Young Blue Jays growing together
Prospects acquired in Halladay haul ready to contribute
LAKELAND, Fla. -- With the direction the Blue Jays are heading, the blueprint for a better future hinges on the potential of the club's young prospects. Over the offseason, one major move helped Toronto acquire three budding stars, integral pieces to the franchise's foundation.
On Thursday afternoon, that trio of prized players -- pitcher Kyle Drabek, first baseman Brett Wallace and catcher Travis d'Arnaud -- took their seats inside Toronto's bus and began their journey with the Blue Jays. They then provided a glimpse of the organization's future during a 9-7 win over the Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium.
Roughly 60 miles west, the Blue Jays' past was on display at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla. That is where Roy Halladay made his first start of the spring as the new ace of the Phillies, beginning his quest to capture a World Series ring. In December, Toronto sent Halladay to Philadelphia in a complicated deal that ended with Drabek, Wallace and d'Arnaud being fitted for Blue Jays uniforms.
It was an experience that has helped the young trio bond in their new and unfamiliar surroundings.
"We all share the fact that we were in the same trade and we were coming over," Wallace said. "It's kind of fun to have someone who's kind of new a little bit, and you learn all the new ropes and learn everyone's faces and stuff together."
After being obtained by the Blue Jays -- Drabek and d'Arnaud from Philadelphia and Wallace in a side deal from Oakland -- the three players instantly became the jewels of Toronto's farm system. Looking around the Blue Jays' clubhouse, though, it is clear that they are not the only young players around. Toronto is in the midst of a youth movement, with a lot of up-and-coming players in the mix for jobs.
Without Halladay in the fold to lead the rotation, the Jays have a wide-open competion this spring for the entire rotation -- not just the top slot -- and the majority of the arms in the mix are still young. Toronto also has youthful building blocks on offense in Aaron Hill, Adam Lind and Travis Snider, along with a handful of other prospects who are knocking on the door.
For Drabek, Wallace and d'Arnaud, it has been a great environment to enter.
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"[Having] a lot of young guys [around] makes it a lot more fun than [just] a lot more serious guys," said d'Arnaud. "The whole team is loose. We're all really close. All of us pretty much have fun and know each other pretty well. Everyone's growing together."
Wallace said it helps to see that there is a strong core already in place.
"When you're a young player," Wallace said, "the thing you dream about is having an organization that wants to push their youth and kind of rebuild with that and not go out and maybe sign the big names and stuff, but give their guys the chance. ... It's fun to just come over and be a part of that, and I think as we grow together, we're going to have a competitive team in Toronto."
Their lives all changed minutes apart.
Drabek was at a friend's house watching a sports news show when his name scrolled across the bottom of the TV screen. That was how he learned the details of the deal.
"I was confused," Drabek said with a laugh, "and everyone was excited."
Wallace was coming home from a workout when he returned a call from A's general manager Billy Beane, who told the youngster he had been dealt to Toronto. On a golf course, d'Arnaud pulled out his phone and read a text message from his friend. He was being shipped to the Blue Jays, too.
"When I heard it happened," d'Arnaud said, "I was really happy, because it's a great opportunity for me."
Within 24 hours, all three players were in Florida, undergoing routine physicals for the Blue Jays -- a final step in completing the trade process. That was when they first started getting to know each other. For d'Arnaud and Drabek -- currently roommates with the Blue Jays -- it also helped that they had a history together as prospects in the Phillies' organization.
"That helped me a lot," said d'Arnaud. "I knew someone. I didn't feel like a loner, I guess you could say, in the clubhouse. When me and him are hanging out together, [teammates] actually call us brothers, because we're always hanging out, always talking. [The trade] opened us to meeting new friends."
On Thursday, Drabek entered the contest in the fifth inning for his debut as a member of the Blue Jays. The 22-year-old right-hander worked swiftly, finishing with three strikeouts and two walks in two innings. Drabek allowed two runs to score on three hits, but the young pitcher knew the root of the problem -- he elevated a few too many pitches.
Under the circumstances, Drabek said his outing had a slightly different feel at first. That quickly faded once he went to work.
"A little bit," Drabek said. "It's still me doing what I love. So as soon as I got on that mound, everything kind of clicked in. It just felt like I was pitching again -- no distractions -- just what I've been doing since I was a little kid."
In the bottom of the fifth inning, the 23-year-old Wallace took over at first base -- the position where the Blue Jays believe he will be a mainstay for years to come. In his first at-bat in a Toronto uniform, Wallace turned on a pitch from Detroit's Armando Galarrago, sending it bouncing into right field for a run-scoring single in the seventh.
Blue Jays catching prospect J.P. Arencibia broke a 7-7 tie in the ninth inning with a two-run home run and finished the contest behind the plate for Toronto. That robbed d'Arnaud, 21, of a chance at making his Grapefruit League debut, but he knows his time will come. Drabek and Wallace are closer to the Majors than d'Arnaud, who hopes to catch them soon.
"Obviously, tomorrow I wish I could be in the big leagues," d'Arnaud said with a smile. "Hopefully [I'm there] within the next few years -- I'm hoping. I'll just come out and work hard and hopefully succeed."
The Jays will likely send d'Arnaud (selected with the 37th overall pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft) to high Class A Dunedin to open the year. Similarly, Toronto has development plans in place for Drabek (18th overall in '06 ) and Wallace (13th overall in the '08). Drabek is likely headed to either Double-A New Hampshire or Triple-A Las Vegas, and Wallace is probably ticketed for Triple-A.
Drabek and Wallace are hoping to force the Jays' hand soon, though.
"You know I want to," said Drabek, who is considered the top pitching prospect in the Jays' system. "I just want to come out here and do the best I can. Wherever I end up, I end up. I'll try my hardest to make it up there as quick as possible."
Wallace echoed that sentiment.
"As an athlete and as a competitor you always want your next challenge," Wallace said. "And for me, I feel like my next challenge is in the big leagues. I'm going to work as hard as I can to get better every day."
The trio bring a lot of promise to the Blue Jays and their future. But acquiring them came with a price.
"[The Phillies] got the best pitcher in the game," said d'Arnaud.
Jordan Bastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.