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Back at the crossroads, part 1: the background

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At the end of 2012, the Blue Jays were at a major crossroads.

With two major core bats in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion under control for four years and a supporting cast of younger regulars (Brett Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia, Colby Rasmus, Yunel Escobar), there was a decent core of a potential contender in place. The pitching side was thinner, but there were some promising building blocks. Importantly, they had no dead money on the books - really little money period tied up - and thus the ability to add payroll, perhaps significantly. There was thus a strong argument to make a serious push to end a 20 year playoff drought.

But juxtaposed against that was consistent slippage in results. After a surprising 85 win season in 2010, in 2011 they not surprisingly regressed to the all-too-familiar .500 mark. 2012 started out the same, and as late as the trade deadline the Jays were nominally in the hunt for the new second wild card (albeit with too many teams in between). Then the bottom fell completely fell out, the last couple months so ugly to push them to 73 wins. Not exactly the strongest or most plausible position from which to launch a contention push.

More significantly, while heavy investments in the farm system had left the future pipeline overflowing with talent and one of the highest ranked systems in baseball, the bulk of it was not expected to provide very near term or immediate contributions. High school draftees generally take 4-6 years to reach and impact the major league level, with an extra year or two for IFAs signed at 16 or 17. That suggested a window that started opening around 2014, wide open for the second half of the decade.

So that set up a major strategic decision: wait a couple years for the prospects to make their way towards the majors, while likely treading water in the interim and "wasting" the late prime years of Bautista and Encarnacion; or go for it and seriously contend by (aggressively) adding to the existing core. That's to say nothing of a potential third, perhaps unthinkable, option of trading Bautista to add more prospects and enhance the probability and ceiling to a future core.

Of course, we know the fork in the road that Alex Anthopoulos chose. And we know how it worked out. While the initial thrust crashed and burned in most spectacular fashion, a second push starting in late 2014 and into 2015 launched a magical three month run that catapulted the franchise back into the playoffs. And then again last year with largely the same core, before coming up way short in 2017.

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The funny thing is, being at a major crossroads is a pretty new thing. For most of the now 20+ years I've been a Blue Jays fan, the team muddled along in the mediocre middle, generally without major strategic decision points that necessitated the front office choosing between viable forks in the road.

We start with the bottom falling out after the World Series years, the coda to a decade of perennial contention. It was a period of huge change: change in ownership, change in front office management, a new financial and media landscape, a falling Canadian dollar.

Gord Ash, of course, was simply not up to the task of running a MLB team, much less one facing such significant challenges. Really, even associating the word strategy to anything that happened during those years is misleading. Nevertheless, a combination of young players (Delgado, Green, Stewart, Carpenter) and spending on veterans kicked off a return to respectability and a run of third place finishes.

With salaries skyrocketing league wide and an increasingly expensive roster spinning its heels behind the Yankees and Red Sox, it was clear a new direction was needed. New owner Ted Rogers hit the reset button, for the first time in franchise history going outside the organization for top leadership in hiring J.P. Riccardi from Oakland.

For better or worse, he had a strategy: ship out expensive veterans and reduce payroll to stem red ink in the immediate term; build a contending core internally through the draft and external acquisitions of players with undervalued "Moneyball" skillsets in the medium term; and then spend some money to keep the core and supplement it in the longer term.

The teardown portion was a success. In some sense it was perhaps too good of a job, as the Jays did not bottom out as was likely the plan in those first few years. Instead they continued right in the middle, with third place finishes in 2002 and 2003 before the miserable 2004 season went pear shaped. But they bounced back in 2005 to 80 wins and the familiar third place, though perhaps most importantly with a +70 run differential that suggested a team better than the record.

With a couple of stars in Halladay and Wells, and Riccardi draftees starting to percolate to the majors, it was finally time to make a serious push. Payroll was increased to bring in Glaus, Overbay, Ryan and Burnett; ushering in three years of good teams that ultimately couldn't get over the top. A tumultuous 2008 capped off by the death of Ted Rogers, injuries and unfilled departures left the Jays adrift for 2009. A promising start (27-14) gave way to a total collapse, and it was curtains for Riccardi.

With little in the way of apparent major league assets and one of the worst farm systems in the game, the strategic direction was obvious. It was time for a wholesale rebuild, and Anthopoulos attacked the task with gusto by investing heavily in scouting, the international market, and high upside talent in the draft. And then the big moves of five winters ago.

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Now we are back at a major crossroads. Count on bouncebacks and some likely cautious additions to try and recapture the 2015-16 winning ways? Or punt on 2018 and move major league assets for prospects that align for a reload window starting in perhaps 2019 or more likely 2020?

Both are viable directions with significant merits and demerits. Unless the front office has been actively misleading for months, the reality is that the decision has been made and they intend to contend in 2018. So what they will do is likely a moot point. But that doesn't answer what they should do.

After all, it was Mark Shapiro in the Sportsnet hagiography/documentary that aired prior to the beginning of the 2016 season who talked about how it was job to make big, tough decisions. To this point, he's had it pretty easy in his Blue Jays tenure as the offseasons have involved tactical level decisions about how to best augment the core and keep the Jays as a playoff contender. Now there are complex high level decisions, with implications that will rebound into the future and shape his legacy.

So, over the next week before the World Series ends and the offseason gets going, I'm going dive into this question of which direction the Jays should take over a series of posts. Starting at the very high level of what contention cycles should look like for the Jays, and then the more practical considerations of how things stack up. I don't think it leads to crystal clear answer, but hopefully it generates some good discussion along the way.