Even the most optimistic Blue Jays pundit would have a hard time appreciating what’s happened so far in the Blue Jays offseason. While the recent return of Jose Bautista was a public relations balm, it’s been a net negative for the boys in blue, with Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Saunders, and Brett Cecil having skipped town, leaving holes in the lineup and the bullpen. While there’s still offseason left, the cupboard is getting bare, and the messages from the front office suggest that most of the big work is done.
A lot of what the Jays have done makes it seem like they’re hedging their bets for the 2017 season, trying to be just good enough to compete without making too much of a dent on their future financial ledger. This makes some sense, given the makeup of their team, and the results of the prior season: an old team lost the division when all was said and done, even if they made it to the ALCS for the second consecutive season. Boston went and added Chris Sale, fortifying a rotation that already has Rick Porcello and David Price. The Jays have countered with… Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce. Fine players in their own right, but when you’re losing Edwin Encarnacion (and Michael Saunders), they don’t seem that palatable.
Again, one can see the reasoning behind the Jays being frugal without a lot of mental gymnastics. As mentioned previously, the Jays were old last season. They have Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin going headlong into their mid-3os with expensive contracts after down seasons offensively. Their lineup centerpiece, Josh Donaldson, is under their control for only two more years before he’ll want his own huge deal. So Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, two fan favourites who’d been instrumental in revitalizing a moribund franchise, were treated without much sentiment by the new(ish) front office, mostly because of their own advancing athletic age.
The advantage of being a veteran team is having that open playoff window, an opportunity for the team to capture the biggest prize. All those great players suggest a certain level of success, one Jays fans have relished of late. The magical playoff run of 2015 (and the sequel in 2016) revitalized a city that had been mostly indifferent towards baseball since the 90s, and got fans interested and invested again. Encarnacion and Bautista were big names, names that fans know and love, players that had been established as part of the team. They bring value and familiarity to the brand that doesn’t translate especially well to a quarterly statement.
Wondering whether EE could have come back on the deal he got from Cleveland is a sadly academic exercise now, and one that Shapiro and Atkins probably haven’t spent much time on. They had their plan, and stuck to it, for all the good and bad that entailed. After being frugal last offseason paid off, with J.A. Happ rather than David Price in the rotation, it’s easy to see why they might have gone down that path again, striking early on a mid-range target rather than commit more large money to a lineup that’s already pretty long in the tooth. The specter of recent Phillies teams probably loomed large for Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins, as they wanted to avoid the contract and prospect wasteland that the Phillies are only now starting to dig themselves out of.
The Jays are (probably) still looking for ways to improve. But, again, the big work is done, and the opportunities have mostly passed. Coming in second or third on a free agent like Dexter Fowler isn’t terribly useful, and having traded almost enough (or almost too much) to pry Andrew McCutchen from Pittsburgh shouldn’t keep anyone up at night. That left field spot is likely to be a competition, which is unfortunate given the options that currently exist on the roster. A first base platoon isn’t terribly exciting, especially when Justin Smoak is featured prominently. The bullpen is still a little rickety, outside of Osuna, Biagini, and maybe Grilli. Gavin Floyd and Aaron Loup are familiar, if not terribly good returnees. And they still need a backup catcher.
So what are we to make of this Jays team, having had a mostly forgettable offseason? Well, they were a wildcard team last year, and can probably be in that mix again this year. A lot of big names still dot the roster: Donaldson, Tulo, Bats, Russ, Travis, they’re all still around, and still pretty good. Sanchez and Stroman still have growing to do. R.A. Dickey won’t be here, which is either a plus or a minus depending on how you feel about the old knuckler.
As a Blue Jays fan, It’s easy to be frustrated with a front office that seemed like they were sitting on their hands. With that frustration, one can still understand why they might have done that, with eyes faced forward on a team getting old quickly. Being prudent isn’t much fun, though, especially when they were so close (twice!) to reaching the World Series. It was a long unsuccessful stretch for Jays fans, so of course we’d want to see the most successful Jays team in recent history get built up rather than left to wilt, or torn down. And the front office wants to take advantage of that success, while not jeopardizing the future of a revitalized franchise. They probably haven’t done enough yet to make this 2017 team great, but there’s still time for that to change.
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