Blue Jays need to avoid past missteps for new rebuild to succeed

Arden Zwelling and Nikki Reyes talk about the expectations for the Toronto Blue Jays this season and the interesting situation with Elvis Luciano.

TORONTO – In the spring of 2012, the Toronto Blue Jays entered the season armed with the confidence of a young team on the make, backed by a farm system poised to supplement and reinforce a young developing core. Jose Bautista and Adam Lind were established offensive pillars. Youngsters like Ricky Romero, Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, J.P. Arencibia and Eric Thames seemed ready to take the next step. Travis d’Arnaud, Anthony Gose and Jake Marisnick headlined a prospect base judged fifth best in Baseball America’s pre-season rankings.

"It’s a little different feel, I feel like we’re bringing a little different attitude, in a good way," Romero said in the lead-up to opening day. "We’re arrogant. We know we can win. And those are good qualities to have when you’re out there playing."

The Blue Jays finished 73-89 that year. A 9-19 August is among the worst months in franchise history. Lowlights included career-altering injuries, Yunel Escobar’s ignorant eyeblack episode, and John Farrell bailing on the mess for his dream job with the Red Sox. And of their top-10 prospects that year, only two – Aaron Sanchez and Noah Syndergaard – have had any significant big-league impact, and it took another three years for that to happen.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Thinking of that wretched 2012 season reminds me of a conversation I had with a baseball executive back in 2004, when another young, seemingly-on-the-cusp Blue Jays group turned in a train-wreck season. "If you rely too much on kids," he said, "they’ll break your heart."

Keep those words in the back of your mind as the Blue Jays embark on a 2019 season that is all about laying a solid foundation upon which to build their next contending club. As I wrote back in February, this is going to be an experience like no other in team history, as this is the first time they’ve endured a to-the-studs teardown to set up a rebuild.

Success this year lies not in wins and losses, but in transitioning key prospects like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Danny Jansen, beginning to build a controllable pitching staff and sorting through the on-hand talent to determine who sticks long-term, and who doesn’t.

Guerrero, Bo Bichette and Jansen headline a farm system that was third in Baseball America’s pre-season rankings, followed in the club’s top-10 by lefty Eric Pardinho, shortstop Jordan Groshans, righty Nate Pearson, shortstop Kevin Smith, righty Sean Reid-Foley, second baseman Cavan Biggio and shortstop Miguel Hiraldo.

Fans should be excited about that group, and those behind them. They provide a sound asset-base for the club to work from. But a quick scan of the top-10 lists for the Blue Jays – or any other team – over the years underlines how high the attrition rate is, even for the best systems.

In 2011, for instance, when the Blue Jays ranked fourth, their top-10 went Drabek, Lawrie, Deck McGuire, Anthony Gose, Travis d’Arnaud, Zach Stewart, Asher Wojciechowski, J.P. Arencibia, Carlos Perez and Sanchez.

Things turned out far better for the top-10 in 1999, when the fourth-ranked system featured Roy Halladay, Billy Koch, Felipe Lopez, Kevin Witt, Vernon Wells, Clayton Andrews, Tom Davey, Joe Lawrence, Pete Tucci and Tom Evans. Still, even with a Hall of Famer, two other all-stars and a dependable closer, it wasn’t enough to get the Blue Jays back in the post-season.

None of that is said to diminish the current group of prospects. They’re impressive young men, with talent and smarts and drive. But the harsh reality is most of them won’t turn out to be what’s expected of them. Injury will derail some. The game’s brutal churn will spit out others. And not only do the Blue Jays need a bunch of them to transition successfully, they need a bunch of them to do it at around the same time, too.

Hence those important, cautionary words: "If you rely too much on kids, they’ll break your heart."

So, for this rebuild to work, the Blue Jays will need to start adding some dudes, and do it sooner rather than later. And this is where things really get tricky, as recklessly jumping into free agency or trading prospects for established players is fraught with risk, while the opportunity of high-leverage drafts like the next two coming up can’t be squandered.

All it takes is one or two miscalculations to dramatically alter a franchise’s history, and a couple of examples from Blue Jays history underline the point.

The first came on July 19, 2000, when the Blue Jays traded Michael Young and Darwin Cubillan to the Texas Rangers for Esteban Loiaza. As the story is told, the Rangers were willing to accept any one of the three premium shortstop prospects the Blue Jays had at the time: Young, Cesar Izturis and Felipe Lopez. All went on to become all-stars – with other teams – but Young was a seven-time all-star who produced nearly 25 WAR over 14 big-league seasons.

The second came at the 2005 draft, when the Blue Jays held the sixth overall pick after the ’04 crash and burn, and unexpectedly found themselves with the chance to select Troy Tulowitzki, who was supposed to go before their turn and who’d eventually be acquired in a 2015 trade. A faction of scouts pushed for his selection at the draft, but then-GM J.P. Ricciardi, having chosen infielders Russ Adams and Aaron Hill in the first-round the previous two years, instead took Romero, who eventually became an all-star, but never was a dominant force like Tulowitzki.

Imagine for a moment how different Blue Jays’ history looks if they keep Young in 2000 and take Tulowitzki in ’05. Bolstered by two top-flight infielders, perhaps they break through during the mid-80-win-total seasons of 2006-08, cutting the post-season drought by up to a decade.

We’ll never know for sure, obviously, and every team has these types of choose-your-own-adventure book turning points. But both are examples of how thin the margin is in calls fully within the club’s control, and how impactful they can be on an era’s success and failure.

That’s why, even as big data rules the sport and dispassionate decisions driven by objective projections and analysis carry the day, you can take your 2021 roster charts and throw them in the trash.

No one truly knows how this rebuild is going to turn out. The Blue Jays will be forced to adjust their plans on the fly multiple times. They’re going to be wrong on some guys. Impossible-to-predict events will get in the way. Sometimes, even the can’t-miss-high-quality-person-kids like Travis Snider miss.

That’s why the farm system is great – but it’s a beginning, not an end. The Blue Jays have talent, and assets, and with only one inexpensive, guaranteed contract on the roster for 2020 and beyond, tons and tons of financial flexibility. Their sitting-on-the-sidelines off-season is over, and their seeing-what-sticks 2019 is here. The truest judgment of them comes in what they do with it all now.

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