Amidst the doom and gloom of a year in a sport where hopes were dashed and a desired fairy tale ending went horribly awry, comes the inevitable promise of a fresh start, a new beginning, and the chance for fans of the Toronto Blue Jays to embrace a team resembling so much of what was familiar but has now truly changed.
The faithful have watched the unceremonious departure of key stalwarts who, judging from the inevitable social media backlash which followed, will be sorely missed. Brett Cecil, Joaquin Benoit, and Edwin Encarnacion, three key cogs in the Jays wheel down the stretch, have flown to greener pastures and for markedly different reasons. Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders aren’t likely to return, either.
However, management sufficiently teased the imagination of fans by signing key additions (Morales, Pearce) at the start of the off-season while making legitimate efforts to land prized talent in addressing prioritized needs (Fowler, Reddick, Blackmon, McCutchen). Yet those same needs are still pressing and magnified in the face of competitive free agency splashes by defending American League division champions – Boston, Cleveland, and Texas.
After successive failures to reach the World Series, but with enough joie de vivre to entice a new generation of rabid followers and neophyte bandwagoneers, it’s not surprising to acknowledge the degree of anticipation which has run rampant during this winter. The proverbial window isn’t closed, but there’s no doubting in the minds of many that it no longer carries with it the panoramic view once held at the start of the 2016 season. The consensus seems to be that every contender is getting better, and the Blue Jays are becoming worse.
The proverbial window isn’t closed, but there’s no doubting in the minds of many that it no longer carries with it the panoramic view once held at the start of the 2016 season. The consensus seems to be that every contender is getting better, and the Blue Jays are becoming worse.
But if you really stop and think about the state of this baseball franchise moving forward, it isn’t difficult to appreciate why guarded optimism is often tempered in the face of the cosmic baseball universe. After all, cynicism is a natural mantra for the beleaguered Toronto fan whose lingering memories of 1992 and 1993 are fading more and more with each passing year.
My argument is therefore a simple one, predicated mostly on the notion that sometimes it makes more sense to take stock of what you have in your life instead of lamenting what’s missing. It’s easy to dread what could or should have been, but it’s infinitely more challenging and satisfying to appreciate what you have and why it’s important to be thankful – especially when considering the core of this Blue Jays group (Donaldson/Tulo/Martin) who collectively have yet to experience what it feels like to win a championship trophy at the Major League level.
Why should the Toronto baseball fan be thankful? I can think of a multitude of reasons why the glass is half-full, and why the future isn’t nearly as bleak as most are projecting it to be. Let’s review:
Be thankful for Josh Donaldson because he’s an elite player in his prime, is the heart and soul of the team, capable of winning multiple MVPs while making the post-season experience the norm and not the exception for the long-suffering fans of this team. He was also traded for Brett Lawrie, which in essence is the equivalent of Christmas and Hanukkah coalescing much like they did in 2016.
Be thankful for Russell Martin because he’s been to the playoffs in 9 of his 11 major league seasons, and since his arrival, the Blue Jays have sported cumulative team ERAs of 3.80 and 3.87. The last time they were so potent was in 2008, when a certain bloke named Roy Halladay captured the Cy Young award.
Be thankful for Troy Tulowitzki because he came to this market against his own will and has quietly transformed himself into the de facto captain of this team, and although his struggles last year were magnified during the first half of the season, remains ones of the best defensive shortstops in the American League and can still top a 4.0+ WAR when healthy.
Be thankful for Joe Biagini because he’s an eclectic hipster who makes us laugh at the very mention of anything mildly serious, will be part of the 7-8-9 inning triumvirate featuring Jason Grilli and Roberto Osuna, and because of his Miller-esque performance during the playoffs (0.00 ERA in 7.1 IP). He’s also an unsung hero of the most recent campaign, which inspired me to herald him long before anyone else thought it was fashionable.
Be thankful for Jason Grilli because he shot ageism in the arm by coming out of nowhere and becoming an indispensable part of the bullpen, all the while pushing 40. And because his competitive spirit is synonymous with fighting the good fight with every appearance. And those bloody awesome fist pumps with overcompensated emotion bubbling over like a volcanic geyser.
