NEW YORK – On the last day of school for the Toronto Blue Jays, before the final bell rang and they all went their separate ways, this is how some of them were feeling.
“I’m happy with how we fought toward the end, I’m happy about a lot of the things we’ve seen in the last month or two of the season, but obviously we’re not happy with the way this season played out,” said third baseman Josh Donaldson. “With each season, you try to take something away from it and learn and there are a lot of learning lessons to be had.”
“It’s been a long season. That’s what I feel,” said first baseman Justin Smoak. “The last couple of years, even though I was off and on playing, playing for something at the end makes you not realize it’s the end of the year. This year, I’m not saying it’s harder to get up for a baseball game, but when you’re not playing for something it definitely feels like 162.”
“I know we’ll get a better draft pick next year. There’s something positive in it – it wasn’t by design,” said manager John Gibbons. “I just think it was one of those years, to be honest. I’m banking on that. Next year, we’ll find out.”
Class was dismissed with the Blue Jays at 76-86 after a 2-1 victory Sunday over the wild-card bound New York Yankees, under an untouched blue sky. Following consecutive trips to the American League Championship Series, they finished fourth in the East, 17 games behind division-winning Boston and nine games behind Minnesota for the second wild card.
The Blue Jays didn’t spend a day at or above .500 in 2017, sitting better than fourth only for one day all year, in a tie for third Aug. 17. A 1-9 opening buried them early, and seven times they lost games that would have pushed them to break-even mark – on June 1, 3, 5, 13, 16, 20 and 22 – by a cumulative score of 60-15.
Their five triples are the fewest by any team in a big-league season of more than 13 games.
They used the disabled list 31 times on 25 different players, losing 1,408 man-games to injury.
Still, the Blue Jays clung to the fringes of the wild-card race into mid-August, creeping within three games of the second spot after a 5-3 win Aug. 17 against the Tampa Bay Rays pushed them to 59-62.
A three-game sweep to the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field followed and afterwards all that was left was the pretending and waiting for some life from the September call-ups, Teoscar Hernandez, Richard Urena and Carlos Ramirez, in particular, obliging.
“I feel pretty good about all the work I put in, I got the results I wanted to get and I think next year pretty good things are going to happen,” said Hernandez, who slashed .261/.305/.602 with eight homers in 27 games. “I’m going to keep working hard on my strike zone, my pitch recognition, less strikeouts, more walks. I’m going to winter ball (Toros del Este in the Dominican Republic) and start working on that as soon as I can.”
So now it’s goodbye to Jose Bautista, whose $17-million mutual option for next year won’t be picked up by the team and went single in the second and sacrifice fly to centre in the fourth in his final plate appearances with the Blue Jays.
Barring a dramatic series of roster changes, there doesn’t appear to be a fit for him next year and the likelihood is that the next time Blue Jays fans see him, it will be in another uniform.
“I’ve said it all along, this is where I want to be and finish my career,” said Bautista, who batted .203/.308/.366 with 23 homers and 62 RBIs in 157 games. “We’ll see what happens in the future. It’s out of my control now.”
The other pending free agents are Darwin Barney, Michael Saunders, Miguel Montero and Brett Anderson, who in his seventh start with the Blue Jays threw five shutout innings on three hits with three strikeouts, looking good in his final audition.
The Blue Jays will be on the hunt for at least one more starter this winter and Anderson will get some consideration, depending on his price point and how much he costs in relation to another pitcher with less health uncertainty.
“I think there’s some mutual interest there but we’ll see what happens,” said Anderson, who posted a 5.13 ERA in 33.1 innings with the Blue Jays. “I’ve been through the free agency thing before, you think one thing is going to happen and then something else happens. As far as the fit here, I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to come in and start and showcase what I’m capable of. Other than one outing from hell against Kansas City, I feel like I’ve done fairly well and showcased that I’m still a capable pitcher.”
Ryan Goins drove in the winning run with an eighth inning groundout Sunday, his 65th RBI that left him fourth on the team. His overall batting line of .237/.286/.356 in 143 games stood in stark contrast to the .330/.368/.540 line with 55 RBIs in 100 at-bats he delivered with men in scoring position.
“Not going to the playoffs will be a little bit different, but I’ll go home happy with the way I played,” said Goins. “I finally got an opportunity to play every day again and that was my whole thing, taking advantage of opportunities. I was given a big one, played well, put myself in a good position.
“Nobody knows what the team is going to do in the off-season, but I’m happy with the way I played, the way I produced at the plate and defensively.”
Returning will be Gibbons and the rest of the coaching staff, all of whom received extensions earlier in the season save for bench coach DeMarlo Hale, who preferred to go year-to-year instead.
Under club control for next year include core players like Donaldson, Smoak, Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki and Kevin Pillar plus pitchers Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, the recently extended Marco Estrada and Roberto Osuna, who picked up save No. 39 in a clean ninth.
“It’s a good core,” said Gibbons. “I’m sure there will be some adjustments to it. There needs to be. But your overall core is still pretty solid.”
The kinds of changes he has in mind? He wasn’t sharing, but after a season during which all that could go wrong often did, nothing is off the table as they try to refurbish the current group for another run in 2018.