Tell me if you’ve heard this line before: “The Blue Jays have a lot of players with upside, and they just might make the playoffs if everything breaks right.” If you’ve been following the Blue Jays blogosphere long enough, that may sound eerily familiar. That’s because, for the past ten odd seasons, that line above has been the optimistic fan’s point of view. In a AL East often featuring loaded Red Sox, Yankees, and occasionally Rays teams, it’s always been a struggle to compete. So, in order to do that, the Jays had to get lucky, stay healthy, and pray that they reach the wildcard spot. That marks quite a stark contrast with what we’ve heard leading in to this season. Even at BP Toronto, on average our staff projected the team to win 91 games. In 2013, even when the Jays were crowned offseason winners and World Series favourites, most pundits didn’t project a win total that high.
That leads to the question, what’s different between this season, and those past? The answer is established major league talent. Try and think of the last time that the Blue Jays had established major league talent at every position on the baseball diamond. Empirically, PECOTA projects the Jays to be below average (less than 2 WARP) at only one position: LF. In past years, that wasn’t even remotely the case. Our playoff hopes and dreams were cemented around unestablished talent or breakout candidates. Here’s a rough breakdown of the Blue Jays’ breakout candidates over the last ten seasons.
2015 – Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris, Dalton Pompey, Kevin Pillar, Drew Hutchison, Roberto Osuna, Miguel Castro, Devon Travis
2014 – Anthony Gose, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman
2013 – Kyle Drabek, Brett Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia, Colby Rasmus
2012 – Colby Rasmus, Brett Lawrie, Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, J.P. Arencibia
2011 – Travis Snider, Kyle Drabek, Brett Cecil, Brandon Morrow, Yunel Escobar, Edwin Encarnacion
2010 – Brett Cecil, Brandon Morrow, Edwin Encarnacion
2009 – Travis Snider, Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, David Purcey
2008 – Dustin McGowan, Jesse Litsch, Adam Lind, Aaron Hill
2007 – Alex Rios, Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, Dustin McGowan, Jesse Litsch
You may argue that I’ve missed a few players who should be on this list or that I shouldn’t have included others, but the point is that the Jays have previously counted on anywhere from three to eight breakout candidates a year. Sometimes having a bevy of breakout candidates on one’s roster works out. Just look at the team last season; not all of those eight guys took that step, but four of them (Sanchez, Pillar, Osuna, and Travis) were valuable contributors to the team. Of that four, two (Pillar and Travis) performed well above what was expected and established new baselines for their future performances. Of course, even if things did work out in the first half of last season, that won’t always be the case. You can’t bet on luck, but you can bet on established performance.
In theory, that might make the season less exciting. It means that we won’t get the chance to be surprised at All-Star performances from guys like Kevin Pillar, Marco Estrada, and Chris Colabello. However, while I know we as Blue Jays fans haven’t experienced this feeling often, our frenemies over in the Bronx sure seem to have had a lot of fun rooting for a solidified contender. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a fan who’d rather have been cheering for the up and down Jays between 1998 and 2006 than the division topping New York Yankees. After all, it’s always more fun to complain about the fact that your team only got to 90 wins. That will be us this year.
That’s what makes this season kind of bittersweet. It’ll be incredibly fun to cheer for the best offense in baseball, as they (hopefully) ride in to October, and (hopefully) win a World Series. But, as the team heads in to the season, they still don’t know if they’ll have two of their most important established performers (Encarnacion and Bautista) beyond 2016. If they don’t lock them up, this behemoth of a team may fall back to earth very quickly. The even bitterer end of that idea is that the prospects of retaining both Dominican sluggers for the 2017 season are looking increasingly poor.
If “industry sources” are to be believed, Edwin’s extension talks with the Blue Jays might be all but up by Opening Day. Could he change his mind and negotiate into and after the season? Sure, but the Blue Jays clearly have other priorities in place that may make that difficult. They want their real superstar. The only problem is that their superstar, Jose Bautista, not only wants to be paid like one, but has also hinted at a hometown premium. In specific, he’s noted that, “in [his] eyes, [he has] given this organization a five year discount already.” That mindset, in addition to his lofty personal valuation, are going to make an extension very difficult.
On one hand, by season’s end the Blue Jays could shift their contract focus to Edwin and retain at least one of the two sluggers. On the other hand, they might not, and if they don’t, they risk losing both of them. If that happens, they’d lose two leaders in the clubhouse (for whatever that’s worth) as well as two of the most consistent contributors in baseball. Just look at the numbers: for the Blue Jays over the last five seasons, the pair have combined to produce 41% of the the team’s batter WARP.
Now, the Jays will assuredly survive with either or neither of their two premier hitters. However, without both of them, it’s unlikely that we’ll have a team full of established performers in the near future. That doesn’t mean that the Jays won’t be able to make the playoffs soon again, but it does mean that we won’t be able to expect that playoff spot outright. We’ll be back to the old model of hoping on breakouts, comebacks, and everything in between. In 2017, we’ll be left wanting a return to performance from guys like Michael Saunders, and for additional performance from guys like Dalton Pompey. Neither of those two things are impossible, but they shouldn’t be presumed.
With that said, because of this possible return to the less productive middle, we should only be more excited about 2016. For once, the Jays are the talk of the American League, and the team to beat. Don’t give in to other fans who will presumably criticize our presumptive playoff predictions, after 21 years of almost making it, it’s our time to shine.
To the Blue Jays: this is might be the most certain that a playoff appearance has been since ’93, and that may not also be case in coming seasons. Take advantage while you can, and bring this country a championship. We deserve it.
Lead Photo: Kim Clement-USA Today Sports