Blue Jays face delicate balancing act for 2020 season

Toronto Blue Jays rookie Cavan Biggio, right, with teammate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Fred Thornhill/CP)

There were moments in the 2019 season where you would be hard pressed to scrape an ounce of hope from the souls of Blue Jays fans. But with the emergence of the team’s youthful core in the second half, there’s a renewed sense of optimism around the team.

It’s not just a matter of a better record over the past few weeks, or a bump in interest since the arrival of Bo Bichette, though those factors obviously help. Beyond the tangibles, the quality of baseball that is on display is entertaining, and remarkably more satisfying.

With that freshly enlivened spirit suddenly comes new expectations, which could make for a very tricky balance as the front office attempts to prepare for the 2020 season. Blue Jays management has remained as cagey and non-committal as reasonably possible as they speak of the optimal timing for adding to these young and coming stars. Even under the intense post-trade deadline scrutiny, they generally skipped past 2020 and spoke more of 2021 when considering when the team might be “competitive” again.

This raises some essential questions as this season reaches its final stretches, and we begin to ponder what comes next. Most notably, can fans be happy with a team that is merely “fun?”

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After some dodgy stretches, there is a good – not great – lineup card being posted each day, and there are players with some big-league tools who will be jockeying for playing time down the stretch this season and into next year. What those players require to remain competitive is a rotation that is healthy and effective, a failing of this year’s team that is perhaps not fully appreciated.

By now, there is no one taking a regular turn in the rotation who would have imagined doing so in mid-March, as spring training rosters were being pruned. Trent Thornton didn’t lock down his rotation spot until the last days of the off-season, and now he leads the team in starts. Jacob Waguespack would have been far down anyone’s list of pitching depth in the system.

Projecting ahead to 2020, Thornton and Waguespack could be joined by Ryan Borucki, health permitting, and perhaps by Matt Shoemaker, who still carries some favourable vibes after a terrific start to the season (1.57 ERA in five starts.) But even still, that’s a shaky rotation with the same questions about depth.

Bullpens are always hard to project, and there are a lot of arms that may be interesting and could be in the mix, but one certainly wouldn’t estimate that this a strength in the near term.

And yet, if either the rotation or the bullpen is halfway decent next season, the young offence could quite conceivably carry them into being a competitive team. With a little added enthusiasm, and perhaps some more intensity to fans’ eagerness, there will be a temptation to skip past the process and get straight to the destination.

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Which leads to the other essential question: What’s the distinction between being “competitive” and being a “contender?”

This distinction seems the thin beam on which we will balance for the next 12-to-18 months.

It’s a curious distinction in these times, where the wild card can convince teams with below-.500 records this late in the season that not all is lost. But teams who are constructed to be 82-to-87-win teams can perhaps more easily slide backwards through injuries and bad luck. Whereas teams that are built to win their division can face adversity and still keep themselves at the head of the single-game playoff pack.

This is why the front office representatives have emphasized the importance of timing their push to contend just right, so that they are adding external talent to that which has been developed within the system when it is more certain to push them into that higher tier.

But the young talent, even with all the years of control, won’t be here forever. Passing over one year of Vlad, Bo, Lourdes, Danny, and Biggio for an imagined better, more timely scenario somewhere just another year or two away could be hard for fans to swallow. Fun is great, but is it enough to keep fans holding on for another year, or two, or three?

And every baseball fan knows that “stuff” happens along the way. Guys get injured or get figured out. There’s a labour war that could very well break out right in the middle of the Jays’ most auspicious seasons. Any number of catastrophes await, so trying to define a narrow and more perfect jumping off moment begs the question: Why not now?

For a management group that emphasizes its decisions are made by a process, and not by a person, these sorts of existential questions should be keeping someone awake at night. An exciting conclusion to 2019 will only make it that much trickier to set their plans for 2020.

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