In a recent radio interview, Ross Atkins said that his goal was to make the Jays “competitive as soon as possible”. Is that the appropriate goal?
In 1995, a number of MLB teams were struggling (including the Blue Jays, with a tied-for-worst-in-baseball 56 wins). Each of these franchises needed to find a way to become competitive.
Let’s talk about two of those franchises, and the different paths they chose.
Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga was getting impatient. He wanted a World Series ring, and he wanted it now. So he had his Miami Marlins go on a spending spree, signing big-name free agents like Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Devon White, Moises Alou, Alex Fernandez, Bobby Bonilla and Jim Eisenreich. The Marlins made the 1997 playoffs (as a wild card team) and beat the heavily favoured Yankees. Wayne got (bought?) his ring.
Toronto Blue Jays
But by spring training of 1999, one of the biggest fire sales in baseball history was effectively complete. 22 of the 1997 Marlins’ top 26 players by WAR were no longer with the team. The 1999 Marlins finished the season at 64-98.
Huizenga had wanted to win “asap”, and he succeeded, but at a cost. The Marlins did not achieve 80 wins again until 2003. Miami has not made the playoffs even once in the 15 years since then.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cards lost 81 games in 1995, even worse than the Marlins’ total of 76. The Cardinals had not made the playoffs since 1987. and not won a World Series since 1982. They, too, were tired of golfing in October and wanted to be competitive.
But they chose a different path.
The Cards realized that the usual cyclical model, under which a team would rebuild for years targeting one or two years of peak contention, was very dangerous. Instead, they developed a different model – to be competitive every year (even if not the favourite). If a team could consistently make it into the playoffs, even as a wild card team, good things could happen. They therefore eschewed the “all in” model in favour of a system of sustained player development with emphasis on long-term success.
Fun fact: since the wild card was introduced in 1995, six wild card teams have won the World Series. Over that same period. how many times have the team with the best regular season record won the series? Also six.
From 1996 onwards, the Cards were in the playoffs a crazy-good 13 times, winning the World Series in 2006 and 2011. From 2000-2018, the Yankees (big surprise) won more regular-season games (1,783) than any other team. But who was second? Not Boston. Not the Dodgers, or even the Blue Jays. Yes, it was the Cards (1,721).
Implications for the Blue Jays
The Jays need to make a decision. Do they want to be competitive “asap”, or to be competitive on a consistent and sustainable basis asap? The distinction is important, as the latter might take more time than the former, and entail different decisions.
From what I have seen, Team Shapkins does have a long-term view. Their decisions to avoid crazy-high extensions, avoid free-agent bidding wars, and avoid depleting the farm system for short-term gain all denote a team rebuilding the right way. Their focus on developing a sustainable farm system rather than just a short-term asset also bodes well.
But the true test of Jays management will be when the team starts to get close. If (as many hope) the 2021 Jays are legitimate contenders, will the pressure to “win while we have Vladdy/Bo/Danny/Nate/etc” induce them to trade the future for the present?
And will the Jays fans’ hunger for a winner tie management’s hands? Remember that from 2001-2012 the Jays’ average ranking in attendance was 22nd in majors, despite Toronto being the 6th largest city. And remember Mark Shapiro’s comment about how he would have started the rebuild earlier, had it not been for his concern about the fan reaction.
The bottom line
Speaking for myself, I have always been a big fan of the Cardinals Way. Running fast is great, but it helps if you are going in the right direction.