The Toronto Blue Jays, fresh off two ALCS appearances, aren’t completely cooked, but at 5–13, and in last place in the American League East, they’re about as cooked as a would-be contender can be in April.
In free agency this past offseason, the Jays lost leading home run hitter Edwin Encarnación to Cleveland, and outfielder Michael Saunders, whose 116 OPS+ in 2016 was even more attractive to Toronto than his Canadian passport, left for Philadelphia.
The offense that remains relies heavily on three frequently mohawked power-hitting infielders. But third baseman Josh Donaldson (calf) and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (hamstring) are both on the DL. Second baseman Devon Travis, who’s spent about half of his two seasons and change in the big leagues on the DL, is healthy for a change. Despite entering 2017 hitting .301/.342/.469 for his career, going 2-for-4 with a double and a home run on Sunday brought Travis up to only .136/.190/.203 in 2017.
Toronto’s been just as unfortunate on the other side of the ball. The two best Blue Jays pitchers last year, by ERA+, were Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ, and both are out until at least early May with blisters and elbow inflammation, respectively. Bullpen wunderkind Roberto Osuna has already been on the DL with cervical spasms, but he’s back and closing games whenever Toronto has a lead, which is less frequently than we’ve become accustomed to.
Barring some stunning five-month hot streak, 2017 is already a write-off, which leads to a fascinating, yet extremely difficult question for president of baseball ops Mark Shapiro, GM Ross Atkins, and their bosses at Rogers Communications, the Canadian telecom goliath that owns the club: When is it time to punch out on this team and rebuild?
The argument for Toronto to tear it down is based on a series of talking points that every stathead fan and writer has down by rote: trade expensive veterans for prospects; try to get surplus value; better to sell a year early than a year late; any team that isn’t contending should be tanking. They’re familiar because in general they’re good practice.
But to look at the problem this way is to treat the Blue Jays like any other contender with an aging core and a bad April, when in fact the situation’s a little more complicated.
Why They Could Rebuild
The core of the wildly successful and totally captivating 2015–16 Blue Jays is coming apart, or at least evolving. Encarnación and Saunders left last offseason, and Happ, Marco Estrada, and Francisco Liriano — in other words, most of Toronto’s starting rotation — as well as every starting position player except for Travis and center fielder Kevin Pillar, is at least 30 years old.
Estrada and Liriano (don’t laugh, he’s a year removed from a three-year stretch in which he threw 512 innings with a 103 ERA+) will be free agents after this season. José Bautista, who’s struck out 26 times and hit one home run in 18 games this season, has a mutual option for 2018, then a vesting option for 2019, while Happ hits the market again after 2018. Those guys aren’t stars, at least not anymore in Bautista’s case, but they’re all reliable, solid big league contributors, and the Blue Jays’ success the past two years has been built on an exceptional hit rate on midtier free agents that might not continue with the next crop of signings.
Tulowitzki and Russell Martin are signed through 2019 and 2020 (with a club option for 2021), respectively, though that might not be a good thing given the demands of the up-the-middle positions those two play, as well as the 34-year-old Martin’s age and the 32-year-old Tulowitzki’s medical history (particularly when you factor in the wear-and-tear caused by the Rogers Centre turf).
But Donaldson represents the thorniest question in any rebuild. Since 2013, Donaldson has been comfortably the second-best position player in baseball according to bWAR — he and Mike Trout are the only two 30-win position players over the past five seasons. In 2015, he became the only player to ever mount an AL MVP case against Trout based on anything other than electoral ignorance. Teams move heaven and earth to find players like Donaldson, and once they have them, they don’t let go. Donaldson is one of 18 position players to tally 15 WAR since 2014; the only other one of those 18 to change teams in that time was Adam Eaton, whose WAR total is largely defense-based, and it still took a Lucas Giolito–headlined package to pry him away from Chicago.
The 31-year-old Donaldson will probably start to decline before too long, but he’s so good now that he’s got a long way to decline before he even slides all the way down to league average. Donaldson hits free agency after the 2018 season, and with a 153 OPS+ since joining the Blue Jays, he’s going to make so much money he’ll have to start calling his bat the Club for Growth.
Toronto could either re-sign Donaldson and pay him in his mid-30s what it should’ve paid the past three years, or it could trade him. And if the Jays trade him before this year’s deadline — i.e., when the team acquiring Donaldson would potentially be able to use him in two postseasons — the prospect haul would likely be staggering. If they’re smart and lucky, like the Yankees were at last year’s deadline or the White Sox were this past offseason, they could restock their farm system with the core of the next good Blue Jays team in just one trade.
The farm system could use some juice. The Blue Jays’ cupboard isn’t completely empty, but if they wait until all those 30-somethings hit free agency and end up with nothing but compensation picks, they don’t have the minor league talent to fill in those holes right away. Baseball Prospectus rated Toronto’s farm 18th in baseball, with only two players, pitcher Sean Reid-Foley (85) and outfielder Anthony Alford (93), in the top 100. Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs agrees, more or less, on those two players, ranking Reid-Foley at 96 and Alford at 79, though he’s much more bullish on third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (yes, his dad is exactly who you think he his), whom he put at 24. But even if you love Little Vlad, he’s still only 18 and in low-A, not exactly ready to step in for Donaldson should the 2015 AL MVP leave via free agency.
