While most Blue Jays fans are excited for the Vlad Jr. era to begin in Toronto, the last big group of prospects didn’t fare so well in the big leagues.
When your team isn’t expected to compete for a playoff spot, generally the focus shifts to the dreaming on the future, and specifically to prospects who will hopefully become stars one day.
That’s what’s happening in Toronto these days, and with good reason of course. With a minor league system that ranks among the best in baseball that includes the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Danny Jansen, Nate Pearson and many more, there are plenty of reasons to believe the future of Blue Jays baseball should be bright.
For what it’s worth, I absolutely believe that will be the case, and genuinely look forward to watching these kids develop, even if it’ll probably be a little painful for the next season or two. However, I’m also mindful of plenty of prospects that I’ve believed in before, and I’m doing my best to keep my expectations in check for those players who haven’t even tasted the big leagues yet.
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In fact, when I think back over the last decade of the Blue Jays, there have been plenty of prospects who I thought would eventually star at the highest level, or at least become solid everyday contributors. There was a time about a decade ago that I believed that the Blue Jays had a young core that would become the foundation of their next winner, and that was anything but the case. The Jays did become a winner, but it was largely on the backs of trade acquisitions like Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki, and David Price to name a few, or from free agents like Russell Martin. If you look back at the playoff teams of 2015-16, it’s actually kinda staggering how few homegrown players are on the roster.
That’s mostly because the generation of Blue Jays that were supposed to be the next core didn’t work out. Like, at all.
Let’s go back to 2010, and a time when the Blue Jays looked to have an emerging club, going 85-77 that season. It was the breakout season for Bautista and Vernon Wells was still around and producing at a solid clip, but there was a group of young players that looked like they were the real deal and would probably change the franchise going forward.
In the rotation there were a couple of talented southpaws that looked like they might have top of the rotation stuff in Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil. There was also Shaun Marcum who went 13-8 with a 3.64 ERA that year, and a hard-throwing righty by the name of Brandon Morrow. They were all in their early to mid-twenties too, with the oldest being Marcum at 28. Fast forward to today and Romero and Marcus are out of baseball, Cecil is a middling reliever in St. Louis, and Morrow has become an effective closer, but he just can’t stay healthy.
In the lineup that year they saw 82 games from Travis Snider, and he produced 14 home runs as a 22 year old. It was also the first appearance we saw from J.P. Arencibia, who looked like the franchise catcher the Blue Jays had been waiting for. Arencibia is now working with Yahoo Sports as a commentator, and Snider is still fighting for a MLB job, catching on with the Arizona Diamondbacks last month on a MiLB deal, which will likely land him in Triple-A to start the season.
A year later in 2011 we saw the MLB debuts of potential franchise cornerstones like Brett Lawrie (acquired in a trade for Marcum) and Kyle Drabek (came to Toronto in the Roy Halladay deal) as well. The latter is also out of baseball, having thrown his last big league pitch in 2016. Coincidentally that was the last time we saw Lawrie in a big league uniform as well, but fortunately he’s going to be getting an opportunity to make a MLB comeback with the Brewers this year at age 29.
The point is, all of the players I’ve mentioned above were supposed to become stars, and none of them did. Romero had a couple solid years before his knees betrayed him, and Morrow and Cecil have been useful relievers, but none of them achieved their full potential. I’m not suggesting the same thing is going to happen with the next core of talented Blue Jays minor leaguers, but there are no guarantees until they prove themselves against big leaguers, and year after year over the course of a gruelling 162 game season.
Ross Atkins and the Blue Jays front office understand this, which is why we’ve watched them do things like stockpile high draft pick middle infielders over the last few years. There are no guarantees any of them become the best version of themselves, and the worst case scenario is having some valuable trade chips.
As fans it will be important for us to remember this over the next few years as well. As much as we all want to see the Blue Jays develop a dozen All-Stars at the same time, chances are that’s not going to happen. Whether it’s because of over zealous scouting reports, injuries, or something else altogether, a prospect is still a prospect until they’ve proven themselves at the highest level. We’ve seen it before in Toronto, and hopefully it’ll go a little better with the current group this time. I believe that it will, but only time will tell.