What can five successful “rebuilds” of the past decade tell us about the Toronto Blue Jays chances of being competitive in 2020?
It’s the last month of the decade, and time to look ahead to 2020. The consensus around the league, and clear message from both the Toronto Blue Jays ownership and front office is that 2020 will be another rebuilding year, and a chance to further assess the talent assembled over the past five offseasons by General Manager Ross Atkins and his colleagues.
So far this offseason has been a bust for the Blue Jays brain trust involving executive departures, minor trades, waiver signings, minor league free agent signings, and the outrighting, releasing and non-tendering of multiple players from the 40-man roster.
Blue Jays fans have been promised an eventful offseason focused on improving the pitching staff, with a more aggressive stance and bigger payroll budget towards fielding a better team than the 67-95 loss disaster in 2019 that featured twenty-one different starting pitchers and openers combining for a 5.25 ERA.
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However, to date, only three new pitchers have been added to the 40-man roster in Chase Anderson, Anthony Bass and Tom Hatch. Meanwhile, three of the arms that would have been likely replacements in a bullpen-by-committee for Ken Giles should he be traded – Derek Law, Jason Adam and Justin Shafer – have all been dropped from the roster. Buddy Boshers, Brock Stewart, Ryan Dull and Tim Mayza were all outrighted to Triple-A Buffalo along with Devon Travis (with Boshers and Travis electing free agency). Ryan Tepera previously had elected free agency.
For those counting, that’s a net subtraction of five arms from the 40-man roster since the end of the 2019 season. Oh yeah, and the VP of baseball operations who ran player development, Ben Cherington, and amateur scouting director Steve Sanders both left for senior roles with the Pittsburgh Pirates ahead of the Blue Jays’ highest June amateur draft pick since 1997, when they’ll select at No.#5.
Meanwhile teams including the Braves, Marlins, Padres, Reds, Twins and White Sox have already made significant moves to upgrade their rosters for Opening Day.
So while Jays fans wait in anticipation for some major moves at the Baseball Winter Meetings starting this coming Sunday, and with three slots open on the 40-man roster to add talent, should we buy in to the notion that management can make a major splash and sign a premium starting pitcher like Zack Wheeler, or a 1B/OF talent like Yoshitomi Tsutsugo? We’ll find out shortly in the coming weeks and months before pitchers and catchers report in mid-February.
Five teams in the past decade have gone through painful losing seasons and gone on to play competitive baseball in September and October, before winning the World Series: the Boston Red Sox, the Kansas City Royals, the Chicago Cubs, the Houston Astros, and most recently the Washington Nationals. All five rebuilds offer a road-map to success that the Blue Jays front office could emulate.
All five examples point to a scenario whereby the Blue Jays could accelerate their competitive window without sacrificing much in the way of prospects or talent by using their payroll flexibility, shifting the focus more towards actual premium veteran talent instead of years of cheap control, and working on building that competitive balance highlighted by CEO Mark Shapiro of talented youth, players in their prime, and veteran talent just looking to win.
If the will is there on the part of ownership and management, there are multiple paths to contention as early as 2020. This would help bring back fans in droves, with the league’s largest year-over-year declines in attendance for the past two seasons. It would help surround the young core with veteran talent and leadership to show them how to win a the major league level. And it would help to protect hitters in the lineup and reduce stress on young, developing arms. Blue Jays fans should not be satisfied with just aiming for more wins than 2019 or a .500 season in 2020. We as fans need to demand more from Rogers and Shapiro/Atkins.
From Worst to First
Model One – the 2013 Boston Red Sox (+28 game swing, key free agents and a July TDL deal)
The 2012 Red Sox went 69-93 and finished in 5th in the AL East under manager Bobby Valentine. Will Middlebrooks was a rookie. GM Ben Cherington hired former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell as his manager that October in 2012 in a trade with the Blue Jays for infielder Mike Aviles.
Ahead of the 2013 season, Cherington signed key free agents including Shane Victorino, Koji Uehara, Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp, traded for Brock Holt, and then traded José Iglesias for Jake Peavy at the July trade deadline when they saw they had a chance to make the playoffs.
The 2013 team improved by +28 wins, going from last place and 26 games back to a 97 win season and World Series Championship. Jackie Bradley Jr., José Iglesias and Xander Bogaerts all played that season as rookies.
While their front office emphasized player development, they key to the turnaround was surrounding the young core with veteran talent.
Model Two – the 2013 Kansas City Royals (+14 game swing, key trade for pitching)
The 2012 Royals went 72-90 and finished 3rd in the AL Central under manager Ned Yost who’d replaced the fired Trey Hillman after a game in early May 2010. He’d been hired to help in the rebuilding effort with a core of young and talented homegrown players that included Greg Holland, Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas.
In 2013, they went 86-76 (a swing of +14 games) and finished only 7.0 games back with Shields becoming their ace. They would finish fifth, fourth, third and third in consecutive seasons through 2013 before losing 4-3 to the Giants in the 2014 World Series, with Shields as their ace and Davis as a lights-out set-up man for Greg Holland.
