"It’s a rebuild, stupid."
If you publicly express your frustration – exasperation, really – at the way the Toronto Blue Jays have played baseball in recent weeks, you’ll find someone popping out to remind you that all of the suckage is to be expected. What, you thought this season was supposed to be fun?
This assumption seems to be based on an idea that "rebuilding" and "tanking" are essentially interchangeable concepts, and that in this year where competing for the playoffs is mostly out of the question, you might as well just bottom out completely. Why would you even care about the on-field product? It’s not about this year anyways.
Make no mistake, the in-game performance of the Jays has been brutal in recent weeks. In truth, aside from their series against the Oakland Athletics, there have been very few bright spots on the schedule, on the roster, or on the stat sheet. And watching those games, it’s hard to reconcile that this is somehow all a part of the design and process.
It’s one thing to acknowledge that maybe the team isn’t competing for even so much as a wild-card berth, but it is quite another to say that spending the next twenty weeks of the season playing awful will somehow make this team better down the road.
Of course, one can plainly acknowledge that the roster is now filled with young players, emerging prospects and players who are "definitely maybes" in terms of future potential, and such a collection of players might not operate like clockwork. And while the jettisoning of veteran players may be the first indication that a rebuild is afoot, it’s probably a good idea to begin delineating between the "tear down" and the "build up" of a franchise in transition.
In finding that line between those two ideas, an important consideration is that building up for the next competitive window isn’t simply a matter or turning over the roster. It’s also about developing the young players that you are onboarding into the big leagues so that they can build on their inherent ability and skills and play at the highest level.
But even more, it’s about developing players who are able to win at the highest level.
If this sounds like a plea for intangibles, it is in a way.
The vaguely nihilistic approach to this season seems to insist that the game-to-game results don’t matter, because the Jays aren’t playing for this season. They are getting ready for some season, somewhere down the road. Eventually.
The problem is that you are integrating the best class of prospect talent that the Toronto baseball club has seen since at least 1984, and likely ever. And to bring those players to the big leagues to play for a hapless team that plays lousy, ugly baseball seems…let’s say, "sub-optimal".
Because how does a young player learn how to win if they are constantly losing?
This is not a call for the Blue Jays to immediately sign Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel and trade off some of their prospects to make a run for this season’s playoff race. It’s very reasonable to see how a couple of expensive contracts for players who are on the downswing would begin to be a hindrance to their ultimate goal in a couple of seasons, when they were really ready to be a contender for the division title.
But it is a call to put a better team on the field now, and for the rest of this season, so that the development of players like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Danny Jansen isn’t just about improving their individual skills.
In fairness to the Blue Jays’ front office, one can see that some effort was made to add good players who are good dudes as well this past off-season. That Matt Shoemaker got hurt is just an awful fluke of the baseball season, and something the team needs to roll with. But Freddy Galvis and Eric Sogard have provided some ballast to a young and wobbly roster in the early-going.
To that end, there shouldn’t be any mad rush to send Justin Smoak, Marcus Stroman or Aaron Sanchez out of town this season. None of them are easily replaceable in the short term, and their presence helps keep this team from being a smoking crater in the American League.
Maybe with the recent designations for assignment of Alen Hanson and Socrates Brito, we’re beginning to see a turn in how the Blue Jays approach this season. Playing the best players available within your organization shouldn’t feel like such a novel concept, but moreover, it shouldn’t be seen as somehow impeding the rebuilding process.
Call this a Tao Truism (or maybe a True Taoism?): You probably learn better baseball lessons playing for an 82-win team than you do playing for a 100-loss team.