You have to feel a wee bit bad for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Baseball’s top prospect came up to intense pressure earlier this year, and for about two months posted decent, but quite ordinary numbers, to the dismay of adoring fans primed by the media to expect the second coming of Ted Williams. Now, since he got in the national spotlight in the All Star Game home run derby, he’s been red hot. He’s hit not one but two grand slams in the last couple of weeks, and over the past 10 games has driven in 18 while hitting well over .400. He was, deservedly, the American League Player of the Week last week. Yet seemingly, all we are hearing about in the Blue Jays world is Houston pitchers and Vlad’s teammates bad fielding. Ergo, bad decisions by General Manager Ross Atkins.
Many have termed it a “perfect storm” of problems for Toronto’s front office this past trade deadline. They traded away the team’s most popular pitcher for two minor leaguers few seem inspired by, then managed to give away a former star-starting pitcher (Aaron Sanchez), a reliable middle-inning reliever (Joe Biagini) and a sharp minor league outfielder Cal Stevenson, all for one middling (to be kind) 25 year old Houston minor league outfielder, Derek Fisher. Fans were livid. Of course, you know the rest of the story, one so wild even Hollywood would balk at it for being too unrealistic. Sanchez and Biagini (with a few pitches of help from another bullpen arm) combined on a no-hitter their first time to the mound for the Astros. The same night, Fisher makes the highlight reel after leaving the game injured after having a fly ball smack him in the face after bouncing off his closed glove. #shatkins and #fireatkins were two of the more printable trending topics in Toronto social media that night. The next day, Sanchez put a full page ad in the Toronto Sun daily paper thanking the fans and people of the city for the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues and making him feel at home. A class move.
All the while, Ross Atkins continued to throw gasoline on the fire smugly making references to “20 pitchers” who “check all the boxes” to be major league starters and glibly talking about Fisher’s impressive fielding skills. And ignoring Marcus Stroman’s comments upon arriving in New York that he had won a Gold Glove, been an All Star, pitched back-to-back 200 inning seasons and never once been spoken to, let alone congratulated by front office.
Atkins and his office cohorts don’t get it. The Blue Jays have at times set MLB attendance records, and as recently as 2016 led the league in people through the turnstiles. Last year, and to date this year, they lead the league in drop-off in attendance. The fans are speaking, loud and clear. They don’t like Atkins nor the direction he’s taking the team, which is currently on pace for its losingest season since 1979.
Former MLB commissioner Bud Selig talks of how baseball failed initially in Milwaukee in the ’60s, noting that the owner at the time was an out-of-towner who responded to falling attendance by trading away the team stars and raising prices, not “doing anything to market itself” and assuming you merely need to “open your doors” to win. Taking the crowds for granted. Or, as the column Tao of Stieb, (not written by Dave Stieb it should be noted) pointed out in a Sportsnet publication… owned by the same parent company as the Blue Jays themselves… “if you look at the end of any fallen franchise regime, losing the confidence of the fans was always a key part.” He also notes listening to Atkins is like hearing a “post-doctoral thesis” about contract control and so on and that fans aren’t willing to wait until 2024 for one single shot at winning before he decides to scrap the key parts of the team being developed now.
So what would I do if I was made GM? If I had to try to steer the Blue Jays forward from the mess they’re in now?
Well, since it’s August, the new trade deadline is passed so we wouldn’t need to be consumed with ideas for trades between now and the World Series. Which actually simplifies things. Although it doesn’t preclude watching the waiver wire… Toronto missed a chance at not re-claiming Javy Guerra, who started the season with us in the bullpen, and was DFA’d by Washington. He cleared waivers and is now back in the Nats organization.
For me, job one would be to formulate a plan for 2020 that includes taking a shot at winning. Hell, Vladdy’s starting to hit .400 and an RBI+ per game (even if only on a short run), Bo Bichette’s hitting up a storm, over the past two months Toronto’s averaging north of 5 runs a game… it’s not a stretch. IF there’s pitching that is. Not just Ross Atkins’ imaginary list of 20 kid pitchers, that is. Right now, according to MLB scouting, only one minor league Blue Jay (Nate Pearson) really projects to be an average or better MLB pitcher any year soon. And yes, some rookies like Sean Reid-Foley and Jacob Waguespack have been decent at times, and Ryan Borucki could be the real deal IF he doesn’t need Tommy John surgery (he’s seeing Dr Andrews this week due to ongoing elbow troubles), but at best that probably equals about one good spot in the rotation next year. Matt Shoemaker should be back healthy, so that’s two, Trent Thornton is a possibility. With injuries and unreliability of young pitcher’s trajectories, it’s safe to say we need at very least two solid, reliable new starters next year. I’d be looking at the list of free agents this winter and making a few calls to teams about pitchers they might want to part ways with after October. (Carlos Carrasco? Jacob Degrom? Sonny Gray?)
Then on to job two, which is re-connecting with fans. Although to do that, we might have to leapfrog to job three, which is connecting with the roster. No one’s refuted Stroman’s claims, and that’s just wrong. The GM doesn’t need to be out partying with his players or invited to the catcher’s kid’s birthday party, but he should know his players and let them know where they stand. What they’re doing well, what needs to change. I’d try to talk to each one of the guys on the roster ASAP, let them know where they stand, what the team plans for them in the future and listen to their thoughts and concerns. Make it clear that Toronto cares about them and wants the city and team to be a desirable spot for them to live and work. I’d probably start with Justin Smoak, the only real long-term veteran on team and the only major free agent after this season. I’d float him the idea of keeping him around for a few more years, and even if not getting a contract done, try to reach an agreement to talk about it before he leaves town in November. The time is right for both.
Smoak’s batting average is way down (.207) but he’s still getting on base reliably and hitting dingers (18, despite time on IL). And he’s a plus-fielder, something noteworthy when behind him are outfielders trying to catch fly balls with their face. A two year extension would solidify the infield and give a mature veteran presence in the clubhouse. And his wife Kristin helps too; she’s one of the team and the city’s biggest social media boosters and a big part of the Lady Jays help organization. Exactly the people the team can benefit from having represent them in the community.
Back to step 2. Time to be humble, tell the fans we probably messed up a bit in the past couple of years but we have some great young talent and a desire to compete with the big boys next year. to speed up that message, I’d get the team to mail out each season ticket holder something as a token of appreciation – maybe a Vlad jersey (yes, expensive, but with only about 10 000 of those fans left, the cost to them would be less than a million bucks… baseball chump change) and coupons off next season’s tickets. Then I’d pick by lottery about 200 or so such ticket holders, rent a nice community center, invite them for a nice free dinner and discussion. Tell them exactly how the team’s going to get better, have a few of the players up on the front table as well to sign autographs and take a few questions from the crowd.
Because as it stands, Toronto may only win about 62 games this year. It’s a long road from 62 wins to a playoff berth. It’s a longer, steeper road from a spot where attendance is crumbling and hashtags comparing the team management to excrement are popular to being the toast of the town once again.