Reputational capital – like any other capital – is always hard to accrue, but easy to spend. With their moves at this year’s trade deadline, the Toronto Blue Jays’ management team seems to have spent the last nickels of their public esteem.
Whatever supplies of patience may have remained amongst the team’s fanbase for the machinations of the front office effectively evaporated as of 4 p.m. on Wednesday. While there is a large contingent of fans who have always held the perceived carpetbaggers from the south with contempt, the exasperation of the past week spread deeply into even the most forgiving elements of the supporters.
If the expectation was that the Blue Jays were making big moves at this year’s deadline, the reality sucked the air from the room. The key piece, Marcus Stroman, left for a package of two minor leaguers whose value requires a lot of explanation and tilting of the head just-so to get it. And if that trade left fans underwhelmed, the last minute deal to send Stroman’s former running partner Aaron Sanchez, reliever Joe Biagini and minor leaguer Cal Stevenson to Houston for occasional call-up Derek Fisher landed with an resounding thud. Saturday’s combined no-hitter didn’t make fans feel any better.
There are some fans who might never support the plan of the front office. There are some who are convinced there is no plan at all. There are others who support the rebuild, but now doubt this administration’s ability to pull it off. There are others still who don’t understand the timing, or aren’t willing to wait until 2024 for a one-year shot at contention before the team starts musing about what the right time could be to cash in on the value of the young core.
There are all of these flavours of doubters and more. What one doesn’t see or hear much at this point are believers.
There’s an old political axiom that says: "If you are explaining, you’re losing." People need to understand you without having to sit through an entire post-doctoral thesis that walks them through the nuance of your plan, especially if it is counterintuitive.
When general manager Ross Atkins spoke to the media following the trade deadline, and unleashed the phrase "42 Years of Control" to explain why there was satisfaction internally with their acquisitions, one could hear the nationwide creak of jaws dropping open in unison.
If this is the plan, it doesn’t feel like one to rally around.
For fans of the team – and of the game – the arbitrage of this good player’s so many years versus that player’s future years is not what brings them to the park or to their screens, nor is it what pulls them from their seats and to their feet.
This isn’t to say that any team would be well-served by being run according to the whims of the fans, nor is it to suggest that the current plan for the Blue Jays is the wrong one. But if there was any question amongst those making the player personnel decisions, the fans have made their declaration this week: "This is your bottom. This is as low as you go."
Certainly, whingeing fans are endemic to sport, and every team has their moments when their approval ratings sink. But if you look at the end of any fallen franchise regime, losing the confidence of the fans was always a key part of the downfall. Ownership might have patience to see a strategy executed, but even a corporately-owned franchise will have its leadership grow tired of hearing what a disappointment or laughing stock their team is.
As irony would have it, the depth of the customer dissatisfaction with the team comes at precisely the point that they have rattled off a winning streak, albeit against two of the few teams beneath them in the standings. Still, the combination of Bo Bichette’s arrival and the possibly-not-coincidental surge from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at least offers a glimpse of the good that is to come.
But even this adds to the fans’ anxiety. While both players are just beginning their careers, the departures of Stroman and Sanchez underline how quickly a player goes from fresh-faced rookie to impending departure. There aren’t many years to be squandered waiting for the perfect set of circumstances to compete again.
In his interview with Arash Madani on deadline day, Atkins referred to the state of the Jays on that day as a great "starting point". While that turn of phrase was mixed in with a lot of other explication, and may have gone unnoticed by those who spent the afternoon deaf with rage, it does offer a smidgen of hope that perhaps the tearing down has ended, and the building phase of this plan has begun.
There is no obligation for management to heed the disquiet of the fans, but they should recognize the broad and deep crisis of confidence that their customers have in their product. And given that, there is no more room to move backwards. Failure is a big part of baseball, but for the Blue Jays’ brain trust, it is now a luxury.