Despite losing Shields to free agency after the 2014 World Series, they would win the franchise’s second ever World Championship in 2015 after swinging July trade deadline deals for Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto.
Model Three – the 2015 Chicago Cubs (+24 game swing, key free agent signing)
The 2014 Cubs went 73-89, in last place in the NL Central under manager Rick Renteria. Kyle Hendricks and Javier Báez were rookies. Team President Theo Epstein and his general manager Jed Hoyer were in their fourth offseason of rebuilding the Cubs since being hired in October 2011, and they went all in on lefty ace Jon Lester at the Winter Meetings that year, signing him to a 6-year/$155 million free agent deal. The contract was the largest in Cubs franchise history and gave Lester what was, at the time, the second-largest average annual value (AAV) for a pitcher all-time.
With the arrival of manager Joe Maddon from the Rays, and a young core headlined by Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell & Jorge Soler, and breakout starters Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendriks all pointing towards the opening of their competitive window, they went 97-65 (a +24 game swing) in 2015, won the NL wildcard game, and went to the NLCS. Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell were all rookies in 2015.
Then they won the World Series in 2016 after signing outfielder Jason Heyward to an 8 year/$184 million contract on December 2015. Lester’s 19-5 record and 2.44 ERA in 32 regular season starts and pivotal relief in Game 7 helped to end a 108-year World Series title drought.
The Lester signing at the 2014 Winter Meetings, coincidentally also in San Diego that year, announced to the world that their competitive window was open.
Model Four – the 2015 Houston Astros (+16 game swing, player development + veterans)
The 2014 Astros went 70-92 and finished in fourth place in the AL West, 28 games back under manager Bo Porter, and then interim manager Tom Lawless after Porter was fired. George Springer and Jake Marisnick were rookies that season. This followed three years of losing of 100 or more games per season.
That offseason they would sign a number of MLB free agents in Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Colby Rasmus and Jed Lowrie, as well as trade for Evan Gattis, James Hoyt, Dan Straily and Luis Valbuena ahead of the season, and Scott Kazmir, Mike Fiers, and Carlos Gomez at the July 2015 trade deadline.
In 2015, they went 86-76 (a +16 game swing) and finished second under new manager AJ Hinch, before losing in the ALDS that year to the eventual champion Kansas City Royals. Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. were rookies that year.
Model 5 – the 2012 Washington Nationals (+18 game swing, key free agent, trade & drafting)
At the Winter Meetings in December 2010, the Nationals – who had lost 93 games in 2010 – signed 31-year-old Jayson Werth to a seven-year/$126 million free agent deal. It was the 13th-richest contract ever at the time of signing, and signalled that the Nats were serious about competing again after five 5th place finishes in the previous six seasons since moving from Montreal. Stephen Strasburg had exceeded his rookie limits that season, and they’d just drafted Bryce Harper with the 1st overall pick in the 2010 MLB June Amateur Draft.
The 2011 Nats would improve by 11 wins to a total of 80 and moved up to third place after hiring Davey Johnson mid-season to replace Jim Riggleman. But ahead of the 2012 season, they traded for starter Gio Gonzalez. Kurt Suzuki was added by early August and they took off and finished 98-64, winning the NL East pennant before falling in the NLDS. It was an improvement of +18 wins.
Nats GM Mike Rizzo credits Werth with teaching their young core how to win, helping them mature into a division winner, and making the playoffs in four of his seven seasons with the club. He also hit what was then the biggest home run in franchise history in the 2012 NL Division Series, although that was surpassed by the heroics of Howie Kendrick, Juan Soto and friends this year as the Nationals finally won a World Series.
Road-map for a Jays Breakout in 2020?
The average swing of these teams above from worst to first and making the playoffs was +20 games. Overlaying that average improvement on the current Jays would equate to an 87 win team in 2020. While that is unlikely to win a wildcard out of the competitive AL East, it would set the team up well for a very competitive window from 2021 onward, as promised by GM Ross Atkins. Is this out of the question? Unequivocally, no.
Rogers can spend the same as any of these teams. The fact they choose not to should be unacceptable to Blue Jays fans after three straight losing seasons and fourth place finishes. The road-map to meaningful September baseball is right in front of our eyes, just look at the history of the five models of success in the past decade listed above. All of these models were built with talented youth promoted from the minors, trades and key free agent signings. Most of them involved the hiring of new managers and coaches.
The Jays have their own young “core four” in place, to be augmented by the arrival of potential future ace Nate Pearson likely by May. A new manager was hired ahead of the 2019 season. All that is needed now is the will to actually outbid the other 29 teams for – or trade for – a top of the rotation starter, and keep building around the young core with players in their prime, plus bring in premium veteran players who just want to win.
Based on the winning models of the past decade, the Jays are four or five players away from already being competitive in 2020. There’s no time like the present, and after the disappointment of the past three years, wouldn’t it be great to end this decade with a major splash?