TORONTO – Reality, the coldest and harshest kind, has struck the Toronto Blue Jays very hard over the past couple of weeks, forcing them from the binary non-waiver trade deadline prism of buyers and sellers into far more nuanced territory as July 31 approaches.
"It’s undeniable to recognize where you are in the standings and what that means, objectively, for your chances to contend and play in the post-season," Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro says in an interview. "Yet, in light of the incredible support in the fanbase, we really enter any junction in time, and certainly trade deadline is one of those opportunities, where our sole focus is to get better. Get better could be in the short-term, for the rest of this year, although it’s highly unlikely it would be rental-type guys, or it could be get better this year and in subsequent years, as well. Trade deadline presents one window of opportunity for us to improve the team, and we are going to want to get better this year, too, that’s for sure."
What exactly does that mean?
The Blue Jays, clearly, aren’t going to be traditional deadline buyers, willing to spend prospect capital on expiring contracts to feed a win-now approach. Given that FanGraphs calculated their playoff probabilities at 1.2 per cent for rallying to win the American League East and 12.8 per cent to claim a wild card before factoring in Tuesday’s 4-1 win over the New York Yankees, that’s understandable.
But, neither does it sound like they’re planning to be your typical seller, either, by embarking on a tear-down of the roster for prospects that may or may not develop into big-leaguers in the years ahead. With an American League-best average attendance of 39,336 for a total of 1,652,107 through 42 home dates, punting on both 2017 and 2018 right now isn’t going to happen.
That leaves the Blue Jays in a murky middle between the two extremes in which more and more teams have tried to conduct deadline business in recent years, trying to address both immediate and longer-term needs as a way to reduce the next off-season’s work.
The Texas Rangers, for example, were 49-52 in 2015 when they acquired Cole Hamels with an eye on having him front their rotation the next season (their subsequent rally to the AL West title a happy and unexpected by-product of the deal). Or last year, the New York Yankees sold off relievers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller for mostly future pieces but they also picked up Adam Warren and, in a separate transaction, Tyler Clippard to help hold down the fort. Over the winter, they re-signed Chapman to anchor a bullpen that includes set-up men Dellin Betances, Warren (currently on the DL) and Clippard.
“I can’t tell you the exact blueprint or plan right now, but I think there’s still quite a bit of talent here, both veterans and guys in the prime of their careers.”
The Blue Jays have a handful of pending free agents who, perhaps, may be able to fetch some value in Marco Estrada, Francisco Liriano, Jose Bautista and the currently injured Joe Smith. But without replacements ready and waiting in the minor-leagues, subtracting from the core doesn’t seem likely unless corresponding pieces are involved to support runs at the post-season both this year and next.
Need-for-need baseball trades returning big-league players are more a route toward that.
"I can’t tell you the exact blueprint or plan right now, but I think there’s still quite a bit of talent here, both veterans and guys in the prime of their careers," said Shapiro. "We clearly need to continue to compete, we clearly need to continue to get more talent around those existing players but yes, we have enough of a base of talent here to still contend."
To that end, trading Josh Donaldson, a free agent after the 2018 season, for prospects isn’t on the agenda. Rather, the star third baseman can continue to lead a core that includes position players Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki, who are under contract through 2019 and 2020, respectively, Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak and Kevin Pillar plus pitchers Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Roberto Osuna and Joe Biagini.
While those players are the guts of a club that’s struggled to a 38-45 mark thus far, trailing the Yankees, Rays, Royals, Twins, Angels, Mariners, Orioles and Rangers in the wild-card chase, that’s not necessarily inspiring.
Still, an argument can be made that, even when factoring the roster’s age, the performance of some players should uptick at least a bit based on historical track record. The impact of 20 different players to spend time on the disabled list is impossible to discount, too. Some smart strategic adds to augment the current group could, theoretically, lead to more positive outcomes.
"Injuries clearly take a toll and we knew once we got into our next tier, if that happened that would be an extreme challenge for us because we didn’t have a championship calibre of depth. In addition, the defence has been far worse than we expected as has the offence," said Shapiro. "We’ve got to approach the juncture figuring out how to get better. That getting better refers to this year as well as multiple years. It’s one opportunity where we need to be open minded to how we get better."
Publicly and repeatedly including "this year" when he mentions getting better is further indication Shapiro isn’t intent on the type of tear-down he orchestrated after he took over as general manager of the Cleveland Indians in November 2001. As he notes, "every situation is different, and the past decisions I’ve been a part of can’t be characterized as impacting the current situation or current decisions we have to make."
Beyond the great attendance numbers, the Blue Jays boast a young and engaged country-wide fanbase that is the envy of most big-league clubs, and there is significant risk in alienating them. No one wants to endure the type of lengthy and painful bottoming out teams like the Washington Nationals, Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs lived through en route to periods of sustained winning, and the Blue Jays don’t seem poised to dive into the type of sell-off that would lead to one.
"I do think we can build that team without that cycle occurring here, but how we’re situated at the moment might cause for one transitional period between now and getting there," said Shapiro. "If we build this organization through our philosophy with an obsessive focus on acquiring and developing the best young talent and strategically building a balanced major-league roster, we will have an opportunity to sustain a championship-calibre team.
"And I still believe we can get through that transition in an expedited time frame."
For the moment, that means a trade deadline in which the Blue Jays will be neither solely buyer, nor solely seller, but rather a hybrid of both.