The American League East is not a fun place to play. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are set to dominate the division for years to come with their young, talented cores. The other three teams could easily opt for a hibernating rebuild. Tampa Bay have done just that, but the Toronto Blue Jays have taken a more balanced approach.
With franchise player, former-MVP Josh Donaldson heading towards free agency, Toronto could have traded away their core. It is no sin to restock the farm, and the Blue Jays certainly have valuable trade assets that could have done that this offseason. Front offices don’t want to lose fans, as teams almost always do during a rebuild, so trying to compete is not always the noble art it is made out to be amidst the talk of tanking.
Trying to win is not the same as actually being competitive. Just look at San Francisco last season, and several teams this season -- including the Blue Jays’ divisional rivals, the Orioles -- who tried to win, but were/are absolutely rubbish.
Battling against the odds
The Blue Jays are a smidgen over .500 at the time of writing. Sure, that’s not exactly nailed on contender, but it isn’t flip everyone at the deadline stuff either. Donaldson has played just 23 games, Marcus Stroman has struggled and is now on the DL, Troy Tulowitzki hasn’t played a game. That’s before we even mention Randal Grichuk, Devon Travis and Steve Pearce‘s injuries or Roberto Osuna‘s probable suspension after his stellar start to the year.
Toronto have two of baseball’s top prospects. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are unlikely to appear in The Show until 2019, but their talent gives the Blue Jays hope of extending their window. A winter of trading away stars would have seen two potential superstars join a struggling team next season or the year after. Instead, they are likely to arrive to a club in contention for a wildcard berth.
Had the Blue Jays tried to go ultra ‘win now’ in Donaldson’s final year, the farm ranked ninth by MLB Pipeline in Spring Training would be depleted. Maybe even losing Guerrero Jr. or Bichette along the way. MLB front offices need to be decisive, and are often punished for sitting on the fence, but it was Toronto’s smart offseason that led them to a happy medium between the future and the now.
The winter moves hardly pulled up trees. Trading for utility man Yangervis Solarte from the San Diego Padres was a little underwhelming. Solarte got off to a flying start, and has an OPS over .800. The absences of Travis and Tulowitzki were almost forgotten.
When the St. Louis Cardinals signed Marcell Ozuna, their outfield was crowded. Randal Grichuk became available and was snapped up by Toronto for Conner Greene and reliever Dominic Leone. Grichuk had a nightmare start to the year before landing on the DL, but this was the perfect low-risk move. Low-salary, minimal trade cost and definite upside.
Low-risk additions took up the remainder of the winter. Veterans were signed, beginning with 37-year-old outfielder Curtis Granderson, who has played over 30 games with an OBP of well over .400. The bullpen was reinforced with Seunghawn Oh, Tyler Clippard and John Axford. Axford and Clippard arrived on minor-league deals, but earned their way onto the major league roster. All three have pitched superbly to start the year, registering ERAs under 2 and combining for over 60 innings.
The Blue Jays waited until February to pick up starter Jaime Garcia. Garcia has struggled so far, but the one-year deal with a team option for 2019 again limited the risk for Toronto.
Getting it just right
Depth and experience was added with minimal long-term commitment. The farm is intact, and could produce a World Series winning team in years to come, while Toronto remain a contender in 2018.
Adversity has made the Blue Jays’ start commendable. Cornerstones of the roster like Kendrys Morales and Marco Estrada have desperately struggled so far this season. Toronto will not be anyone’s favourites to win the American League pennant, but their front office deserves plenty of credit for finding the balance between today and tomorrow.