Sorry Blue Jays fans, things may actually get worse, before they get better.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the team re-sets and re-builds the right way after a dismal and disappointing 76-86 finish in 2017.
Just look at the champion Houston Astros, for instance. Just four years ago, they were coming off their third straight 100-loss season (111) and looking for all the world like chumps.
But, they drafted wisely, with homegrown stars like Dallas Keuchel (2009 draft), Lance McCullers Jr. (2012), Jose Altuve (international free agent), Carlos Correa (1st overall in 2012), Alex Bregman (second overall in 2015) and George Springer (2011) all playing major roles in a championship this season.
The Jays, who have many holes to either fill, or have contingency plans for, will probably undergo at least a couple of seasons worth of misery to hopefully get back to being a contender.
It won’t be easy, but it wasn’t for Houston, so why should it be different for Toronto?
Here are 10 things the team needs to do to put the Jays name back in the post-season conversation down the road.
10. Get Younger
Every GM’s worst nightmare is a fan base clamoring for a quick fix with veteran acquisitions, when clearly the only route to purse is to shed the team of aging stars and get younger. Ross Atkins off-season plate is rather full and if he’s smart, he won’t throw stupid money at the Jays’ many problem areas. Which means that he ought to ascertain whether youngsters like OF Anthony Alford, SS Richard Urena, 1B Rowdy Tellez and OF Teoscar Hernandez are close to ready before offering contracts to big name free agents. Also in the pipe are intriguing youngsters such as 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (.323, 13 HR 76 RBI at Class A in 2017) and INF Bo Bichette (.362, 14 HR, 74 RBI at Class A). These two could represent very capable left side of the infield in a couple of years (and make Josh Donaldson expendable, for one). Eventually, the Jays have to listen to the baseball people, and not the fans and media.
9. Get Faster
Houston proved that team speed is paramount to winning. Not just on the base paths, but all around. Yes, they stole the eighth most bases in a modern league that doesn’t emphasize it much, but they got a lot of runs and prevented many others by using their wheels. The Jays, on the other hand, were the anti-speed team which looked slow in just about every capacity (they were second last in stolen bases at 53). To wit, having Jose Bautista in right field and Steve Pearce in left hardly caused any opposing batter pause when a ball was ripped into the corners. Many times this season, the Jays just looked plain sloppy defensively and offensively, and a lot of it had to do with hustle. If Atkins et al want to target a free agent or orchestrate a trade to boost team speed, Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton would be a good stop gap.
8. Corner Outfield Stability (And Some Hitting Too!)
Jose Bautista’s tenure in Toronto is over, which leaves a big hole in right to fill. And, the revolving door in left field that saw Ezequiel Carrera, Steve Pearce, Nori Aoki and Chris Coghlan (did we miss anyone?) all spend time there needs to be addressed. If the kids like Anthony Alford and Teoscar Hernandez aren’t quite ready for prime time, the Blue Jays brain trust could look at either swinging a deal, or targeting a few free agents not named Bautista. Such as Texas Rangers OF Carlos Gomez (.255, 17 HR, 51 RBI) and Washington’s Howie Kendrick (.315, 9 HR 41 RBI). Or if they want to go bigger, Cleveland’s Jay Bruce (.254, 36 HR, 101 RBI) or Arizona’s J.D. Martinez (.303, 45 HR, 104 RBI) are also available in free agency — at significant cost. Value free agents to be had include Seattle’s Jarrod Dyson (.251, 5 HR, 30 RBI) and Cleveland’s Austin Jackson (.318, 7 HR, 35 RBI).
7. Middle Infield Contingency Plan
Just like their corner outfield situation, the Jays are staring at a bit of black hole in the middle of their infield in 2018. Will SS Troy Tulowitzki make it all the way back from a significant ankle injury and could he remain healthy enough to contribute like he has in the past? Also in the same boat is who the Jays thought was their starting second baseman in Devon Travis. After showing much promise in the field and at the plate, various injuries have forced him out of 173 total games in the last two seasons. Toronto can’t go forward with infield spare parts Ryan Goins, Darwin Barney (free agent) or Rob Refsnyder. No one from the minors, save Richard Urena (marginally) seem ready to assume a starting role, so again, Atkins and Shapiro may have to find some free agent help, just in case one or both of Tulo and Travis aren’t ready in 2018. Boston utility man Eduardo Nunez would be worth a call, to start.
