Toronto Blue Jays: Is a Rebuilding Phase Inevitable?

Jul 20, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson (left) and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 20, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson (left) and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

The Toronto Blue Jays are on the verge of having to make a franchise-altering decision on team direction, if they do not see significant improvement.

The euphoria over the Toronto Blue Jays‘ back-to-back trips to the ALCS seem to be a distant memory after a 6-16 start to the 2017 season. So far in April, the team has looked extremely old, and the two things they could not afford to happen (injuries to the rotation and to Josh Donaldson) have already taken place.

Since the end of the 2015 season, team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins (following the work of interim general manager Tony LaCava) have been attempting to keep the train moving, despite the previous regime’s short-term driven approach to team building.

In 2015, former general manager Alex Anthopoulos, seeing the small window he tried to create in 2013 slowly winding down, decided to trade 12 prospects at the trade deadline that year (on top of the plethora he traded to Miami and New York in 2012) in a last-ditch effort to make a postseason run before his contract ran out at the end of the season.

It worked. The Jays went on a huge run and made the playoffs for the first time in 22 years. Fans seemed to ignore how fleeting this team’s window was destined to be, and Rogers Centre was once again packed with excitement.

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The team that was built for a run in late 2015 was old and short on prospects in the upper minors. The new front office was able to keep the team in the playoffs the following season, after prudent veteran signings/acquisitions to the rotation (Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano) and the development of Aaron Sanchez. However, the rotation staying healthy all season and being as good as they were, masked the decline of the team’s core position players.

The team had no choice but to see how long they could extend this window, even if it meant counting on the core that declined last season and are well into their 30’s. Fast forward to 2017, and the Blue Jays appear to have aged even more overnight, and are now suffering the pitching injuries they were lucky to avoid last season.

While a 6-16 start in April is not the end of the world, it might as well be the end of this core’s window given the injuries and age of the players involved. Making matters worse is the lack of depth in the upper minors, with the team’s best prospects largely in the lower minors (Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Bo Bichette, etc). So there is no help coming in the form of young talent this season, either.

This type of rapid decline due to short-sighted GM’s disregarding the future for the present is not new. Most recently, Ruben Amaro Jr’s Philadelphia Phillies — granted after a much longer window of contention and a World Series championship — went from 102 wins in 2011 to 81 in 2012, and then a four-year stretch of sub-.500 finishes.

They were good, but got old. Great players can help a team win, but they can’t fight age-related decline, and teams with a largely veteran roster and limited amounts of young talent will see the bubble burst eventually.

If this April performance is the precursor to a poor 2017, then should rebuilding be a realistic talking point right now? The big league club is the oldest team in baseball, and they only have one prospect in Buffalo (Rowdy Tellez, who is struggling).

Chances are if the team is not good in 2017, then it won’t be in 2018, either. The latter happens to be the final season of team control for Donaldson, as well.

The Blue Jays do have some interesting trade chips this July, if they decide to become sellers at the deadline. Estrada and Liriano are both impending free agents, and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement means the team will not be able to get first round picks if those two declined the qualifying offer and signed elsewhere. If the team is not contending, then keeping those two becomes essentially meaningless.

Veteran slugger Jose Bautista is also an impending free agent (the mutual option will surely not get picked up by the team regardless of how he finishes this season). The only drawback there, aside from early season struggles, is the fact he is a 10/5 player, meaning he can refuse any trade. His trade value might be limited regardless, but he would be another option to move.

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The biggest sign of waving the white flag would be trading Donaldson. He is the one veteran player on the team that would demand a king’s ransom in return, and his value (assuming he gets back on the field and performs like he has the past four seasons) will only diminish as he gets closer to free agency.

If the Jays are going to move him, then this July would be the time. The question is whether the front office, or more specifically Rogers, would be open to punting 2018 from a PR standpoint, by trading its best player.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ success after a rebuilding phase might make fans more open to the idea. With the Blue Jays, it appears like something they have to do, rather than something they choose to.

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Sometimes you have to accept reality and adapt to the situation, rather than keep plugging away and hoping for different results. The 2017 team still has time to turn it around, but saying “it’s early” might be masking the deeper rooted issues with this team going forward.