TORONTO — Slowly, steadily, the final links to the playoff teams of 2015-16 are disappearing from the Toronto Blue Jays. The trade of Kevin Pillar to the San Francisco Giants for three players Tuesday afternoon leaves Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Justin Smoak, Ryan Tepera, Joe Biagini and Dalton Pompey as the sole remaining connections from those heady days.
All, save for Tepera and Biagini, aren’t likely long for the organization, either. Smoak is a pending free agent at the end of this season, while Stroman and Sanchez are up at the end of 2020. Pompey is out of options on a team that no longer has a place for him.
In the process of building for the future, the Blue Jays need to finish the demolition of their past.
“Looking back on it, you like to think in a perfect world you have an organization, a franchise that is so close to winning and you have pieces in place you feel like you could win, you want to try to keep that momentum going as long as possible as opposed to kind of shutting it down and starting from the ground floor and kind of rebuilding that up,” Pillar said during an emotional gathering with reporters shortly before leaving for the airport.
“But they have a plan in place, they’ve got a long of young, talented kids in this organization that will hopefully return this place to some of the magic, some of the good times that I was able to experience here in 2015, 2016.”
The Rogers Centre crowd of 10,460 for Monday’s 6-5 loss to the Baltimore Orioles was an indication of the local response to the rebuild, barely surpassing the smallest ever gathering at the dome — the 10,314 that watched an 8-1 win over the Kansas City Royals on April 19, 2010. The franchise low for attendance is 10,074, set against the White Sox on April 17, 1979 at old Exhibition Stadium, and under the circumstances, it certainly seems within reach.
Simply thinking that is jarring, demonstrating how quickly things changed since consecutive years of three-million-plus attendance in ’16 and ’17.
The players, the crowds, the joy — all gone.
“We’re not in a popularity contest, we’re in a contest to win championships and that takes making tough decisions and often times not popular ones,” said general manager Ross Atkins. “Having said that, making this move in concert with a deal to acquire Socrates Brito, creating opportunity for some of our younger players, having roster flexibility and extended control, is something that’s hard to wrap your arms around as exciting for a player when they think often times about a cape around someone’s back in Kevin Pillar.
“But we in the end, felt like this was the best thing for the organization and for the fans.”
Pillar was a symbol of the franchise’s brief renaissance, a heart-and-soul player with flaws at the plate whose relentless style of play bordered on reckless at times, especially chasing down balls in the outfield. As a result, he regularly made spectacular catches, running into walls and flying through the air with little concern for his own well-being.
The best example came during a 2017 series at Wrigley Field, when he chased down a Kris Bryant smash, jumping through the ivy into a brick wall to make one of the best catches of his career.
“It’s a pretty tough day, I lost one of my brothers,” said Marcus Stroman. “I can’t say enough good words about that dude – just someone you want on your team, shows up every day ready to play regardless of any injury, true grinder, true professional, dude put his body on the line each and every day. To not have my guy back behind me is pretty tough but at the end of the day it starts to become pretty normal to you. It’s a business and you’re reminded of that every day.”
Despite that willingness to sacrifice his body, Pillar’s durability allowed his manager to pencil in 145-plus games, 200-plus total bases, and a handful of hot streaks. His aggressiveness at the plate could often be maddening, but as a 32nd-round pick in the 2011 draft who’s produced 14.6 WAR over parts of six big-league season, his qualities shouldn’t be overlooked.
The dude gave everything he had.
“He was great, man, good teammate, Superman … he’s a guy you want on your team,” Smoak said, choking up. “Sorry I’m getting emotional. He’s a guy that played hurt. He’s a guy that we’re definitely going to miss.”
Still, like Stroman and Sanchez, he’s a pending free agent after the 2020 season. The likelihood is that he won’t time with the current core. The Blue Jays need to find out what they have, and they can now take longer looks at Teoscar Hernandez, Billy McKinney and, in all likelihood, Anthony Alford while playing Randal Grichuk, signed to a $52-million, five-year extension late in the day, daily.
Socrates Brito, acquired from the San Diego Padres in a separate deal for farmhand Rodrgio Orozco, will also get some run, said Atkins.
In return for Pillar they get infielder Alen Hanson, who’ll be added to the big-league roster, and righty reliever Derek Law, who is slated for triple-A Buffalo, along with Juan De Paula, a 21-year-old right-hander who posted a 1.71 ERA in 47.1 innings at short-season A Staten Island last year, but is now onto his fourth organization.
The odds are against any of them substantially moving the process forward.
That will be up to the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Alford and until they begin carrying the day, the Blue Jays will face more nights with small crowds as the players who attracted people to the stands in the first place keep getting cast away.
“I actually got a chance to not play (Monday) and sit back in the dugout and look out with the type of attendance we had and really process the amount of change that’s just happened in my short time here, the seven years I’ve been here,” said Pillar. “It was tough to see, but ultimately I want what’s best for this organization.
“If they feel like (it’s) me moving on and them giving some other guys some opportunities to play, then that’s what needs to be done. This is always going to be near and dear to my heart and this is a place I’ll always call home.”