6. Remake The Bullpen
Outside of young closer Roberto Osuna, no Blue Jays’ bullpen jobs should be considered safe. The Jays pitching Achilles heel in 2017 started and ended in the ‘pen (other than the blister injury to Aaron Sanchez). And even Osuna had to overcome some adversity this season, saving 39 but also blowing 10 saves, which was highest in the major leagues. Dominic Leone, who bounced back nicely as a set-up man (2.56 ERA, 81 Ks in 70.1 innings) is a building block too, but things get dicey after that. Danny Barnes, Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera were all decent, but decent won’t win a team a championship. After that troika, it was a dog’s breakfast of relievers that included Jason Grilli (6.97 ERA), J.P. Howell (7.36 ERA), Jeff Beliveau (7.47 ERA) and Mike Bolsinger (6.31 ERA). There is plenty of help in free agency, should the new regime wants to spend any money at all this off-season including Boston’s Addison Reed and L.A.’ s Tony Watson.
5. Field The Ball Better As A Team
From the catcher on out, the Blue Jays weren’t a cohesive unit defensively in 2018. They finished 13th in baseball in fielding percentage at .985, making 92 collective errors (not including mental ones that popped up frequently). Speaking of catching, Russell Martin, when he was in the line-up, threw out just 20 percent of potential base stealers, which was well down from the 44 percent he gunned down in 2015. Collectively, the four-headed Blue Jays catching monster (including Raffy Lopez, Luke Maile and Miguel Montero) made the Jays a target for base stealers as they gunned down just 27 of 166 (16.3 percent). Another who dragged the defence down this year were (surprisingly) was Josh Donaldson, who made 14 errors for a career second worst fielding percentage of .949. Not a good year, all around, as the team wasn’t sharp in the field.
4. Cut Ties With Veterans, Eventually
The Blue Jays will have the added distraction in 2018 of Josh Donaldson’t impending free agency, as well as the expiring deals of starting pitchers J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada. Thus, and we know it’s cliche, Blue Jays management will have to decide to fish or just cut bait. With top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. making his way up the ladder to one day — hopefully soon — take over the hot corner, Donaldson may be expendable. Or, Atkins engineers a blockbuster to at least get something for the 2015 MVP. As for Happ and Estrada go, they will be 36 and 35, respectively, at seasons end and the way they both trended down in 2017, they too could be on the fast train out. Again, they could be dangled in a deal to a contender to get younger players in. Steve Pearce will be 35 next year and a free agent, so he’s likely gone too. Tough decisions all around, but Atkins will have to make them one way or the other.
3. Make Better Contact And Manufacture Runs
The old Earl Weaver way of winning ball games “pitching, defence and the three-run homer” is not a baseball philosophy anyone should espouse in this day of analytics and “the shift.” But, offensively at least, it looked for all the world that the Blue Jays were going to live and die by the three-run bomb in 2017 — and we all know how that turned out. In 2015 and even 2016, they could get away with it, but this year the team’s offence was impotent. They scored just 693 runs (fifth worst in baseball), down 66 from 2016 and nearly 200 from when they topped the MLB in 2015 with 891. They didn’t make great contact at all, with a .240 average that only beat San Diego for the bottom. The Jays also had only 25 sacrifice hits (18th in baseball) and just 22 pinch hits (20th overall). Other than not hitting very well with runners in scoring position, the most telling stat was the number of times they grounded into double plays. They were second worst in baseball, with 153. Ugh.
2. Preach Patience And Manage Expectations
After two straight seasons in the playoffs and a 24-year championship drought staring them in the face last spring, the expectation needle was turned to “11.” From the fans, to the media and the players themselves, it was World Series or bust. Once April was over though, the season was a foregone conclusion: big, bad bust. The Jays never really got close to a wild card berth and on a lot of days looked like they were mailing it in. This off-season, then, it is incumbent on the relatively new management team of Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro to keep the faithful from losing it by preaching some patience and not making any grandiose proclamations about success. As we said above, their needs to be some pain before there is any gain in the Big Smoke. Fanning the flames of social media by talking from both sides of their mouths about this club would not be a way to go.
1. Have A Definitive “Shan-A-Plan”
It may seem quite funny to some, but the Blue Jays brain trust ought to rip a page from the Toronto Maple Leafs and president Brendan Shanahan when it comes to the future of the baseball club. While the Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup in 50 years — and the Jays looking at 25 next year — Shanahan and his gang implemented a plan that included shedding the team of deadwood talent and building from within with youth. Now, the Leafs did get Auston Matthews to speed it up, but baseball can also turn on a dime on occasion. However, Atkins and Shapiro have to stick with a plan to make this team younger and more dynamic, much like the core of the Astros (which was built through the draft), while making deft trades and thoughtful free agent acquisitions. We haven’t heard a whole lot about any Atkins/Shapiro plan, so maybe it would behoove them to let the faithful in on it. Soon.