Shortstop Yunel “Eye Black” Escobar isn’t the only issue, merely the most obvious. Talk to people who know the Jays well, and they’ll tell you that catcher J.P. Arencibia and third baseman Brett Lawrie walk a fine line between confidence and know-it-all arrogance. Center fielder Colby Rasmus, meanwhile, is self-assured one moment, full of self-doubt the next.
Jays fans wonder, can we be next year’s Orioles? Well, Escobar, Arencibia and Rasmus represent three-fourths of the Jays’ up-the-middle players, and the team is unlikely to re-sign second baseman Kelly Johnson.
The Orioles, on the other hand, have two cornerstones up the middle (catcher Matt Wieters and center fielder Adam Jones) a stable veteran at shortstop (J.J. Hardy) and something of a hole at second base due to the absence of Brian Roberts.
The good news is the Jays seem to understand what they’re missing. They plan to shop aggressively this offseason, looking for solutions at second, in left field and most of all in their starting rotation.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos, who has spent much of his first three years hoarding prospects, collecting draft picks and trading for other team’s problems, sounds ready to take the final steps toward building a contender.
“There is no question that our position-player core is very young, excluding Edwin and Jose,” Anthopoulos said, referring to first baseman/DH Edwin Encarnacion, 29, and right fielder Jose Bautista, 31.
“I don’t think it ever hurts to have as many veteran complements as you can. That’s something we’ll definitely look to do if we can.”
Let’s not lose sight of the obvious: Injuries are the story of the Jays’ season, injuries to three starting pitchers in a five-day span in mid-June, injuries to Lawrie and Bautista, who has appeared in only two games since July 16 and in early September underwent surgery to stabilize a tendon in his left wrist.
Before all that, the Jays were a fairly promising bunch, ranking among the AL’s scoring leaders, standing at least a puncher’s chance of winning a wild card. The clubhouse was not thought to be an issue; if anything, the Jays’ youthful exuberance seemed like part of their appeal. In early March, I wrote, “If there was a spring training award for best clubhouse vibe, it just might go to the Toronto Blue Jays.”
That was then, and this is now.
The Jays were 51-49 on July 28; since then, they’re 16-37. Injuries are the root cause — injuries, and the club’s decision to give youngsters at-bats rather than acquire veteran stopgaps such as DeWayne Wise and Scott Podsednik. Still, adversity often reveals players’ true characters. And the Jays are not exactly passing the test.
Some sabermetricians contend that leadership is overrated, that talent and performance matter most. The point is difficult to argue, but the Jays’ lack of veteran presence was underscored when Escobar wrote a homophobic slur on his eye black, and no one pulled him aside to say, “Hey, don’t do that.”
Those types of conversations take place in major-league clubhouses every single day; it is how young players learn how to carry themselves, learn the intricacies of their crafts. The Jays are short on veterans who provide such direction, and it’s a problem.
Bautista should be the model, but he spent the first two months bickering with umpires, setting the wrong example. A free agent such as Torii Hunter would be perfect if he does not re-sign with the Angels. Someone like Josh Willingham also would make sense, not that the Twins are interested in trading him. The truth is, few players qualify as leaders. But when Anthopoulos goes shopping this winter, he should factor intangibles into the equation.
Some might ask, “Wait, isn’t it the manager’s job to lead?” Yes, but there is only so much a manager can do. The Jays’ John Farrell isn’t a baby-sitter; he shouldn’t need to walk from player to player, inspecting their eye black. The best teams police themselves — and if the Jays want Farrell to sign an extension beyond next season, Anthopoulos should be doubly motivated to clean up the Jays’ act.
Some of this will resolve on its own, thanks to the Jays’ bountiful farm system. Escobar is a goner, and his eventual replacement, Adeiny Hechavarria, shows impressive character as well as talent. Anthony Gose, a player with superior makeup, eventually figures to replace Rasmus. And Travis D’Arnaud, who did not play after June 25 due to a torn knee ligament, still looms as the catcher of the future; until then, Arencibia will remain a durable, inexpensive alternative.
In a sense, the Jays knew what they were getting into; Escobar, Rasmus and Lawrie all were available only because they had exhausted the patience of their previous clubs. The acquisition of Lawrie, who occasionally plays out of control, still looms as a master stroke. But the trick now is for the Jays to surround their preferred youngsters with the right type of veteran talent.
Anthopoulos spent July picking up relievers, trying to fortify his bullpen for next season. This offseason, he will be in position to make much bigger moves. The Jays are deep in prospects, free of bad contracts. They’ve got the currency to improve, both in free agency and trades.