This has not been an especially pleasant offseason for fans of the Toronto Blue Jays, and on the day after watching Edwin Encarnacion don the jersey and cap of the team that ended their most recent playoff run, you can’t blame them for feeling dissatisfied and chagrined.
Of course, that’s part of the nature of fandom, where anxious uncertainty between games ratchets emotions upwards. Fans will be fans, they will be fanatical about their teams, and with the notable exception of the pre-2013 acquisitions of R.A. Dickey and a slew of Marlins, most off-seasons amongst Blue Jays over the past decade have been greeted with derision or skepticism by a vocal portion of the fanbase.
What makes this year peculiar is that even those who would consider themselves even-handed and rational observers have had to strain to piece together the plan or process that has led the team to its current roster. What’s worse is the feeling that comes after, the conclusion that maybe the front office has botched it.
That’s not to say that we should skewer Ross Atkins, or Mark Shapiro, or ownership. If they misread the market, they are not alone. Few of us would have predicted how this free agent and trade market has played out, with the hidden speed bump of a brief Collective Bargaining Agreement stalemate, and so many sluggers floundering without obvious landing spots.
Ask yourself: In September, could you have predicted that the leaders in home runs in both leagues would be unable to land a spot on anyone’s roster into January? Or that the talk around Jose Bautista would begin to elicit comparisons to Stephen Drew?
Even when the Blue Jays signed Kendrys Morales early in the market, it seemed like it might be more akin to a clever value play along the lines of the J.A. Happ deal last off-season. It didn’t necessarily present itself as a terrible deal until several weeks later, as the realization set in that better players may well get lesser deals.
On a positive note, the Blue Jays are expected to have a larger payroll, and amidst the noise of the signings not made or holes not yet filled, one can recognize that there is a plan to load up on draft picks and solidify the franchise through a strong organizational foundation. It’s a smart idea, and one that former GM Alex Anthopoulos engaged in at almost the exact same moment in his tenure.
Still, one can’t help but feel the discomfort as the organic connectors between the two front office regimes begin to tear themselves from each other.
Anthopoulos’ damn-the-torpedoes approach in his final year still provides a significant context in which Atkins and Shapiro must operate. The high-budget, franchise-player money has already been given out to Russ Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, and Josh Donaldson, while a significant portion of the prospect capital was spent on adding players, many of whom are becoming distant memories. If there is an expectation among fans that the Blue Jays should be pushing harder to supplement those aforementioned stars, the tougher question-answering-a-question is: “How? And with what?”
To trot out a cliché, it could be that the Blue Jays are “one star player away.” One star player away from being more than a middling team with an outside chance at a wild card spot, and maybe one star player away from assuaging the fans that all will be well, and that the Red Sox will be strongly contested for the division.
It’s a cheat to assume that ownership will simply funnel in more money to paper over poor outcomes on the player market. Beyond that, are there even any players that the Jays need who could be bought with extra payroll?
(If this is a moment where you need to step into a quiet room to weep at the Jays whiffing on Dexter Fowler, be my guest. I’ll do the same.)
Strangely, it’s the almost comical deal to lock up Justin Smoak for the next two years that casts the most troubling doubt about the feasibility of whatever plan the team has. In the context of a $165 million payroll, Smoak seems like an insignificant rounding error. But as we get down to the short strokes, and as the team attempts to plug the remaining holes, those four million dollars and change in the next two years begin to take up a larger proportion of a smaller pot.
With the assumed free agent departures, the coming year was destined to be transitional. But after two seasons in the playoffs, the expectations of the fanbase remain high. Whatever the reason or context, it’s hard to build on the emotions of dusty walk-off head-first slides with an abundance of rational forbearance.
It’s not that there isn’t hope. It’s just that it is kind of a bummer.