Veteran departures free up Jays' ranks

Prospects filling many A-level slots in system winding way toward Toronto

(Rob Cuni/

By Lisa Winston / | March 6, 2008 4:00 AM ET will be visiting each Spring Training site in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues this month to report on the most significant stories involving each club's Minor League system as players get ready for the 2008 season. We'll find out who's impressing the organization, who's hot, who's not and sit down for an exclusive Q&A with a top prospect.

TEAM: Toronto Blue Jays
LOCATION: Dunedin, Fla.
DATE: March 4, 2008

Burning Question

With seven picks in the top 88 in the 2007 amateur draft, which one could be the quickest arrival to the big leagues?

The Toronto Blue Jays were able to convert three departed free agents (Ted Lilly, Justin Speier and Frank Catalanotto) into seven top picks in the '07 Draft. The club replenished its system admirably with an array of high school and college prospects, hitters and pitchers, infielders, outfielders and a power-hitting catcher.

Most of the players are expected to start their first full season at Class A Lansing, but one player in particular could be on the very fast track -- left-hander Brett Cecil. Drafted with the 38th overall pick out of Maryland, he is slated to start the year in the rotation at Advanced A Dunedin.

Armed with an outstanding slider and a fastball in the low 90s, Cecil dominated the New York-Penn League in his pro debut, posting a 1.27 ERA in 14 starts at Auburn, limiting hitters to a .197 average and striking out 56 while walking 11 in 49 2/3. He followed up his regular season by allowing one run over two starts in the playoffs, striking out 13 in 12 innings.

Any casual fan's questions about his durability based on his limited innings during the regular season -- he pitched beyond the fourth inning just three times and never in his last seven starts -- can be answered with the simple fact that due to his innings in college, Cecil was on a strict pitch count with Auburn.

"The whole plan from day one was to ease him in, back him off, and then if we made the playoffs, let him pitch," player development director Dick Scott explained. "He has good stuff, is poised with polish and we're hoping he comes quickly."

Cecil came into camp in good shape and ready to go on all cylinders.

"He seems to be in midseason form already, throwing the ball really well," Scott said. "We just have to make sure he understands the length of the first full season, to not leave it all here in Spring Training."

Other News of the Day

With pitchers all present and accounted for, the news was good on the return to form from several of the youngsters. ... LHP Brad Mills is back after missing much of last year due to an irregular heartbeat that was taken care of with a small offseason procedure, as well as some arm trouble. The club's fourth-rounder out of Arizona sparkled when he did pitch at Auburn, posting a 2.00 ERA in 18 innings while striking out 21.

"It just seemed like he couldn't get out there and pitch for us, but he's been throwing the ball real well here," Scott said. "He came down early in good shape, and I think everything is behind him." ... Another guy to watch is RHP Zach Dials, a 28th-round pick out of Kentucky in 2006, who will be moving from starting to relief. After posting a 4.85 ERA at Lansing, he should come out of the Dunedin 'pen and Scott thinks he could be a "pick to click" guy for 2008.

Five Questions with Travis Snider What has been the biggest highlight for you in your first big-league camp?

TS: Getting out there for the first time was pretty special, just being able to step on the field in a big-league uniform with the big-league guys. The opportunity to be around the guys every day; every day there is so much to learn if you keep your mouth shut and your ears open. We have so many veteran guys who have looked out for me and helped me along the way. It seems like wherever you go you're one of the youngest players in your league. How do you think this has contributed to your poise and maturity on the field?

TS: I think it started when I was a freshman in high school and I was playing varsity football, being a 14-year-old out there with a bunch of 18-year-old guys. Since then I've had to learn how to act with older people and understand where age and maturity is going to be different. I'm still just 20 years old and most of the guys here are older than me. I know I can learn from watching what they do and the way they conduct themselves on and off the field. I try to allow myself to learn to incorporate that in my life. What is your greatest accomplishment, on or off the field?

TS: There have been a lot of great things that have happened to me in my career and as a person, but I think my greatest accomplishment would be overcoming the things that have happened to me off the field, losing a lot of people that are close to me. (Snider's mother passed away in September 2007 and he lost his best friend and longtime coach this past offseason.) You learn to separate work from your personal life. Baseball has always been there as sort of an outlet for me. So I think my biggest accomplishment is being able to come out here every day and go about my business and allow things to take their course. Complete this sentence: People would be surprised to know that I ...?"

TS: Am a big video game guy. A lot of people ask me what I do with my free time. I like to get online with my buddies back home and play Halo and Call of Duty and things like that just to stay connected with the people who are close to me in life. What is your favorite aspect of playing in the Toronto organization and why?

TS: The organization as a whole, all the way from the general manager on down to the Gulf Coast League trainer, I feel like everybody here cares about me as a person and there is a general respect among staff and players. I feel like they're looking out for my best interests, they want to see me succeed and they want to be there for me during the ups and downs. Knowing that I've been through so much off the field, I've had the organization there for me every step of the way.

Lasting Impression

The Blue Jays' Minor League position players didn't have to report for their first full workout until March 5, but a few of those who came down early were rewarded by getting a taste of big-league camp.

Shortstop Justin Jackson, the Jays' supplemental first-round pick last spring out of high school in Asheville, N.C., was one of those select few.

Scott has nothing but raves for the 19-year-old Jackson, whose dad, Chuck, was a 11-year pro who played some Major League infield with Houston and Texas.

Though the younger Jackson hit just .187 with two homers, 13 RBIs and seven steals in 2007 in the Gulf Coast League, Scott is not worried about his less-than-spectacular pro debut.

"I love this kid," he said. "He has great makeup, he 'gets it' right away. He's athletic, he can run and he's a natural shortstop."

The bloodlines and training are definitely apparent with Jackson, who combines a ton of talent with a knack for doing the little things right, the latter of which is not always the case in such young players.

"We got him into a couple of intersquad games and he really held his own," Scott said. "He's one of those guys who has the ability to raise his level to wherever he's playing without anxiety or nervousness. He has fun and works his tail off. He has the whole package and he's only 19."

Parting Shots

With the pitchers and catchers having reported two days earlier for their first full workouts and the position players still a day away from the same, things were relatively quiet over at the Bobby Mattick Training Center at Englebert Complex, with most of the non-roster invitees still hanging out with the big boys across town at Knology Park.

Too bad one couldn't say the same for the weather. With the New York Yankees visiting, the crowd came early to watch some batting practice but the trademark Florida sunshine was nowhere to be found.

Gusty wind and rain put a literal damper on the action at both fields. Almost makes Toronto seem warm and cozy.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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