The Blue Jays face an uncertain offseason, and an uncertain future beyond that. To succeed, they need a plan
The impending free agencies of Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Saunders, and Brett Cecil create uncertainty for the Jays, but also the opportunity to define a vision for the future. Here are my thoughts about one way that the Jays could define that vision.
The conventional model for baseball teams is to build a team so all of the pieces peak at the right time. In that (limited) window of opportunity, the team should do everything possible to win – including trading long-term assets for short-term help. Examples in recent Jays history were the Josh Johnson et al and Dickey trades in the 2012-13 offseason, and the David Price trade in 2015.
The problem with this “all-in” strategy is that results are far from certain. Too many things can go wrong, and too many other teams can be peaking at the same time. And while the “boom” years can be exciting, the “bust” years …. are not.
The alternative is to build a team that is in contention for the playoffs every year, on the theory that once you are in, anything can happen. This means foregoing rentals and quick fixes in favour of long-term solutions.
Recommendation: don’t sacrifice the future for the present
Manage the $$$
When I was a child, I had a friend who would get his allowance on Saturday morning and have it all spent by Saturday noon. He would then spend the remainder of the week complaining that he had no money, and wheedling his parents for more cash. Many major-league GMs remind me of that child, in that they take on massive amounts of payroll without (it appears) any consideration for the consequences.
Recommendation: respect the financial side of the business. Plan ahead
Scientia potentia est
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When asked why the Jays dropped out of the Aroldis Chapman sweepstakes, Alex Anthopoulos said “We weren’t as familiar with the player as we needed to be“. This is the worst possible excuse. To compete at the mlb level, a team needs to take intelligent risks. To succeed, they need to have the best possible information. Compared to ballplayers, international scouts are cheap. If they can find a single King Kang, Final Boss or Ginny Baker, they pay for themselves a hundred times over.
Recommendation: win the scouting game.
Outside the box
Historically, there have been many “truisms” in baseball that have proven false. Japanese players are too small to excel in the majors (yeah, right). Cuban pitchers’ fastballs won’t dominate against MLB batters the way they did in Cuba (of course not). Short pitchers will never succeed at the mlb level (never happen). In each case, the teams who were the first to challenge these paradigms were the ones to reap the greatest benefits.
The Jays have done well in this area, drafting Stroman (“too short”), trading for Travis (“no plus tool”), and signing Estrada (“no 90+ mph fastball”)
Recommendation: challenge conventional thinking. Look for talent where others are not looking.
The Jays do not have the best record in the entry draft over the last few years. This is an area in which they need to excel. A strong farm system not only helps to fill the team, but also keeps costs down and provides trade chips in the (hopefully rare!) cases where they are needed for a trade. The same comment about international scouts applies here – the incremental cost of hiring the best scouts, and many of them, is far outweighed by the benefits of just one good 25th overall pick.
Recommendation: invest in the draft. Big.
No matter how well a team drafts, a pick is still a lottery ticket. The only way to guarantee a higher potential for success is to increase the number of tickets. There are several ways to do this. The first is to trade for competitive balance picks. So if the Jays were to talk to the Reds about Votto, or to the Diamondbacks about Tomas, they could ask for a pick instead of a contribution to salary. The second way is through QOs. Trading for a player with one year left of team control who had QO potential (Melvin Upton? Francisco Liriano?) increases the chances of additional QOs. And finally, the easiest way to maximize the number of draft picks is to lose as few as possible (by signing free agents with QOs attached).
Recommendation: treat draft picks like gold
As Gibby himself pointed out, the Jays were an unbalanced team in 2016. They would have benefited from a more balanced offence, with more and better left handed hitters, more speed and baserunning acumen, and less of a reliance on the long ball. Going forward, they should target trades and FA pickups that fit the vision of what the team should look like.
A good example of this was the Russell Martin signing. In my view, the 5/$82m was an overpay … but a brilliant one. At that time, the Jays’ future was in their young pitchers – Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris, Roberto Osuna, Jeff Hoffman. What the team needed more than anything was a catcher who could support these youngsters with top decile pitch-framing and pitch-calling. Looked at in that context, Martin was a dream sign.
Of course, there will always be opportunistic signings. Few Jays fans would want to undo the Josh Donaldson trade. But if such a signing throws off the vision, the team should be able to compensate with other trades or signings to get back on course.
Recommendation: if you don’t know where you are going …
The bottom line
To win frequently and consistently, the Jays need to have a plan and to play within it. It is easy to fall into the trap of being reactive and to focus on the short term, but in my view that would be (and has been) a mistake.