Blue Jays take high school hurler Bickford at No. 10
Blue Jays take high school hurler Bickford at No. 10
By Gregor Chisholm
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays continued their trend of drafting tall, athletic high school pitchers by taking right-hander Phil Bickford with the No. 10 pick of the First-Year Player Draft on Thursday night.
Bickford is a hard-throwing senior from Oaks Christian High School (Calif.). He has the ability to hit 97 mph with his fastball while also using a changeup and slider in his repertoire.
The 6-foot-4 Bickford is another example of the organization targeting big high school bodies on the mound, because there's a sense they come with better overall durability and typically have an ability to reach high velocities with their fastball.
"I think it's something we look for," Blue Jays director of amateur scouting Brian Parker said during a conference call Thursday night. "I think athleticism is something we focus on with pitchers, especially high school kids. Those are the types of frames and athletes that we're looking to get into our rotation and hopefully lead our rotation one day.
"It says something about our Minor League staff and our player-development guys that that's something we do well. I think it's an advantage that the Blue Jays organization has, and if that's an advantage that we have, we're going to try and get as many of those guys as we can."
The decision to select tall high school pitchers is something that started under previous director of amateur scouting Andrew Tinnish, and it will apparently continue under Parker. Tinnish received a promotion to assistant general manager after last year's Draft, and the former professional crosschecker Parker is now the one calling the shots when it comes to amateur players.
In 2011, the Blue Jays used 12 of their first 15 picks on pitchers who were at least 6-foot-1. The trend dipped a little bit last year -- with more of an emphasis on position players -- but the club still selected three pitchers in their top seven who fit into that mold. The only exception to the rule has been the hard-throwing Marcus Stroman, who is 5-foot-9 and was taken with the No. 22 overall pick last year.
Bickford, ranked the No. 26 overall prospect of the Draft, began turning heads this spring. It was his ability to command his fastball at high velocities that really caught the attention of Toronto's brass.
"This guy has outstanding fastball command," Parker said. "He has a big arm, we've seen him up to 97 mph this spring, sits 93-94. One of the things we like and one of the things we work on in this organization is fastball effectiveness, fastball command and the ability to throw strikes and get people out with his fastball. We feel he had one of the best fastballs -- college or high school -- in the Draft."
The 17-year-old Bickford has a commitment to Cal State Fullerton and could be a relatively tough player to sign. The recommended slot value for the No. 10 pick is $2,921,400, and the club has a total of $6,398,200 to spend in this year's Draft, which ranks 17th in the Major Leagues.
Toronto has never shied away from using picks on guys who were considered tough players to get under contract. The Blue Jays took a similar approach last season by acquiring outfielder Anthony Alford, left-hander Matthew Smoral and left-hander Daniel Norris, all of whom eventually signed.
The strategy did backfire in 2011, when the club was unable to reach an agreement with promising high school right-hander Tyler Beede, but Parker said "we're confident we're going to get something done with him."
Bickford told his hometown newspaper -- the Ventura County Star -- that he hasn't had much dialogue with the Blue Jays yet, and he will wait and see how the next few weeks play out when it comes to contract negotiations. Whatever does end up happening, though, Thursday was a night he'll never forget.
"It was a powerful moment, and our whole house just erupted when it happened," Bickford said. "I couldn't believe it was really happening in front of my eyes on the TV. It was awesome, just awesome.
"I was never really expecting top 10, but the week before the Draft, it kind of popped into my head a little bit. I didn't want to get ahead of myself, though, and be sad if it didn't happen. I would have been grateful to go anywhere in the first round, and the fact it was top 10 was just a blessing."
Bickford was the first of two high school pitchers taken by Toronto on Day 1 of the Draft. The Blue Jays used the 47th overall selection on 18-year-old right-hander Clinton Hollon from Woodford County High School in Kentucky.
In Bickford the Blue Jays now have a pitcher who recently led his high school club to its first Southern Section Division 4 championship. He struck out 18 in the final, including 11 consecutive batters at one point. The native of Ventura, Calif., finished his senior season with a 1.72 ERA while allowing 42 hits and striking out 159 in 99 1/3 innings.
If Bickford does eventually sign, it will give the Blue Jays even more depth on the mound in the lower levels of their Minor League system. Eight of the club's 10 best prospects are pitchers, with the vast majority of the talent being found at high Class A and below.
Even though Toronto traded away some of its top young talent last offseason -- including right-hander Noah Syndergaard and left-hander Justin Nicolino -- there are still plenty of intriguing pitching prospects. The group is headed by promising right-hander Aaron Sanchez, but it also includes the likes of Roberto Osuna, Norris, Stroman, Smoral, Sean Nolin, John Stilson and Adonys Cardona.
"We think the fastball is a very polished pitch, a very effective pitch he can use to get outs right now in pro ball," Parker said of Bickford. "We think his secondary stuff is developing, we think his changeup is his better pitch right now, but we think he has a chance to have a pretty good changeup and breaking ball.
"I think there are some development opportunities on that side of it. When he signs, he'll go down to Florida and be down in [Class A Advanced] Dunedin with our guys. Once he gets going and once he gets stretched out with [roving pitching coach] Dane Johnson and our Minor League pitching guys, they'll start putting him on a plan to where he goes from there."
Hollon is another young, hard-throwing arm that will now potentially be added into the club's system. He has the ability to hit mid-90s with his fastball while also possessing a decent breaking ball and changeup. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder currently has a commitment to Kentucky.
Day 2 of the Draft continues with Rounds 3-10, streamed live on MLB.com on Friday, beginning with a preview show at 12:30 p.m. And Rounds 11-40 will be streamed live on MLB.com on Saturday, starting at 1 p.m.