TORONTO — In February of 2016, when Jose Bautista arrived at spring camp and the talk of a possible contract extension was at full boil, one Toronto-based media type said this of the idea of giving the outfielder a nine-figure-deal: “This team gave Vernon Wells US$126 million in 2007, back when that was an awful lot of money in baseball terms. It would seem much more likely to work out better this time.”
So that was not the best call from that particular writer. Handsome fella, though. Reminds me of a young Harrison Ford. Not super-young, but Indiana Jones-era.
OK, fine, it was me. Good thing these columns are published and then disappear for eternity. But, one of the points in that piece that has aged a little better was the suggestion that the challenge for Blue Jays management at that point was trying to build on their sudden success when so many players were past what would normally be their prime years. Two years and two seasons later, it’s still the key challenge.
It would have been so much simpler, really, if the Jays had just continued to disappoint. When the team’s ownership decided four years ago that it wanted a change at the top of the organization, there was plenty of evidence to support the notion. There had been a patient rebuild, followed by aggressive trades, and the end result was the same: seasons that were over by August. A top-down remake made a lot of sense. But by the time the Blue Jays had the new boss in place, baseball awkwardly got in the way.
That wild success of 2015 made a tear-down unthinkable, and the no-longer-new front office of Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins has been trying ever since to build for the future while remaining competitive at the major-league level. While the movement in sports in recent years has seen teams either load up for a championship run or strip the roster down to the studs while stockpiling young talent, and where the mediocre middle is seen as death, the Jays have been neither wildly aggressive in pursuit of stars nor willing to raffle off their best present-day assets for future returns.
As much as this had earned the front office criticism for its timid, or, if you prefer, careful, approach, the strategy is at least understandable. The team went from two decades of irrelevance to a rollicking success story, with Rogers Communications raking in cash not just from the baseball side, but also across its many media platforms that were riding the blue wave. Would all those new devotees have stuck around if management went straight into tank mode? Shapiro himself admitted in December that business concerns kept management from pursuing a total roster reset.
And so, for two off-seasons now, Jays management has opted for that middle ground: adding competent major leaguers while building for the future, and avoiding any contract that might turn into an anchor. The thing about the rebuild on-the-fly, though: It is an exceedingly challenging task, and one that has never looked more difficult than it does for the Blue Jays in 2018.
Assuming that Aaron Sanchez continues his return to form, the starting rotation should be solid, and among the best in the American League. Between Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada, that is four starters who have in recent seasons varied from good to excellent. The bullpen has Roberto Osuna and then a bunch of guys, which is not all that surprising since teams generally don’t throw a pile of money at big-name relievers unless they are fairly certain that they will still be contention in the fall.
But it’s in the regular lineup where the problems of trying to be both prudent and competitive are most evident. Josh Donaldson is still great, and in a contract year has every reason to be an MVP-type player again. The rest of the infield is shot through with question marks. Can Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis stay healthy? Does Russell Martin, at 35, have enough left for a rebound year? Can Justin Smoak repeat his surprising 2017?
The outfield will feature newcomers Curtis Granderson, 37, and Randal Grichuk, 26, between Kevin Pillar. The corner outfielders, one an old guy with some pop and one a young guy with some pop, were low-cost options with some upside. Pillar is an amazing defender who is also great at defence. Kendrys Morales is a DH who can still hit, but whose numbers have trended down for three straight seasons, as they tend to do when a player hits his mid-30s.
All of it adds up to an everyday lineup that needs a lot to go right if the Blue Jays are going to hang around the playoff races, especially in a division also populated by spare-no-expense teams in New York and Boston. And if not enough goes right? Then 2017 could happen again, where Toronto’s offence was worst in the league, except this time with Donaldson’s pending free agency to add to the angst.
Eventually, the kids will arrive to help, but for now the Blue Jays will navigate their awkward path: not ready to bottom out, but needing several surprises if they are get back into contention.
It seems unlikely. But this space has been wrong before.
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @scott_stinson
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