The Toronto Blue Jays play a game that sprawls out to cover over half of the annual calendar. Beginning with hedged optimism in the dewed chill of Spring, their season blossomed through the Summer heat to inspire excitement in a place where none has existed for many years. Then, seemingly overnight, 30 nights passed. The Blue Jays lineup lost connection with the spirit of May and June, and the team that once held 1st place in the AL East for nearly two months plummeted from their pedestal in what felt like the blink of an eye.
Perhaps the Blue Jays’ familiarity with failure allowed this script to play out in such a calmly expected way. A 9-17 record in the month of August saw the Blue Jays find new ways to lose each week. If the starting pitching was performing, the bats were asleep. If the lineup was rolling, the bullpen buckled.
Despite the Major League season being longer than any in professional sports, 2014 has taught Blue Jays fans that it is incredibly fragile. The ability to always return “tomorrow” often veils the losses of the day, and the rate at which tomorrows can build. Regardless of the disastrous August, Blue Jays fans must learn from this year that a baseball season, like a roster, must be looked at in it’s absolute entirety.
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A 4-3 loss on a throwing error in April counts for one loss, just as a blowout does in August. Baseball is a game of completeness where each effort applies equally, where a club strokes their brush across the canvas 162 times in an attempt to produce the greatest results they can. The Blue Jays performance in 2014, however, has mirrored their top-heavy roster. They relied heavily on bursts of greatness which they hoped would carry them over their valleys of mediocrity, just as their roster relied on it’s stars to carry it’s dead weight.
April saw the Blue Jays enter the season with a strong lineup of 9 starters. Brett Lawrie looked poised to break out with a full season at third base, and there was still hope that Colby Rasmus would find his way in his contract year. Second Base was the only true question mark on the roster, but between Ryan Goins and Maicer Izturis, the Blue Jays thought they had enough to succeed. The results of this season, however, should teach fans to look at the bottom five names on the 25-man roster, not just the top five.
Brett Lawrie went down to injury along with Maicer Izturis, and Ryan Goins struggled mightily with the bat. The 4th outfielder spot became a revolving door filled with AAA call-ups and waiver-wire adds, while the bullpen’s 2013 dominance was exposed as an outlier. Toronto’s depth was tested, and it failed.
Many point to these injuries as the reason the Blue Jays’ season was derailed, but I see that as a narrow-minded excuse. For instance, take the AL East winning Baltimore Orioles, who have run away with the division despite long-term injuries to Manny Machado and Matt Wieters. Look at the New York Yankees, who despite crippling injuries to numerous starting pitchers, finished one game ahead of the Blue Jays this season.
Great teams, and more importantly, playoff teams, have 10-11 starting quality MLB players on their roster, not 8-9. Injuries will inevitably hit, and players will under-perform. In the Blue Jays case, they were forced to field players of an unacceptable quality, which produced devastating holes in the lineup. With the 7-8-9 spots in the order often filled with Minor League castoffs, opposing pitchers were given a resting spot. They were able to pitch around Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Adam Lind, because they knew that there was nothing to fear behind them.
The Blue Jays roster quickly became a 3-legged table. With such weakness at the bottom of their order, they could not afford a down game from any other facet of their ball club. If the starting pitching, bullpen, or heart of the order had an “off” game, the table came crashing down, night after night.
Moving forward, the Blue Jays have holes to fill, but the clarity of those holes in 2014 should allow their needs to be seen in black and white. Alex Anthopoulos continues to insist that he is not being restricted in terms of payroll, so he should be fully able to attack the Free Agency and trade markets this Winter. He will be looking to address Second Base, the bullpen, Centre Field, Left Field, and perhaps even starting rotation depth.
The Blue Jays have every opportunity to give their top-heavy roster the one quality that it needs to reach the playoffs in 2015: wholeness. If not now, then when? With R.A. Dickey, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes, and Mark Buehrle not getting any younger, the Blue Jays have an opportunity to strike while the have the necessary cornerstones in place.
For Blue Jays fans, it will be another long Winter before a season that will be met with tentative expectations. Regardless of how well Toronto is to play next season, the fan base will be reminded of this season, and know to not let their hopes rise too high, or sink too low.
The Rogers Centre fills nightly with young fans who are not old enough to remember the last time that Toronto played playoff baseball. Just as “tomorrows” build quickly through a season, “next years” build quickly through the life of a Blue Jays fan.