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Jays turn focus to signing draftees
06/08/2004  8:43 PM ET
TORONTO -- The picks are done, but the negotiations have just begun. Every Major League team has completed the selection process of the First-Year Player Draft -- now they have to get some names on the proverbial dotted line.

"Getting them signed is the next challenge. That's going to be interesting, and this will be my first go-round doing that," said Jon Lalonde, Toronto's director of scouting. "The second day is what it is: You're trying to fill roster spots and look for those diamonds in the rough. It went very well."

"Our staff was great. Everybody was organized and prepared," he continued. "We knew everything about these players, inside and out. That's how you become successful, in my estimation: Know the information, know the players."

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Sometimes, knowing the players means knowing their limitations. Often, teams pick prospects without any intention of signing them. This process is called draft-and-follow -- the prospects are free to attend a junior college for a year without severing ties with the organization that drafted them.

If things work out, the team gets a small window before the following season's draft to reach a deal. If they can't, the prospect goes right back into the draft pool. Why do teams take that risk, instead of just taking a player they think is ready? Over 50 rounds, there are plenty of chances to take a gamble. And sometimes, those gambles yield incredibly high returns.

"Normally, it's a player that shows you something you like. It could be athleticism or arm strength as a pitcher," Lalonde said. "Usually, it's one of those types of issues. You're looking for a player to make some sort of improvement. You think he has the raw tools, but he needs to refine them."

The Jays went hard in that direction, identifying 16 of their draftees as potential draft-and-follows. Fourteen of those came in the second day, when premium talent was all but exhausted. How do players react when they're told their new organization doesn't want to sign them just yet? Do they ever express their frustration?

"I think there are instances where they do. Kids want to play," Lalonde said. "As a club, we have to manage our risk and do what's in our best interest. And it's also in the best interests of the kid.

"There's nothing worse than sending them out if they're not ready. Then he loses confidence quickly, and the next thing you know, he hates the game. We really want to make sure we do what's right for us."

Toward that end, the Blue Jays looked outside their normal talent sources. Toronto drafted 20 players in the first day, and 17 of them came from four-year universities. On the second day, a much heavier percentage of the players came from high school and junior college, which played right into the draft-and-follow approach.

Of course, not all of the second day's talent falls into that boat. Lalonde singled out Aaron Matthews, the team's first selection on Tuesday. The Oregon State outfielder batted .326 with eight homers and 49 RBIs. His rate stats were more impressive: Matthews racked up a .377 on-base percentage and a .542 slugging mark. Still, he went in the 19th round, and Lalonde said the Jays want him to play as soon as possible.

"Our first pick today was a guy we were really pleased to get. He's a very good athlete -- very strong, plays hard," Lalonde said. "Sometimes that end of the day break is real good, because it allows you to regroup and examine some things. We were able to get him, and certainly on talent, we had him higher than the 19th round."

Lalonde praised his peers in the scouting department, saying there were no surprises because of massive preparation. The Blue Jays reviewed a countless number of scenarios, rehearsing their reactions under fire. And so, Lalonde's first draft as scouting director came off without a hitch. Now, he's already starting to work on the second.

"We've got to get them signed. Then, in the middle of next month I'm headed down to the Cape Cod League to catch all the best guys for next year," he said. "It's a busy season, but I'll tell you, it could be worse. Going to see baseball players, for me, isn't like work. It's something I love to do."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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