As the long and ultimately disappointing Jays season draws closer to its end, presenting Toronto fans with their second-straight losing year, there should be reason for optimism nonetheless. Positives can be seen on the field these days, as well as to the east in New England and to the south in Buffalo …and Atlanta?
While there’s a litany of things that have gone wrong with the Blue Jays this season – oft-injured veterans (Donaldson, Tulowitzki), failure of the core of the starting rotation (Stroman, Estrada, Sanchez) to pitch like major leaguers, let alone their former star selves, sloppy fielding at times – there are a number of bright spots. Primarily, the youth of the organization. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is developing into a very good hitting young infielder and while Teoscar Hernandez hasn’t hit like many expected, it’s worth remembering it is his first full season at the big league level (although it’s also fair to point out that with him turning 26 in a few short weeks, he’s no longer in the category of “spring chicken.”). More recently, young pitchers Ryan Borucki , Thomas Pannone and Sean Reid-Foley have had flashes of brilliance on the mound, and while both have been a bit inconsistent, one can hope they will mature and adapt quickly. If even one of them takes a big step ahead next year and another merely repeats his ’18 production, the pitching next year should look more reliable than this year (currently Toronto starters rank 28th of 30 in MLB based on ERA). As it is, the trio are already showing better than their older veteran colleagues in the rotation anyway.
Danny Jansen is looking perfectly at home ascending to his role as “catcher of the future”. He was called up after a solid campaign at AAA in which he hit .275 with 58 RBI and a .390 on base percentage in 88 games. Scouts have pointed to his “impressive strides” in catching abilities this year although noting his throwing arm might never be more than average.
New Hampshire, the Jays’ AA afiliate just won their league championship, in no small part due to Minor League All Star Bo Bichette, ranked as the 9th best prospect in all of baseball. Bichette will turn 21 just before opening day next spring, and according to scouts shows “good range and instincts” in the infield and has “no limit to his offensive ceiling.” This year, he hit .286 with 74 RBI and good speed leading to 43 doubles and 32 stolen bases.
And of course, that pales beside baseball’s top overall prospect, and his teammate for the first half of the season, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Even with a tiny drop off in production at Buffalo, Guerrero managed to win the “Pipeline Minor League Player of the Year” award as the best hitter in all the minors, with head-turning .381 average and .636 slugging percentages in 95 games. While scouts note that he’s not as great defensively (with “below average speed and range” playing third, but a strong “above average arm” which helps make up for the other) he still is deemed ready to take on big league competition by almost everybody except Jays management. Guerrero, is to remind you, still just 19 years old.
All this suggests that there is no reason for this year’s foirth-place, sub-.500 season to be a real worry nor a precedent for the 2019 season. In short, Toronto could and should compete next year.
Is such a jump realistic over the winter? Yes. Minnesota went from a last place 59 wins in 2016 to a wild-card earning 85 wins in 2017 without any huge roster overhaul. More impressive, this year’s Atlanta Braves have all but locked up their first division championship since 2013, after winning just 72 last year. Right now they’ve already won 11 more than that and they’re on pace to win 91 and have the second best record in the NL. And they’ve done that with no huge superstar additions… unless you count the addition of two of the best youngsters in the game.
The Braves are thriving this year with 21 year old second baseman Ozzie Albies in his first full year. After a mid-season callup in 2017,he’s solidified into one of the best two-way middle infielders around this year, with a .273 average, 22 homers and 39 doubles among his impressive numbers.
Even more eye-catching has been their rookie outfielder, Ronald Acuna Jr. The 20 year old who a year ago was in more or less the same spot as Guerrero Jr. is now, is a leading candidate for rookie of the year, with a constantly-rising .296 average, 26 homers and 14 steals so far in under 100 games. The pair have added some real depth to the lineup that relied too much on the bat of Freddie Freeman alone the past couple of years, and has brought excitement to the stands– and soldified the teams spirit, one might guess judging from their response when a Marlins pitcher chose to start the game by plunking him with a pitch. Throw in good, but not extraordinary, comebacks from veteran Nick Markakis and pitchers Mike Foltynewicz and Julio Teheran, and you have a team looking to play for the World series this fall- not sit at home. That should be the role model for Toronto.
It’s reasonable for the Jays not to want to be in on bidding potentially hundreds of millions of dollars on free agents Manny Machado or Bryce Harper this winter. They don’t need to in order to compete and give the fanbase of one of baseball’s biggest and most loyal markets a chance to celebrate next year. Even increasing payroll is likely unnecessary, what with Josh Donaldson off the roster and payroll. That frees up some $23 million a year, which certainly will allow for a few smart , mid-range free agents (particularly a starting pitcher or two to replace departed JA Happ and under-achieving Marco Estrada) to be signed. Add a few trades to perhaps clear out the over-crowded middle infield (I would think both Devon Travis and Yangervis Solarte would draw interest and are entirely expendable given the presence of A. Diaz, the emergence of Gurriel as a real talent, Troy Tulowitizki still under contract and aiming to return next year, newly-acquired Brandon Drury and of course, the expectations of both Bichette and Guerrero at the big league level in ’19). To say that it’s impossible to compete in the division because of New York and Boston , or that it’s going to be another “5 year plan” as JP Ricciardi used to preach in the early part of this century, is disingenuous and insulting to the team and its fans. Yet that seems to be the suggestion of big boss Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins, with the former directly suggesting to the Toronto Star that 2021 is the earliest fans should expect a winning team. If that is the way they truly feel, perhaps they should move along- back to their beloved Cleveland , or over to the Mets who’ve been rumored to want Shapiro at least – and let the Jays be run by people with confidence and imagination. Rather like the Braves organization- run by Atkins’ predecessor, Alex Anthopoulos.