It’s the middle of January and the Blue Jays have yet to make any big moves. Of course, there is technically still time. The free agent market is all but depleted of big names, but the team could still make a splash through trade. However, with each passing day, the possibility that a big trade happens before the season begins is becoming increasingly meager.
With that situation comes one major affirmation: the Blue Jays aren’t pushing to compete in 2017. This possibility had been suggested by some for a long time, but with no clear indication from management about their direction, and a Blue Jays team that probably should be pushing to compete, we had no confirmation as to whether or not it was true. However, with just 77 days left until Toronto’s first game of the 2017 season, a lackadaisical approach to 2017 is all but certain.
After two straight seasons of Blue Jays playoff games (and a helluva lot of excitement), fans are understandably uneasy about the shift in philosophy. Myself included.
The Jays didn’t get Dexter Fowler, nor did they sign Edwin Encarnacion. The coups—a term I use very lightly—of the offseason look like they’ll be Kendrys Morales and a 36 year-old Jose Bautista set for a full statuesque season in a corner outfield position. That’s bad.
Well, bad IF the aim is to seriously push to contend for a playoff spot. ‘Pushing’ being, at the very least, filling out the roster holes with average players. But, as we determined above, that probably isn’t the case. If you get past the poor emotional optics of that idea, in the abstract, not mortgaging the future (prospect or payroll-wise) to contend in 2017 isn’t actually a crazy idea. The Blue Jays had the fourth oldest roster in the league in 2016. With the departure of R.A. Dickey that average should come down slightly, but the roster still contains quite a few major pieces inching towards their mid 30s in Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Happ, Estrada, Morales, and Martin.
The problem, however, is that the 2016 offseason doesn’t happen in the abstract. Decisions made now must take in to account those made over the last few years, even prior to the Shapiro/Atkins regime. Specifically, in his last couple of seasons at the helm of the Blue Jays, Anthopoulos set the team on a trajectory: World Series contention.
It matters not that Mark Shapiro didn’t want the Blue Jays to “[go] for broke,” when he signed on with the team. By trading away Daniel Norris, Jeff Hoffman, and others, that’s the path that Anthopoulos and fans had rallied behind.
That presented an issue. Anthopoulos had already used a glut of young players to acquire major league talent a few years sooner, and the 2015 trades only further depleted the pipeline. It was for a good cause: a shot at a World Series victory. However, as you begin to trade away each new emerging talent, the major league club begins to lose its pipeline for depth. Now, in 2017, the Blue Jays main rotational depth comes in the form of one starter who struggled in AA, and another who has yet to pitch above A-ball. Elsewhere, there’s an outfielder who the team refuses to acknowledge and a 26 year-old ‘Catcher of the Future’ who hasn’t yet had an MLB plate appearance. That’s kind of it.
Of course, once a team has, “[gone] for broke,” with an aging roster there are ways to compensate for it. But, those ways include spending a lot of cash on a lot of players to fill a lot of positions. The Blue Jays could have done this…and I tend to think that Anthopoulos would have done this. He created a leviathan and he was going to keep feeding it until it went belly up. However, at the peak of the execution of Anthopoulos’ vision, he was hung out to dry by a franchise in dire need of a modernized business direction. In came Mark Shapiro.
In Cleveland, Shapiro built a lot of wins on not a lot of cash. How? By creating and sustaining a pipeline of talent. A team can save a lot of money just by being able to fill out the edges of a roster with usable pre-arbitration players. In Toronto, the Blue Jays had high upside talent, but lack the talent at the upper minors. The pipeline was turned into a shot at the playoffs not once, but twice.
With an Anthopoulos-less Blue Jays team dropped in to his lap, Shapiro then had a new set of incentives and would have to create his own vision for the team. If his time in Cleveland is any indication, that vision is a sustainable winner. If he were to continue the trajectory that AA had set the team on then he’d be unlikely to reach that goal. The Blue Jays would have been much closer to a smart version of the 2012 Phillies than to the dynastically inclined Cardinals. In order to fix that the Jays don’t have to hit the brakes, but it does require easing off the gas a little bit. That means holding back on going for broke in 2017 in an attempt at future success. In doing so, Shapiro has to treat things like the David Price trade as a sunk cost. In economic terms, that makes perfect sense, but in emotional terms, it’s tough to accept.
People don’t like waiting, especially when the ultimate goal (a World Series victory) looks so incredibly attainable. Shapiro’s vision, if it is as I described, will likely result in more Septembers with meaningful baseball over the next five seasons. But, the further away from the present that you’re projecting, the more risky it is that anything you’re attempting to achieve comes true. As such, I’d love to see the team make a greater effort this season, but I can also see the strategy behind waiting. Further depleting the system and adding backloaded contracts will restrict the team of its resources in the years to come. However, so many resources have already been dedicated to this window: the Blue Jays aren’t far from serious contention in the AL East. In the end, there probably is no right answer from a strategic point-of-view, but it certainly doesn’t help your argument when you’re handing out multi-year extensions to below replacement level players.
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