After 2015’s trade deadline frenzy almost pushed them to the World Series the last two seasons, the Toronto Blue Jays now find themselves in a tough spot. Has the team’s window to compete closed as quickly as it opened?
In the span of about a year and a half, the Toronto Blue Jays have gone from looking like the major leagues’ most dangerous team to a franchise in flux. A trade deadline power play in the summer of 2015 transformed an already potent roster into a World Series contender, but after two straight years of ALCS defeats, the Jays seem to be helplessly watching their window close.
The club has known for a while that the winter of 2016-17 would be a crucial moment for them, with lineup cornerstones Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista both eligible for free agency. It always seemed unlikely that they would be able to retain both, but if the Jays re-signed one of the sluggers (preferably the somewhat younger and healthier Encarnacion), then perhaps they would stand a chance of remaining competitive, especially with the emergence of young arms like Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman in their rotation.
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Now into the month of January, Toronto has missed out on Encarnacion and could very well watch Bautista move elsewhere, too. Losing Encarnacion is particularly painful, especially because the Blue Jays could have actually had a legitimate chance to keep him if they stayed patient.
Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports wonders if they misjudged the market on their former star, moving too quickly to ink Kendrys Morales to a three-year deal at the beginning of the offseason. The signing was seen by many as something of a white flag from Toronto on the Encarnacion front. But the market for him grew surprisingly sluggish until he eventually agreed to terms with Cleveland on a three-year, $60 million contract a couple weeks ago.
The kicker: the Jays reportedly offered Encarnacion a four-year deal worth $80 million back in November. Had they waited it out, they would have presumably been able to snag him for a relative discount. Of course, by the same token, Encarnacion could have maximized his earnings by jumping at the Blue Jays’ initial offer. Hindsight’s 20/20, after all.
While there has been talk about the Jays and Bautista re-engaging on a potential one-year pact, there is no guarantee there, and recent reports have suggested the team isn’t exactly super-motivated to get a deal done, preferring instead to pocket the draft pick when he signs somewhere else. Barring an unexpected development, the Jays are almost sure to deliver a weakened offense next season, possibly without either of two familiar bats in the middle of the order, which would have seemed like a worst case scenario heading into the offseason.
On a larger scale, the Jays’ current issues could stem from the change made at the top of their front office after the 2015 campaign, as CBS Sports’ Jonah Keri illustrates. Former general manager Alex Anthopoulos, the architect of that year’s flurry of trade deadline moves, stepped down after it became clear that he would need to defer to incoming team president Mark Shapiro. Shapiro, the onetime Indians executive, favors a more measured approach to building a ball club, at odds with Anthopoulos’ recent decisions.
We’re likely seeing the effects of that leadership shuffle now, as the “win now at any cost” mantra appears to have given way to a more conservative methodology. That’s not to say that the Blue Jays should have given Encarnacion and Bautista whatever they wanted at the start of the offseason. But they did seem to give up a bit too easily, particularly in the case of Encarnacion, whose reliable production will be missed next season.
It’s certainly not all hopeless for the Blue Jays, though. The optimism may come from the pitching staff rather than the offense, however. 24-year-old Aaron Sanchez is coming off a terrific year and should be free from any sort of innings limits in 2017. The club hopes talented 25-year-old Marcus Stroman takes a step forward as well. Both are under team control through 2020.
If veterans J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada reasonably approximate their strong 2016 performances, the rotation should have a good shot at keeping the team in most games this year.
Looking further down the road, however, the tough decisions aren’t ending anytime soon. Josh Donaldson will be a free agent after the 2018 season. Unless the Blue Jays are willing to spend more than they have in the past, it might be up to the farm system to start doing a better job of supplementing the roster. Otherwise, they could lose their footing even further in an always-tough division that has seen its other members improve significantly, both in the short- (Red Sox) and long-term (Yankees).