way the Oakland A’s hoped when they selected him ninth overall. How did you grade him as a prospect and how much interest did you have?
Sanders: “Our guys did a great job scouting Kyler Murray. He’s a dynamic athlete and a unique scouting case, really. For a guy who went as high in the draft as he did and, obviously, had spent a lot of time away from baseball, so there’s certainly a lot of projection you could dream on once he was focused on one sport. We had interest in the player and our guys did a great job getting to know him as a person and as a player. In the right spot, we were prepared to take him if the board broke that way.”
Was the right spot 12th overall?
Sanders: “I can’t talk about that.” (Laughing)
Carter Stewart’s situation is also interesting. After not signing with the Atlanta Braves last year as the eighth-overall pick and foregoing this year’s draft to sign in Japan, what ramifications do you think that will have in the future?
Sanders: “That’s a good question, and we’re probably asking ourselves some of the same questions. It’s a bit unprecedented, so the honest answer is I don’t know. We’ll have to see how it plays out. Obviously, we spent a good amount of time scouting Carter last year, and again this year. We were prepared for having him on our draft board and considering him again this year, but it sounds like he’ll be going in a different direction. I don’t know what impact it’s going to have on the game or the draft, but we’ll have to see.”
What are your feelings and emotions when you watch the Boston Red Sox, a team you had a hand in building before joining the Jays, win a World Series last fall?
Sanders: “I’m very happy for the people over there that I worked with and grateful to many of them. I worked there for six years and learned a ton and a lot of them are still very, very close friends. I’m thrilled for them. Obviously, a lot of the players on the field, there’s certainly a sense of personal pride to see those guys and happy for the scouts that put in the work. Being on the other side now as a division rival and an extreme competitor, I think, it just makes us work that much harder to get to that point. I think we’re very, very capable of doing that and, I think, we’re well on our way to doing it. Happy for the people, but certainly looking forward to getting on the other side of that and be doing it here as well.”