Loss to Rays concludes Blue Jays’ trying, transitional 2018 campaign

While stepping in as manager, Russell Martin takes relief pitcher Joe Biagini out of the game during the eight inning. (Jason Behnken/AP)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There was a striking symbolism for the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday, in the manager pushed aside by the front office for the sake of change handing over the reins to the catcher forced to sit idly this month by the club for the sake of change.

A 9-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays with Russell Martin in the manager’s seat ended this trying and transitional 73-89 campaign, during which the remnants of Alex Anthopoulos’s post-season clubs were definitively dismantled by general manager Ross Atkins.

That shifted the Blue Jays from a team of the present to the team of the future, and for those part and parcel of the magic in 2015-16, what-ifs about how things might have played out had the roster been supplemented differently over the past three winters will linger.

For the others, well, they’re all-in on a new path now and everything is going to be different, starting with a new manager to replace John Gibbons, who departs as a symbol of those recent successes and with a place in the club’s pantheon of impactful figures.

In that vein, Martin is among the small handful of remaining players stuck at the fork between the past and the future, the Blue Jays diverting his September playing time to Reese McGuire and Danny Jansen. The 35-year-old backbone of those playoff teams finished the season batting .194/.325/.338 in 90 games, the last coming Sept. 3, and how he fits the puzzle next year is far from clear.

“I think really it was just kind of taking a step back,” Martin said when asked how, as a manager, he’d explain the decision to himself as a player to sit this month. “Since we were in a situation where we weren’t necessarily competitive for a playoff spot, it was just a great opportunity for the young guys to showcase their abilities. … I was more of a coach in the last month than an actual player. But I was OK with it.”

Martin has one more year at $20 million remaining on the $82-million, five-year deal that helped transform the Blue Jays from perennial also-rans into division champions. A contender could use him, but not at that price, and whether he returns depends on how much the Blue Jays are willing to pay down his salary, but at least one of McGuire and Jansen should start in Toronto next year, if not both.

“I told people I’d like to see a situation where nobody has a guaranteed job, where if you show up ready and you’re the best player, then you deserve it,” Martin said during the pre-game manager’s session. “It’d be nice to have that kind of competition at spring training next year.”

Whether he gets that chance or not will be one of the off-season’s most intriguing questions of the winter. But while he wouldn’t acknowledge it publicly, Gibbons letting him manage the finale was a little bit of a tribute to a catcher he respected immensely.

“That just shows you how much respect Gibby has for him,” said first baseman Justin Smoak.

Added centre-fielder Kevin Pillar: “Typical Gibby move, paying respect, especially to his catchers.”

On Sunday morning, some photos from Sept. 30, 2015 popped up in one of the apps on Pillar’s phone. The Blue Jays clinched the American League East in Baltimore that day, setting off a wild and raucous celebration in the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards. He went to show Martin.

“I said, ‘Three years ago today we were popping bottles in Baltimore. It’s crazy you’re managing a game today,’” Pillar relayed. “It just makes you realize how quickly things can change, how you have to enjoy the special moments, the highs in this game, and a constant reminder that you’ve got to keep working, keep going because success isn’t easy to reach and even harder to repeat. You can sit there and wonder why there have been so many changes. The best thing you can do is embrace it and be part of it and continue to try to better yourself.”

The season finale marked the official end for Gibbons and, barring a surprise re-signing, Marco Estrada. They join Josh Donaldson, J.A. Happ, Roberto Osuna and Aaron Loup as other longtime Blue Jays to depart this year. The coaching staff is free to talk to other teams and will be considered for jobs under the new manager, but without any promises.

The departures follow those of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in recent seasons, while trades for Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman will surely be explored this off-season, even with their values diminished. Pillar is stuck in the same no man’s land as Martin.

Taking their place are the kids.

McGuire and Jansen behind the plate. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Rowdy Tellez in the infield — set to be joined by baseball’s top prospect, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. three weeks into next season so the Blue Jays can delay his free agency by a year. Teoscar Hernandez, Billy McKinney and Anthony Alford in the outfield. Ryan Borucki, Thomas Pannone and Sean Reid-Foley in the rotation. Tim Mayza and Jose Fernandez among others in the bullpen.

Depending on their progress, prospects like shortstop Bo Bichette, second baseman Cavan Biggio and starters T.J. Zeuch, Hector Perez, Jordan Romano and Nate Pearson could soon join them.

