By Jay Blue
Blue Jays from Away
With the New York Yankees trading for Giancarlo Stanton and the Boston Red Sox appearing ready to go all in to grab one (or two) of the top free agent hitters, where does that leave the Toronto Blue Jays?
The Blue Jays finished 76-86 last year, writing off a lot of their failures to injuries. The pitching staff wasn't as effective as it was the year before (nor was it as healthy) but it was really the offence that failed the Blue Jays, who still have most of an effective rotation in place (with, of course, caveats about the health of Aaron Sanchez). The Blue Jays' offence, however, was built on the backs of a few veterans who all had offensive seasons that betrayed their decline. The loss of Edwin Encarnacion, the steep decline of Jose Bautista, the below-average production of Kendrys Morales and the poor hitting of Troy Tulowitzki all led the Blue Jays to one of their most unproductive offensive seasons in the past decade.
Coming into 2018, the Blue Jays are unlikely to ante up for a big-name free agent, particularly on the offensive side, ones like J.D. Martinez or Eric Hosmer and there are few answers coming from the minor leagues. Unless someone is traded or added, the Blue Jays are set to lineup as follows:
C - Russell Martin
1B - Justin Smoak
2B - Devon Travis/Aledmys Diaz
3B - Josh Donaldson
SS - Troy Tulowitzki/Aledmys Diaz
LF - Steve Pearce
CF - Kevin Pillar
RF - Teoscar Hernandez/Anthony Alford/Dalton Pompey
DH - Kendrys Morales
Bench - Diaz, Luke Maile, Ezequiel Carrera
Of these players, how many had OPS+s above 100 last year (meaning that they had an OPS above league average)? The answer is three, Justin Smoak, Josh Donaldson and Ezequiel Carrera. I'm discounting Teoscar Hernandez because he did most of his damage in September and we shouldn't put too much stock in a small sample size at that time of the year.
The Yankees, by contrast, had eight players who played in 60 games or more with an OPS+ of 100 or higher. They also had two players in their top nine with OPS+s over 90. The Blue Jays can add three players with OPS+s over 90 (Russell Martin, Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce) but a club with six players producing at a level that is 10% lower than league average or better is not the way to win a championship. And the Yankees have added Stanton and the Blue Jays have added no one (yet).
The Blue Jays have Kendrys Morales on the books for two more years and they've got another year with Donaldson and Pearce. Tulo has a guaranteed three years left on his deal and Martin has two more. This means that the Blue Jays have either below-average, declining or oft-injured players on their books for up to three more years making things difficult for the Blue Jays to add pieces, particularly with a payroll that is generally limited to the $140-160 million range.
So where do they go from here? I just finished reading Ben Nicholson-Smith's great article on Sportsnet and, while he doesn't flat out say what the Jays should do, it seems clear that history favours those who have gone the "blow-it-up" route like the Cubs and Astros. Both teams now have World Series trophies on their mantles and both teams did it through the draft and then supplementing. The Blue Jays, famously, built their playoff teams by trading away that prospect capital to acquire established players who have either left or are weighing the payroll down.
Nicholson-Smith also gives the examples of the White Sox and Padres who tried spend on veterans while patching their rosters on the fly. Both teams were unsuccessful with the White Sox now committed to tearing things down, trading off major pieces to get premium young talent (particularly in the fire sale for Chris Sale).
This "patch-and-play" approach is what the Blue Jays took in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was why Roy Halladay wanted out of Toronto. It was why Carlos Delgado never saw a playoff appearance with the club.
The Blue Jays currently have high level talent in the form of Josh Donaldson, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna. They have prospects on their way but not enough support around them and not enough flexibility to do much about it if the prospects arrive and play to their ceilings.
The Blue Jays front office has talked about not wanting to let the fan base down. The club finished first in the American League in attendance last year (at over 3.2 million fans in the stands), although it's yet to be seen how 2017's poor finish will impact ticket sales in 2018. This is, of course, a business and nothing does well for this business like winning. Or even showing the fans that you're trying to win.
The Toronto Maple Leafs' front office sold the fan base on "tanking" to get a high draft pick (who turned into Auston Matthews, so, that work worked out OK). The reality is that it's harder to turn high draft picks into MLB stars who contribute to a winning team and, as such, the bottoming-out process takes longer. Is the Blue Jays' fan base able to sustain a three-to-four year drought of poor performance in order to get the talent that will support those players already in the system who seem to be rocketing to the big leagues?
Selfishly, my desire is for the Jays to tear down at the major league level and stock the system now. Donaldson will get the most return but the Jays have few other star-level assets who might help. Then again, the Jays got Teoscar Hernandez for Francisco Liriano and turned Joe Smith into two prospects. As Ben Nicholson-Smith shows in his "big read," patching the roster rather than tearing it down leads to mediocrity. Let's go for the glory.
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The 2017 Toronto Blue Jays Minor League Handbook is now available! Check out the Handbook page for more information!