With the Blue Jays at a strategic crossroad between making a last hurrah with the core they have in place and instead embarking on a rebuild, the logical first step is to take a step back and examine the fundamentals that shape and constrain the long term strategy. Over the long term, what is realistic to expect for the Blue Jays? What should their contention cycles look like, and what should they be aiming to build?
The way I see it, the 30 MLB teams break down into basically three groups or tiers. As with most things, the reality is more of a continuum than hard breaks, but more or less the different tiers face distinct realities in terms of how they seek to contend over time.
Below I've put the 29 other team into the three tiers, as well as diving into each and the realities they face. I get to the Blue Jays at the end. Within tiers, I've roughly ordered teams, and the bottom teams in one tier will be more similar to the top of the next tier than dissimilar.
TIER 1: New York Yankees, LA Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Boston, LA Angels, New York Mets
These are the true big market teams. They're in the biggest population centres, are in significant media and corporate centres, and thus have the biggest revenue generation capacity. Most of these teams have long histories and significant brands which sustain them during cyclical troughs. Under current ownership the Mets have not operated like a big market team for 5+ years. But on broader fundamentals, the Mets are a big market team (from 2000-11, per Cot's Contracts, the Mets lowest payroll rank was 6th).
Armed with big revenue capacity, these teams are expected to be competitive every year. Only in rare instances do they do wholesale rebuilds, usually after a sustained run of managerial incompetence. Otherwise, it's more a case of reloading on the fly, while they can spend enough to keep a decent on-field product.
Their spending is almost always in the top 10, and frequently in the top 5. They have no problems keeping their stars and players they develop, unless they don't want to. When franchise level talents hit the open market in their primes, they will make up the shortlist as the few viable bidders.
TIER 2: San Francisco, Texas, Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington, Atlanta, Seattle, Colorado, Detroit, Arizona, Baltimore, Miami
I call this group baseball's "broader middle class". These are all teams in good sized markets, with the smaller markets generally being ones which have experienced significant recent population growth which is expected to continue in the future. The teams at top might be considered fringe big market, and teams at the bottom more like small markets - they're more dissimilar than similar.
But the key characteristic about the teams in this group is revenues and ultimately payrolls are very responsive to winning. These markets can generate revenues to support big payrolls (when teams win), but not throughout the cycle. They can build sustainable winners, teams that contend for 5+ years, in that they can generally afford to keep the cores they develop and augment them with payrolls that reach into the top 10, maybe peaking closer the top 5. In particular, they can afford to keep franchise players, and through cycles.
But they cannot buy a core, and there will be times when they have to rebuild or reload, though these should be "shallower" and shorter, since the teams can use some financial heft to accelerate them. When rebuilding, these teams will not be stripped down, they will keep core players, aim to field respectable teams, and spending doesn't drop to the very bottom (though resource allocation shifts from MLB payroll to amateur, etc). Wholesale rebuilds, with multiple years of brutal teams like Houston completed recently, should be the exception only when a long period of mismanagement occurs.
TIER 3: San Diego, Minnesota, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Oakland, Tampa Bay
These are the true small market teams. In a number of cases, teams are in markets that have declined only because they were big markets 100-125 years ago and if 30 or 32 teams were placed today they wouldn't be MLB markets.
It's very difficult for these teams to build sustainable contenders, as there's only so much revenue available. When they develop players, they can only afford to keep some, and are not big players in free agency and rarely for more than mid tier players. Consequently, they tend to cycle between competitive windows with payrolls peaking in the mid-tier range, and wholesale rebuilds.
Where do the Blue Jays fit?
At the franchise peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it could be argued the Blue Jays were a bona fide big market team. For a few years, they had the biggest MLB payroll, signed star free agents, and even as late as 1996 signed Roger Clemens to the biggest contract in history.
Likewise, at the nadir in the early 2000s, when a confluence of factors led to whispers that like the Expos they would relocate, they operated in some ways like a small market team, and many argued ownership had a small market mindset (#CheapRogers).
I would characterize the Blue Jays as an upper middle class team within the broader MLB context. On fundamentals, it's one of the more strongly positioned markets, with some unique advantages and disadvantages. If one were really optimistic, it's maybe the 5th or 6th best team market; if you're more pessimistic maybe 12th.
They've never struggled to keep the players they develop. They built a sustainable winner, which built higher revenues that allowed further success. They've never tanked for an extended period of time. The market is able to support consistent top 10 payrolls, and they've rarely fallen below about 20th (ie, to the level of the truly small markets).
Does Toronto belong in the top tier?
It's at least a valid question, and if the Jays were to operate over the long haul on par with teams at least at the back of the list, it would have pretty dramatic strategic implications for how Blue Jay contention cycles look.
After all, a couple years ago, Toronto passed Chicago in terms of city population, becoming the third most populous in the MLB market. And it's the only one of the top four not split between two teams. It's also a significant corporate capital, which is a significant underpinning for sports teams. That's to say nothing of the significant national following the Blue Jays have across the country. On these fundamentals, one could make a strong argument for the Blue Jays being a big market team.
The other consideration is the Rogers/Sportsnet factor, the pipeline which gives national reach and from what I understand, by far the biggest TV ratings in MLB. While the Blue Jays don't have the type of long term, big guaranteed money TV deal as most teams, they still benefit from increased ratings. Whatever might be allocated on paper, if a 90 win team averages 800,000 viewers, which pulls 100-million in advertising dollars, whereas an 80 win team averages 500,000 and only 60-million dollars, the Blue Jays will be allocated payroll on that basis.
That all being said, I don't think the Blue Jays are truly in the big market echelon. Looking at metropolitan area size, Toronto is the 6th biggest MLB market, and broadly on par with Washington, Philadelphia, Miami and Atlanta, behind Houston and Dallas/FW.
And while they have broad national reach today, that's not a given in the future, with Montreal potentially in line for an expansion team and the possibility of one out West. It's a similar situation to when TBS owned Atlanta - they were pushed nationally and for a good decade could have been considered a big market on that basis, but ultimately they're not a true big market.
Finally, there's the Canadian dollar. Over the long run, it's tended to average in the low-80 cent range, which means that a good chunk of Blue Jays revenue doesn't have the same purchasing power. Beyond that, just the volatility of the exchange rate has an impact on long term planning.
There are those who fear a rebuild because they see the explosion of interest, attendance, viewership and ultimately revenue over the past few years as very fragile and susceptible to backsliding if the Jays have another 70-something win season or two as part of a rebuild. There will be a temporary relapse, of course. But if management broadly executes, it should be transitory and there's no reason to think the long term potential will be impaired.
But likewise, the notion of "blowing it up" and embarking on a wholesale rebuild like a small market team is not an appropriate strategy (at this juncture). If the Jays were to pursue a rebuild, it should be with an eye to 2019 (in the hunt for wild card) or 2020 at the latest. In other words, move players with little control for future assets, sure. But not stripping down the roster of players like Sanchez or Stroman either, since most of their control will be gone by 2019/20. They are building blocks for the next contending teams, who the Jays should be looking to extend and keep around.
All of this does not answer the question of whether or not they should rebuild or not. But a clear eyed view about the market realities and potential provides a framework for what the front office should be looking to do.