Be thankful for Roberto Osuna because he’s one of the best young closers in the game, has shown a level of maturation well beyond his actual age, owns a 0.93 WHIP through two years in MLB, has converted 56 of 65 saves, and is also only 21 years old. He’s already been through elbow surgery, never played a single game below AAA, and comes from a family devoted to the pursuit of God and baseball. It’s quite possible that he was crafted straight from the imagination of W.P. Kinsella.
Be thankful for Devon Travis because he reminds us of Kirby Puckett, is the only bona fide .300 hitter on the roster, and is the last vestige of an infamous trade that has managed to make the team better with his presence in the lineup. His ability to protect the plate while putting the ball into play is quickly becoming the stuff of legends. Some would argue that I’m biased as to the extent of his upside, and I’ll be the first to reply with a resounding: Yes. I’m definitely biased.
Be thankful for Francisco Liriano because he’s another left-handed starter who pitches with pride, and by season’s end started to resemble the vaunted pitcher he once was with Russell Martin in Pittsburgh (2013). And because we’re absolutely eager to see what a full season with his favourite catcher will likely produce, knowing that a 2.92 ERA was the result of a most pristine collaboration between the two.
Be thankful for Aaron Sanchez because he led the league in ERA (3.00), won 15 games on a restricted innings count, finished 7th in American League Cy Young voting during his second year in the big leagues, and flashed a level of wizardry that makes us wonder just how far he’ll go in 2017. And because he’s the best young pitcher this franchise has ever witnessed right out of the gate.
Be thankful for J.A. Happ because he turned out to be the best value in baseball for the money while making his employers look like absolute geniuses. And because he won 20 games, finishing in the top 10 in winning percentage, ERA, and WHIP. And because if you take a closer look at his 2016 season, you can’t help but be struck by his discipline and poise – the man has a plan in every at-bat, and I dare you to defy him.
Be thankful for Marcus Stroman because he battled the entire year amidst naysayers who felt he was too diminutive to be an ace on this team, and because the organization values him more than acquiring a top-ranked centre-fielder in the National League. And also because he held opponents to a .171 average in the playoffs over 11+ innings.
Be thankful for Marco Estrada because he’s an all-star and handled those nagging questions about his back by holding opponents to a .203 BAA and then improving on the number in the post-season with an ungodly 0.72 WHIP. And because he’s got a great sense of humour and knows what’s at stake.
Be thankful for the newly acquired Kendrys Morales because he’s a proven winner, hit 30 home runs last year in the cavernous confines of Kauffman stadium and because he can switch hit with reckless abandon, and that his home run blasts have the same emotional intensity as some of the best hitters in the game. And also because he can switch hit and launch left-handed blasts into a part of the SkyDome where fans aren’t accustomed to catching fly balls.
Be thankful for Steve Pearce because he’s a multi-positional depth player, his WAR is deceptively impressive, and if you give him enough at-bats, he’s going to hit home runs in the most professional manner possible.
Be thankful for John Gibbons because he’s led this team to back-to-back ALCS finals and still doesn’t get the respect he deserves from fans and media alike. And because he probably never will, and that’s fine because when he finally does win the World Series, he’ll join Cito in an unheralded club of vastly underrated managers.
And there you have it – something promising for the average fan to chew on and appreciate in the coming winter months as we prepare for another season of baseball intrigue. Granted, there are warranted concerns as we remain only a stone’s throw away from opening day; the corner outfielder situation hasn’t been resolved, the bullpen is dangerously thin and without high leverage left-handed options, and the overall depth of the squad leaves little to be desired given the daunting evolution of certain AL East teams. But this intrepid group has a powerful nucleus that hasn’t changed since the middle of 2015, and has back-to-back ALCS finishes to show for it.
Oh, there will be the usual contrarian backlash of what some will no doubt categorize as an over-inflated sense of optimism and that I’m wilfully ignoring the reality of players staying healthy over the course of a whole season – to say nothing of the inherent danger of stacking an abundance of “wrong side of 30” personnel on a baseball roster. But I honestly can’t remember the last time fans in this city could embrace such a profound wealth of established veteran leadership and bona fide young talent in front of their very own eyes and not feel a reason to be genuinely thankful for their beloved Jays in 2017.