After the Blue Jays won just 67 games back in the 2004 season, how did the front office react in an attempt to rebuild? There are some similarities for Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro this time around.
The Blue Jays produced a couple of exciting years of baseball in Toronto in 2015-16, but since have regressed back to a team that’s on the outside of the playoff picture for the last couple of years. That pendulum happens a lot in professional sports, but it’s never fun when a competitive window closes for your favourite franchise.
This isn’t the first time the Blue Jays have had to face such a thing though, even if it’s the real first rebuild for Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins in Toronto. They have experience working on the same in Cleveland where they were employed before coming to Toronto, and it’s easy to see the fruits of the labour that was put in by their front office in order to build their current competitor, some of which Shapiro and Atkins had a direct hand in.
However, the situation is a little different in Toronto, as the team has to rebuild knowing that division rivals like the Yankees and Red Sox are built to be sustainably strong, and a lot of the Jays’ best talent isn’t quite Major League ready. On the other hand, Shapiro and Atkins will have a bigger market and payroll to work with as the rebuild progresses, and that minor league talent I’m talking about is pretty darn good.
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The whole situation got me thinking about how the Blue Jays have handled these situations in the past, which lead me to looking back to the last time they produced something as low as 73 wins. We could look back as recently as 2012-13, but that is a bit of an outlier in that they didn’t take on a rebuild at that point at all, but rather retooled and found a way to build a winner a short time later.
However, if you look back to the 2004 season, I feel that’s the closest representation to what the Blue Jays are dealing with these days, and there are actually quite a few similarities.
That team was even worse, winning just 67 games that year which was the lowest total in franchise history since the first few seasons in the league, and with the exception of the strike shortened seasons of 1994-95. It was a team with plenty of issues to be sure, but they also employed an in-their-prime Roy Halladay and Carlos Delgado, and a 25 year old centre fielder by the name of Vernon Wells.
It was clear that this wasn’t going to be a winning team back then though, so the Blue Jays front office had to make some changes in order to try and build a winner, and several came before the 2005 season. The most significant of which was they let/watched Delgado leave in free agency, who signed with the Florida Marlins and left the only franchise he’d known as a professional.
Beyond that they didn’t make a lot of changes to the team, which was obviously a mistake in hindsight. They replaced Delgado at first base with a combination of Corey Koskie at third base, moving Eric Hinske to first, and also brought in Shea Hillenbrand to help cover the offensive load. They also lost Pat Hentgen, who retired after the 2004 season as a 35 year old after having a difficult year.
The result was an 80 win season in John Gibbons‘ first full season as the manager of the Blue Jays. They did also improve to win totals of 87 (2006), 83 (2007), and 86 (2008), but then fell back down to 74 in 2009 before Gibbons was dismissed and more changes came, most significantly the trade of franchise icon, Roy Halladay.
The biggest difference between then and now is the quality of the minor league talent in the system. In the mid-2000’s, then GM J.P. Riccardi elected to build around young stars like Wells, and Alex Rios, while keeping Halladay around to anchor the team. While they got better, they never finished better than 2nd in the AL East, and eventually the group was broken up. It was an attempt at patching a roster with some veteran additions and trying to build a winner on the fly around Halladay/Wells, but it just didn’t work.
This time around the Blue Jays are hoping to build a winner from within, and there aren’t a lot of veteran holdovers that’ll be around much beyond next season. It’ll be a totally different approach, one that will watch youth take over in Toronto, and hopefully a new generation of contenders North of the border.