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Blue Jays way helped organically produce latest all star contingent


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LOS ANGELES – It is almost by definition an event to celebrate individual accomplishments, a gathering of the best in the game.

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But the five Blue Jays who made the trip to the West Coast as participants in the 92nd Major League Baseball all-star game are also representative of an organizational triumph for the Toronto franchise.

Each of that fivesome relishing the experience at Dodger Stadium this week was not a ready-made major leaguer when they entered the Jays system. They all spent some development time and multiple stops in the minors before making it to the big team.

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From the highest-profile of the group – Vlad Guerrero Jr., who was heavily recruited by numerous MLB teams – to catcher Alejandro Kirk, who was signed for a pauper-like $30,000 US, they’ve all been products of the Blue Jays way .

“It was an amazing moment for all of us,” said second baseman Santiago Espinal said of playing in the Midsummer Classic at the storied venue. “Vladdy had been here before, but for the rest of us, it was a new experience.

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“And everything about it was amazing.”

For each, there were unforgettable snapshots, an experience they’ll be hoping to channel into positive results going forward for the remainder of the 2022 season and beyond. Take Kirk, who was caught by surprise when he caught the ceremonial pre-game pitch from Fernando Valenzuela, the Dodgers legend and like the Jays catcher, a native of Mexico.

“It was very emotional for me,” Kirk. said. “He’s the best pitcher ever to come from Mexico.”

The all-star honor was also the latest career accomplishing on what has been a whirlwind rise for the 23-year-old of Tijuana.

The guy he was catching in Tuesday’s second inning, Jays starter Alek Manoah, was a dude he was well familiar with. Just two summers ago, the pair were toiling in quiet and relative anonymity at the team’s alternative training site in Rochester as minor-league baseball was shut down by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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“From the high site to all-star in two years? Wow,” Kirk said. “What an experience. We’re both very happy for that.”

The five Jays participating in the all-star festivities had all done some time in the Toronto farm system. Only the sixth, George Springer (who passed on the trip to nurse a nagging elbow) came via free agency and was already a major league star when he became a Blue Jay.

Manoah, meanwhile, was a first-round draft pick of the team in 2019 and used his electric right arm to ensure that his minor-league experience was a brief one. That summer, he made his pro debut with the Vancouver Canadians before the 2020 alt-site assignment.

A brief finishing school gig with triple-A Buffalo in 2021 set him up for his MLB debut that spring. In total, Manoah pitched just 33 innings in the minors in what was a remarkably rapid ascent.

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As a talented son of hall-of-famer Vlad Guerrero, Vlad Jr. was much desired by multiple teams. But then Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos was able to get the then 16-year-old to sign for $3.9 million US, an acquisition that began a long run in which the talented youngster was ranked among the top of baseball’s prospects.

Guerrero’s tour hit most of the Jays’ minor league stops, from Bluefield of the Appalachian League in 2016 to Lansing and Dunedin the following year.

In 2018, the big-swinging first baseman was named the minor league player of the year by Baseball America after batting .381. Much of that season was with the Eastern League (double A) champion New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

He ended that season in Buffalo with the triple-A Bisons, the same place he began 2019 before his promotion to the Jays.

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Closer Jordan Romano, a 10th-round draft pick of the team in 2014, took a more rugged route to the majors. Like Guerrero, he did the tour, making stops in five runs of the Jays ladder, mostly as a starter. He too was part of the championship Fisher Cats team under recently-named Jays manager, John Schneider

Espinal wasn’t drafted by the Jays – coming to the organization in a 2018 trade with the Boston Red Sox for veteran infielder, Steve Pearce. The Dominican wasn’t big-league ready at the time, however, and he immediately reported to – where else? – New Hampshire. The Jays quickly liked what they saw and accelerated his process through New Hampshire and Buffalo in 2019 before getting a 27-game taste with the Jays in 2020.

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While not as rapid as Manoah’s ascent, Kirk didn’t waste any time after being signed as a teenager. I have played in 165 minor league games over three seasons before making his Blue Jays debut in 2020.

Different paths for all of them, but all products of a development system that has been a priority for the current front-office regime of president Mark Shapiro and general manager, Ross Atkins.

There are far more swings and misses in that game, of course, but having five players who were groomed by coaches and staff at multiple levels of the minor league system make it to Dodger Stadium? It’s an organization’s accomplishment to match the individual triumphs.

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