There’s going to be a lot of sifting through the sand in the years to come, but that group will begin to shape the next core of this team.

“I feel like these young guys we have, they’re committed, they’re in it for the right things,” said Smoak, whose $8-million club option for next year will be picked up. “They want to get better, they want to learn and they’re good. Hopefully with the experience they got this year, they’ll be better for that coming into spring training, knowing what to expect.”

Smoak, along with Kendrys Morales, will be among the veteran pillars of the 2019 roster, which in many ways will resemble what it looked like this September.

The Blue Jays aren’t expected to be very active in free agency — bet on fringe moves and value plays to create tradable assets for next year’s deadline — and probably won’t add substantially via trade. Re-signing Happ, who’d like to come back, would make lots of sense, but he may end up priced out of the Blue Jays’ plans.

In such an environment, Smoak’s steady presence will be important in nurturing the clubhouse development.

“More than anything, I’ve always tried to be a guy who leads by example,” he said. “When I first came up (with Texas), one of the guys I loved was Michael Young. He never said much, but as a young guy, that was who you watched and I learned a lot from that. At the same time, when he did speak, everybody was like, ‘I’m listening.’ That’s the kind of respect you want to have and if I can be that guy, it would be great. I feel like I’ve had some good veteran players that I’ve played with here and everywhere that I feel like I’ve learned a lot from.”

Highlights from 2018 include a 15-10 April, Gurriel’s streak of 11 multi-hit games, Morales hitting a homer in seven consecutive games, a comeback from a six-run deficit in the ninth against the Rays on Sept. 20 and the steady series of firsts that flowed all year. “We had a lot of beer showers after the games,” said Martin. “If I could remember something from this year, it would be our celebratory beer showers at the end of the game.”

There were more than enough lowlights, starting with Osuna’s arrest and charge with assaulting a woman, which led to a 75-game suspension from Major League Baseball and his eventual trade, before he agreed to a peace bond. The way the relationship between Donaldson and the Blue Jays devolved was difficult to watch, especially given what he meant to the team. The Blue Jays used the disabled list 24 times for 20 different players for a total of 793 games.

Asked what he’ll remember from 2018, Pillar takes a long pause.

“I think I’ll remember September more than anything else from this year,” he replied. “You hear about a lot of these names coming up in the minor-leagues, whether it’s guys like Borucki, or Reid-Foley, or Jansen or McGuire. Me as a, quote-unquote, older guy, someone who’s been around a little bit longer, I was able to see what kind of bond those guys have with each other, how much they enjoy each other and it reminded me of a couple of years ago when we seemed to get all the right pieces not just on the field but off the field to fit. We really enjoyed each other’s company and it’s something that was a little bit lost this year, for no particular reason.

“It’s not that guys didn’t like each other, but guys have families, they have responsibilities, sometimes personalities, some guys don’t want to do stuff off the field,” Pillar continued. “I was able to remember the importance of team chemistry and team bonding and just taking time out of my personal life to get to know these guys and spend time with them. I really grew fond of a lot of these guys.”

He knows next year will be different, and not just because a new manager will bring a new style to a team with a mostly different roster.

“In our time away from the field,” Pillar said. “We were able to talk ways we can improve our team for next year and just the kind of attitude we’re going to take every single day, understanding that we might not be as talented as the Red Sox or Yankees, but there are ways you can still go out there and win baseball games consistently without being more talented than teams.”

How so?

“Just bringing back that grinder, dirtbag mentality,” said Pillar, “and giving everyone our best effort every single day.”

Martin wants to play games with real stakes again.

“I’ll forget most of this year on a personal level,” he said. “It was a tough year, not winning as much as we could have. When you don’t win, it really changes the game. Most of my career I’ve been used to just playing the game — every pitch, every inning, is for the team. We’re trying to win because we’re trying to make it to the playoffs. As soon as you’re out of it, not that it changes, but the motivation is different. You have to think on a more personal level. You’re going to work but you’re doing it to kind of establish yourself. To me, that’s not the kind of baseball that I’m used to or that I like. I like the kind of baseball where you get a guy over in a tight situation and the next guy hits him in and you’re giving everybody high fives on the bench.

“When you’re playing for a playoff spot, all those little things matter even more, and that’s what I appreciate about this game. But when you’re out of it, it just doesn’t have the same feeling to it. Hopefully next year the goal is to play some meaningful baseball all the way through. That would be nice.”

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