It’s been a confusing—and, some would say, frustrating—offseason for the Toronto Blue Jays so far. An underwhelming 2017 season has seen a team that made back-to-back ALCS appearances in 2015 and 2016 drop off towards the middle of the pack in the American League. As fans and commentators debate on whether the team should rebuild or make a playoff push in 2018, the only moves the team has made to date have been the shrewd, but likely not overly impactful, acquisitions of middle infield depth.
For the first time in a few years, it’s hard to know what exactly to make of the Jays’ position within the American League, and what direction the team should be taking for the upcoming season. And neither of the two clear options for the Jays—rebuilding or trying to contend—present a clear path forward.
Rebuilding is never ideal, and it’s not a guaranteed path to fielding a competitive team. The Jays still have a considerable amount of talent on the 2018 roster and some amount of money to fill holes that exist. At the same time, the Jays don’t look like any of the elite teams in the American League, and won’t be able to change that through a few free agent signings or trades. Do the Jays want to wrestle with the Angels, Twins, Mariners, Rays and Rangers (all of whom currently project to be within five wins of the Blue Jays) for a wildcard spot, only to then try and run through the New York/Cleveland/Boston/Houston gauntlet?
If you think the Jays should try and compete, the current crop of free agents come with a lot of questions. Is Jay Bruce, with his career .319 OBP, worth the five years and $80 million he is rumored to be asking for? While Lorenzo Cain seems to be a good fit, can the soon-to-be 32-year-old continue to provide value in the outfield and on the bases as he moves into his mid- and late 30s? Are some of the cheaper outfield alternatives like Jarrod Dyson and Jon Jay enough of an improvement on the current group of Blue Jays outfielders?
If you think the Jays should rebuild, just as many questions exist. If the plan is to trade Josh Donaldson, what kind of value can they get in return? Many people think that if the team could acquire an impact prospect in exchange for Donaldson, the Blue Jays would have made the deal already. And if you take a look at what the Detroit Tigers received for J.D. Martinez at this year’s trade deadline, it certainly seems like teams have started to place a premium on prospect talent and controllable players.
That said, it was only a year ago that the Yankees were able to land one of the best prospects in baseball, Gleyber Torres, for half a season of closer Aroldis Chapman. The Brewers were able to land Baseball Prospectus’ 12th and 68th best prospects, Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz, for a year and two months of Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress.
If we are confused about what kind of team the Blue Jays are, and how they should go about planning for the 2018 season and beyond, then, it’s par for the course.
Inherent in being stuck in the middle is embracing a level of unknown that doesn’t come with being an elite team—or a rebuilding one. A middling team can look like either a contender or a rebuilder depending on how you hold it up to the light. And while some people’s greatest fear is getting stuck in this ambiguous middle for not just 2018, but the next five seasons as well, Toronto baseball fans shouldn’t be concerned. The front office has prioritized the development of a continuous wave of minor league talent that can help the big league club. The Blue Jays’ farm system is starting look a lot like Cleveland’s—and yes, that’s a good thing.
So while it might be frustrating to hear Ross Atkins and company refuse to talk in absolutes when it comes to the direction of the team, it does make sense. A few tweaks in one direction or another could swing the Jays into either a legitimate contender or a team tooling up for 2019. Atkins will tell you he’s trying to do both at the same time, and there’s precedent for it: The Twins were both rebuilding and contending in 2017. So were the Astros in 2016.
One of the positives of being a middling team is it gives the Jays front office flexibility—the ability to pivot based on the market forces within the game. If the price on free agents like Lorenzo Cain begins to drop, they can be opportunistic and build a team that looks like a strong wild card contender. Similarly, if there is a prospect haul to be had in a Josh Donaldson trade, one that adds elite talent to a system that already includes two of baseball’s best prospects, the next great Blue Jays team could be closer than we think.
Looking at the Blue Jays right now is like looking at a Rorschach test—you see what you want to see. Some see a team good enough to push its chips in and compete one last time with an aging core. Others see a team that needs to reset and build a core of young, controllable talent that could eventually compete with the likes of the Yankees, Astros, Cubs and Dodgers. But that’s what happens when you are somewhere the middle.
Blue Jay fans might not be used to this middle ground—this is a team that went from being non-competitive, to one of the best in baseball in 2015-16, and then back to non-competitive in 2017. As confusing and uncertain as the middle ground is, though, there are worse problems to have as a fan of a baseball team. The Jays have enough talent on the major league roster to make 2018 competitive, and enough prospects in the system that the future can still be bright. Which way the pendulum will swing is still uncertain, but don’t worry: They’ll be definitively good or (hopefully not) definitively bad again before you know it.
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