There’s a reason Toronto’s farm system is kind of mediocre right now, and it’s not an indictment of the organization. The Blue Jays also had BP’s no. 47 prospect, shortstop Franklin Barreto, but traded him and Kendall Graveman to Oakland for Donaldson; and the no. 50 prospect, pitcher Jeff Hoffman, who went to Colorado for Tulowitzki. In 2013, they drafted high school righty Phil Bickford no. 10 overall, failed to sign him, and used their compensation pick the next year to take college catcher Max Pentecost, who lost two seasons, the ability to stick behind the plate, and at this point probably any chance at a meaningful big league career to shoulder injuries. These things happen in the draft.
Among Toronto’s big league contributors, Sanchez, Osuna, and Marcus Stroman will still be around after Donaldson and Happ leave, and presumably will still be good. So will Travis, if he’s healthy and hitting again, and Kevin Pillar, whose value depends on his legs holding up into his 30s on turf, which is possible but not something I’d bet big on.
Let’s say all that happens, Martin and Tulowitzki haven’t declined that badly, and Alford and Reid-Foley are contributing by 2019 — that’d leave the Jays with two holes in the rotation and three more in the lineup to plug via free agency and fast-moving college draftees. In an absolute best-case scenario, maybe it’s only two holes in the lineup if you’re really bullish on a 36-year-old version of Kendrys Morales, a statement that illustrates exactly how much optimism goes into thinking this plan can work. And even then the Jays would be without a tentpole slugger or (depending on how you feel about Sanchez) a no. 1 starter.
That feels a lot like what the Tigers and Royals are going through now, or what the A’s and Reds were going through three years ago or the Phillies five years ago, and we know how those high-risk, low-ceiling teams end up: around .500 and further away from actual contention than they would’ve been when they started. The sooner the Blue Jays make the decision to tear it down, the more trade value their veterans will have, and the faster they’ll be back to where they are now.
Why They Shouldn’t
With most of the Blue Jays’ best players in their early 30s and approaching free agency, and the 2017 season already a loss, an argument for any course of action that doesn’t involve urban renewal — if not an out-and-out Jeff Luhnow Special — needs some pretty compelling extenuating circumstances.
The first issue is that decisions involving upcoming free agents aren’t all the same. The players in Toronto’s core fall into one of two categories: players who are good now but are possibly about to stop being good, and players who are good now but are about to get expensive.
The first group includes Martin, Tulowitzki, and Morales — all of whom are locked up long-term — as well as Bautista and Liriano. The second group includes Donaldson, as well as maybe Happ and Estrada, who are both in their mid-30s but have also both been very good since arriving in Toronto and don’t rely on the kind of killer stuff that fades with age.
There’s a difference between not re-signing a player because you don’t think he’s good anymore and not re-signing him because he’s too expensive. The Blue Jays, a $1.3 billion team that plays in a media market the size of Houston or Philadelphia (to name two American cities with MLB teams that are under-spending their market size), and has access to about 29 million more Canadians outside the GTA, and are owned by North of the Border Comcast, should not be the kind of organization that makes the second kind of decision, particularly when it comes to a player like Donaldson.
After the 2014 season, the A’s saw their window closing and traded Donaldson away. They’re 147–196 since. The best way to get a Donaldson is to keep the one you already have. And that comes down to the willpower of ownership. The Jays are running a $163 million payroll this year, and have been in the top 10 three times from 2013 to 2016, but never finished higher than ninth.
Shapiro, who cut his teeth in the cost-conscious Indians organization, was soft-pedaling payroll cuts almost from day one on the job in Toronto, and a corporate owner like Rogers has its own set of issues, compared to the other kind of owner, Rich Folks With A Desperate Need To Be Liked. On the plus side, the Blue Jays are the only team in baseball that owns 100 percent of its regional cable network. On the downside, Rogers is more likely than the aforementioned Needy Rich Folks to run a deficit, and more likely than most to pocket the baseball profits rather than reinvesting them in the team, the way the Cubs, Red Sox, and Yankees have done en route to titles of their own.
What this means is that if Donaldson walks, it won’t be because the Blue Jays can’t afford him — it’ll be because ownership doesn’t care enough to keep him.
If ownership were inclined to pay Donaldson, however, that opens up Toronto’s options. This core is getting old, but it’s not bad yet, and the Jays could re-sign Estrada, pick up Bautista’s option, and reallocate Liriano’s money to shore up other holes, and run it back in 2018. This team would be a contender if it had better injury luck and everything hadn’t gone suddenly and comprehensively to shit in the first two weeks of the season, and there’s no particular reason to think that wouldn’t be the case next year if they held it together and maybe picked up a free agent or two. But that requires running the Blue Jays like a big-market club, rather than the alternative.
The alternative is going back to the 20-year playoff drought that turned the Jays into an afterthought in that enormous media market. Right now, the Blue Jays have momentum with local fans, and an identity as a fun, energetic, and, most importantly, winning team. Trading Donaldson, or even letting him walk, would announce a rebuilding era that would throw away that goodwill, and at a time when the Toronto sports landscape has never been more crowded: the Raptors are on the best four-year run in franchise history and the Maple Leafs have taken a step toward building their first legitimate title contender in more than a decade, and are one of the most exciting young teams in the NHL. If the Blue Jays let themselves fade into the background, it’s going to be very difficult to get back out.
The Blue Jays’ place in the local sports landscape is pretty similar to Donaldson himself in one respect: It’s something Toronto hasn’t had in a generation, and it might be easier to try to squeeze out a few more good years than to tear it all down and try to come back later. Even getting this far is harder than you might think.