With this being the 30th anniversary of the Blue Jays last World Series championship, Toronto fans are surely expecting something better than 4th place and a 6-15 record against division opponents in the AL East. The additions of Kevin Kiermaier, Daulton Varsho, Brandon Belt, Chris Bassitt and Erik Swanson, a freshly renovated Rogers Centre, and pre-season prognostications of a potential deep postseason run have all excited the fan base.
So it may come as a disappointment to some fans that, now 40% through the season, the Jays sit in 4th place in their division, 10.5 games back of Tampa Bay with a 36-29 record. They’ve only won six games in twenty-one tries so far against AL East opponents, and went through an 11-17 slump in May. Thankfully the baseball season is a long one, with lots of room to turn things around.
However, despite all of that excitement surrounding the team, we cannot forget a few key truths. As mentioned, it’s been 30 long years since the last World Series title in Toronto. The team hasn’t won a single playoff game since the 2016 ALCS, and they’ve finished in 4th place four times in seven tries since Ross Atkins become the General Manager after the 2015 season. Compare that to his predecessor’s record with the Atlanta Braves, including five straight NL East pennants and the 2021 World Series championship, and perhaps there’s reason for Jays fans to be a little restless?
The 10 Worst Moves by GM Ross Atkins Since 2015
To understand how we got here, it’s perhaps instructive to look at some of the worst transactions in Ross Atkins’ tenure as GM. We can all point to his successes, including the free agent signings of Robbie Ray, Marcus Semien, George Springer, Kevin Gausman and, more recently, Kevin Kiermaier.
There have been some winning trades, highlighted by Matt Chapman and José Berríos. He unearthed Teoscar Hernández from the Houston Astros organization, and then flipped him for set-up man Erik Swanson. He also drafted superstar Bo Bichette, pitchers Alek Manoah and Nate Pearson, and signed catchers Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno, as well as OF Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
But those moves haven’t come in isolation. The competitive landscape in Major League Baseball, and in their division in particular, is extremely dynamic, with all teams trying to get better via trades, free agent signings, and through the draft. Since Ross was hired to replace Alex Anthopoulos as the Blue Jays GM, their AL East division rivals have also worked hard to construct competitive rosters.
The Yankees have been to the playoffs every year since 2017, losing three times to Houston in the ALCS. Tampa Bay has been to the postseason every year since 2019, losing the 2020 World Series to the Dodgers. The Red Sox have been to the playoffs four times since 2016, and won the 2018 World Series over Los Angeles. Even the Baltimore Orioles are on the cusp of postseason success, with an exciting young core that currently has them behind only Tampa in the AL East.
Toronto has been to the postseason three times since Atkins was hired, running it back to the ALCS in 2016, but then bowing out without any wins in the ALWC in both 2020 and 2022. This is now his 8th season as the Jays’ GM, and he’s on to his third manager after replacing Charlie Montoyo with John Schneider last July; in other words, it’s fully his team. Ownership has ‘bought in’, with a top five MLB luxury tax payroll of $256 million, which should incur an additional tax penalty of $4.9 million at the end of the season according to Spotrac.
After eight seasons with Atkins at the helm, the farm system is bare, with only one top 100 prospect and very little MLB-ready depth. MLB put the Jays farm system 20th in their pre-season ranking, while Baseball America (subscription required) ranked them 17th and noted they have “interesting prospects to restock around”, i.e. not much in the way of waves of MLB-ready talent that Ross Atkins has promised Blue Jay fans.
In an August 2019 interview with radio station TSN 1050, Atkins said, “Ultimately we feel we’re at a point now where our young position players have transitioned, and we have several waves of very, very talented pitchers coming through our system that we couldn’t be more excited about… We’ll have a system that will provide us talent, a system that if need be we can trade away from. We’ll have financial flexibility, and we have an incredible process in place.”
Fast forward four years later, and the only homegrown pitchers on the 26-man roster who were either drafted or signed by Atkins and developed in the Blue Jays organization are Alek Manoah and Nate Pearson. Jordan Romano, who Atkins exposed in the Rule 5 draft and almost lost, as well as Tim Mayza, were drafted by Anthopoulos and already in the farm system when Atkins arrived.
And with former Houston Astros GM James Click apprenticing in Toronto as a Vice President, Baseball Strategy, a potential replacement for Atkins already exists in-house if the Jays cannot turn things around over the next few months and then go deep into the postseason.
So what have been the biggest missteps in those eight seasons so far that might help to explain the lack of postseason success and the nearly empty cupboards in the farm system? Could some of these transactions have held back the Jays rebuild and delayed their competitive window?