It is almost the end of May, and things are not looking good for baseball in Toronto. Actually, “not looking good” is an understatement.
The 2018 Toronto Blue Jays continue to be one of the most enigmatic teams in the league. Sometimes, it looks like they can’t lose, just take a look at the Luke Maile’s two(!) walk-offs in the first two months of the season. Other times, they look hopeless (see the four-game sweep against the Oakland Athletics).
At this point, the Blue Jays are effectively in baseball contention purgatory. They’re waiting on phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to break his way into the majors, while still believing that some current pieces like Josh Donaldson and Kevin Pillar can make this team into a winner. It doesn’t matter which one is true, what matters is the extreme ambiguity within the team’s current strategy.
That right there is the problem. This is a league of tanking. In the current landscape of Major League Baseball, front offices are playing with extremes. Either they’re incredibly talented and have the division locked down (Houston, Cleveland, Boston), or they’re as awful as awful can be, purposely failing to improve for the sake of an excellent draft position (Detroit, Cincinnati, Miami).
The Blue Jays, like fellow American League middleman Minnesota Twins, find themselves in a ridiculously difficult position as the season progresses.
When Mike Babcock first joined the Toronto Maple Leafs as their head coach in 2015, he boldly noted that there’s was going to be “pain coming” in the following couple of seasons. What he was referring to was a pair of losing seasons that would serve as the foundation for the team’s future success. They’d lose a little (or a lot), snag some great draft picks, and then re-tool for a serious playoff run.
While hockey is an entirely different animal, industry management is just about the same in both sports. Unfortunately for many Blue Jays fans, pain might be coming.
As of this morning, the Blue Jays sit in third place in the American League East with a record of 24-27. They’ve lost seven of their last ten and are gearing up to face the leading Boston Red Sox in a crucial midseason set that’ll see the Jays head to Fenway for the first time this season.
Even the most optimistic of Blue Jays fans will admit that this team, as it currently is constructed, is not fit to challenge the Red Sox or the Yankees for the division lead. The lack of quality starts from the starting five, defensive struggles and lack of timely hitting have all served as glaring examples of the flaws that this team is living with.
So, let us forget about the division for a moment and turn our attention to the saving grace of many fringe organizations over the past few seasons – the Wild Card spot.
As of right now, it is all but confirmed that the New York Yankees will take the first AL Wild Card spot if they do not manage to beat the Red Sox in the division race. If the Yankees end up winning the division, the Sox will grab the Wild Card spot. Beyond the Yanks/BoSox, the Blue Jays are up against the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Angels. Exhale.
The Mariners are one team that, just like the Jays, are streaky and undefined in their divisional standing. Since the suspension of All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano, the team has kept their head above water thanks to some outstanding hitting and some shutdown performances from some solid arms.
Just recently, the M’s added flamethrowing closer Alex Colomé in a rare May blockbuster trade. The deal also sent veteran outfielder Denard Span to Seattle. All things considered, this Mariners team is good, and can only get better.
The Angels, shiny and new, are everyone’s favorite AL West team. Emblazoned with a Japanese whiz kid and stacked with sluggers and speedsters alike, the other Los Angeles baseball club is not-so-quietly emerging as a serious contender for the second Wild Card spot.
Just like the Mariners, the Angels are likely to make some mid-season trades to patch up some of their weak spots. A lack of a reliable closer could push the team’s management to make a move that mirrors Jerry Dipoto’s Colomé swap. A struggling Kole Calhoun could also prompt them to look for a Span-type veteran who can fill the position for the rest of the year.
Either way, as different as these two teams are constructed, their plans for 2018 remain eerily similar, and unfortunately for Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins, brilliantly logical.
Let’s recap, shall we? We are currently looking at an elite group of future division winners who are sitting on a pedestal of prosperity. Below them, a pair of quasi-dominant up-and-coming franchises with assets to spare. Where then, do the Toronto Blue Jays fall in all this?
The simple answer is: we don’t know. But, we can make an educated guess.
Atkins and Shapiro have wisely said that they will not make a move unless it directly benefits the current team. While that may have made sense at the start of the season, perpetually evolving circumstances may force them down another path.
So let’s imagine that the Jays have conceded the Wild Card spot, and are comfortable with the fact that they are not better than the Mariners and/or the Angels. How can they go about retooling this roster?
For starters (no pun intended), Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ should be the first ones to go. Not because of performance, but because of what the team could get in return. Happ, who is enjoying a stellar season, could net a decent prospect with some cash. The same for Estrada, who, even though he’s struggled a bit out of the gate, has shown some signs of improvement over his last handful of starts. Any contender would jump at the chance to add a strong lefty like Happ or a fifth starter like Estrada as they approach the dog days of summer.
Moving through the pitching staff, the bullpen is a potential goldmine for retooling this roster. John Axford, Seung hwan Oh, and Tyler Clippard are all perfect candidates for deadline deals. Veteran relievers like them have been consistently fetching significant returns on the market. Oh, in particular, has a reasonable 2019 option, which could make him especially attractive if the Jays are indeed out of it.
In the outfield, Curtis Granderson (.243/.391/.806, 138 PA) and Steve Pearce (.273/.333/.485, 72 PA) are both in the final year of their contracts. Each has been defensively dependable and have shown the ability to hit in tough spots. If all goes well, both these men could be headed to a stronger team come to the end of July. Their veteran presence and platoon potentials are intriguing to any division leader.
Finally, we’ve reached the holy grail of deadline acquisitions – Josh Donaldson. Despite his early-season struggles, Donaldson is sure to have a huge price tag if any contenders want to take him on down the stretch. If the Jays want some young, controllable talent, Donaldson is the easiest way to get that. Of course, this is assuming that the team has forgone attempting to resign the 2015 MVP.
All in all, this team is ripe with assets that can be sold off at the deadline. The best part about a retool is that the franchise is still maintaining interest in the team by promising future success thanks to exciting young talent already in the organization.
The rest of 2018 might be tough, but the next few seasons will be exciting and competitive in all aspects of the game. Right now, all we can do as fans is watch and enjoy.
Regardless of whether the team goes forward with the retool described above or a full-scale teardown, one thing is for sure – there is pain coming.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)