Blue Jays face tricky task of trying to retool on the fly

Toronto Blue Jays centre fielder Kevin Pillar talks about Steve Pearce hitting a grand slam for the second time in a week and the belief in the locker room.

TORONTO – There are cautionary tales to be found about the type of on-the-fly retool the Toronto Blue Jays are planning for the 2018 season, and the Los Angeles Angels provided a first-hand look at one of them over the weekend.

Since a stretch of six post-season berths in eight seasons from 2002-09, manager Mike Scioscia’s club has been to the playoffs just once, losing in three games to the Kansas City Royals in 2014, declining in each of the three years since, despite featuring Mike Trout.

Clearly any team with arguably the game’s best player on its roster must try to leverage him and the Angels have, the signing of Albert Pujols to a $240-million, 10-year contract in December 2011 evidence to that. But minus a farm system capable of meaningful contributions, pivotal injuries to starters Matt Shoemaker, Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs and Andrew Heaney, and little support for their dynamic duo beyond Kole Calhoun and Andrelton Simmons, they’re stuck in baseball’s dead zone despite a payroll around $165 million.

Theoretically, the Angels would be much better with their rotation back, but even with them they’re miles behind the Houston Astros in the American League West, without the prospect capital to get substantially better in years to come. Stepping back would mean wasting Trout’s prime or trying to accomplish the impossible by trying to get full value back for him in a trade.

Not happening.

The Blue Jays, if they overcommit in the wrong spots this winter, could end up in a similar spot despite a payroll of around $165 million. Their farm system includes two potential future cornerstones in Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette, but there’s a gap before they’ll be ready and little surplus to deal from to get immediate help for the big-league club.

Beyond Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna, there’s little upside to be found on the roster for 2018, although a healthy Josh Donaldson should rebound in a big way before he hits free agency. How Troy Tulowitzki returns from the ligament tear in his right ankle – the Blue Jays didn’t reveal details Sunday but the damage is said to be significant – is a major question. Justin Smoak will need to repeat, while Russell Martin and Kendrys Morales will each be another year older.

And there’s no looming bounty coming before the non-waiver trade deadline passes Monday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET. The Blue Jays most likely to be moved remain lefty Francisco Liriano and reliever Joe Smith, with a lesser chance that Marco Estrada gets dealt, as well.

Marco Estrada may be a member of a new team after the trade deadline. (Fred Thornhill/CP)

Other opportunities are less far along, although time remains for surprise to arise, with Sportsnet’s Jeff Blair reporting that Cleveland recently phoned the Blue Jays to inquire about Jose Bautista. Any deal for Bautista is complicated by veto power granted by his rights as a player with 10 years of service time, five straight with the same team and the Blue Jays aren’t likely to approach him without a firm offer. But pairing him with Smith could solve a couple of needs for the Indians.

Bautista and Smith could also make some sense for the Nationals, while the Royals and Brewers are seeking starters, although both were said to have cooled on Estrada. Liriano also might hold appeal for teams seeking a swingman as the lefty can both start and relieve.

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The Blue Jays are also looking for opportunities to buy a piece with control in 2018 at least, as well, but the heavy lifting is due to happen this winter, when they’re likely to do some mid-market shopping while trying not to tether themselves to overpaid free agents facing decline.

Retooling on the fly while rebuilding from underneath is a tricky task, with the risk of being left with years of not being good enough to legitimately compete and not being bad enough to draft early.

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