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Inside the Bisons: A conversation with Gil Kim, Toronto's head of player development

The scouting reports are full of grades, rating everything from hitting to power to arm strength. Prospects are judged on things like bat speed and footwork, evaluating their athletic abilities and how that may translate into success as a Major League baseball player.

Talent is found in pretty much every corner – from rural American high schools to polished collegiate programs to community fields in foreign countries.

Searching out that talent is one thing.

But turning talent, turning potential, into baseball success for both the individual and the organization? Well, that's an entirely different type of ball game. And that's the task for Gil Kim, the first director of player development for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Kim was hired by the Blue Jays in 2016, part of the reconfiguration of the front office that began when Mark Shapiro became team president in 2015. He oversees not just all of the Blue Jays farm system, including the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, but also sports performance programs which help develop that identified potential.

As much as baseball is about hitting, fielding, and pitching, it's also about a clubhouse and organizational culture. That's particularly important at the minor league level where winning is important, but the process trumps all.

"Player development is actually not very much about evaluating the player. I think that's maybe the perception," Kim said. "It's really about assessing if we as a group are creating the optimal environment for players and staff to get better. Are we focused and engaged? Are we providing feedback? Are we challenging each other and are we accurately assessing areas of opportunity to help players get better?

"Those are the things we're mostly focused on. Then, apart from that, it's monitoring progress and seeing how guys are developing with individual skills and ability. Especially early on in the season, a lot is about acclimation to the season, and in Buffalo's case it's about getting on the field. I think we're all understanding that the players and staff need some time to get situated and acclimated to the season to continue the work they started in spring training."

Through April, the acclimation process has gone pretty well through the system. While the Bisons struggled to play games with eight postponements or outright cancellations, they entered the last day of the month with a 6-8 record, three games back in the International League North Division.

Meanwhile in Double-A, New Hampshire leads their division in the Eastern League with a 13-7 record. The Lansing Lugnuts lead their division in the Class-A Midwest League with a 16-8 mark.

While there have been some amazing performances, particularly from the organization's top two prospects, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette in New Hampshire, the numbers aren't what has excited Kim about the start of the year.

Once again, it's not the results, but the commitment to the process.

"The most impressive thing for all of us is the consistent effort that we've seen not just in game but with the work that we're doing pre-game," Kim said. "I think what we're most excited about right now is how staff and players are working together as a unit and how they're challenging each other to get better every day.  That's before the game with early work and in batting practice. That's during the game. Those are some of the things I'm most excited about. Obviously the on-field results are encouraging as well, but overall we look at the work everyone has put in since Opening Day."

The tale of Rowdy Tellez presents an example of the approach Kim and the Blue Jays have taken with player development.

Tellez was a hot prospect in 2016 earning plenty of Double-A all-star acclaim with New Hampshire, hitting .297 with 23 home runs and 81 RBI. But he struggled last year, his first season at Triple-A, batting just .222 with six homers and 56 RBI.

At the start of this season, Tellez said he appreciated the approach the Blue Jays took with him and the freedom they gave him to fail, and learn, as he had to work his way out of on-field struggles for the first time in his career.

After his first season of adversity, Tellez ready for a bounce-back year

That is at the heart of Toronto's player development – finding ways to help players turn their potential talent into success and giving them the space to do it.

"It's important that players always feel supported and to always feel safe to make mistakes because I think being challenged is something that's fundamentally important in order to improve," Kim said. "Players need to feel that they can be challenged and they can try things, they can take risks, and they're allowed to not always have overwhelming success while they're at it.  That's why we have the minor leagues to develop."

But how players develop in the minor leagues, and their paths to a Major League opportunity, differ widely. While some take the traditional grind, working their way up the organizational ladder, others find their Toronto debut directly from Double-A. That happened last year with outfielder Anthony Alford, now with the Bisons, and shortstop Richard Urena. This season it's already happened for shortstop Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who went from New Hampshire to Toronto on April 20.

But skipping Triple-A is not by design nor is it necessarily the new trend for prospects.

"Typically when you look at moving guys around in the minor leagues, it's part performance, part ability, but it's also in large part their consistency with work effort and routines as well as their consistency of being a good teammate," Kim said. "I think added to that is simply just opportunity. Sometimes the opportunity presents itself at one level or another. There's no magic formula to promoting or moving prospects or players around the system.

"We've seen guys like Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Richard Urena, and Anthony Alford go from Double-A to the big leagues, but there's no real magic formula saying a guy has to be in Triple-A. But likewise, there not one that says everyone in Double-A can make the jump to the big leagues. It is individually based."

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