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A few broad closing thoughts on the 2017 Blue Jays, and what we can learn from them

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

By almost all accounts, 2017 was a lost year for the Blue Jays. Like any baseball season, there were some individual campaigns to that provided excitement like the continued growth of Marcus Stroman and the breakout of Justin Smoak, but for the most part, disappointment far outweighed fun this summer at Rogers Centre. For me, there were a few major themes the organization can take from this season and note for the future.

1) Capitalize on a captive audience

One advantage the Blue Jays need to do a better job maximizing is their sole baseball ownership of one of the largest cities on the continent. The five largest cities in North America are ...

  1. Mexico City
  2. New York
  3. Los Angeles
  4. Toronto
  5. Chicago

Clearly this is not the only measuring stick of a team’s potential reach as things like size of a metro area, control over certain TV contracts, and proximity to other smaller cities (Providence to Boston for the Red Sox would be a good example here) can all influence a team’s potential pool of fans. However, it’s worth noting that the Blue Jays are the only team that has one of these big, massive North American cities all to themselves in a sport without a salary cap.

MLB doesn’t operate in Mexico City, New York is split by the Yankees and Mets, Los Angeles and its metro area is split by the Dodgers and Angels, and Chicago is shared by the Cubs and White Sox. If you want to take it one step further, the Blue Jays not only have the entire city of Toronto to themselves, they have the entire country of Canada to themselves.

In one sense this is sort of obvious, but it’s worth repeating because if the Jays play their cards right, they’re kind of sitting on a gold mine in terms of potential resources. Clearly they’ve already begun tapping into some of that possibility as their opening day payroll more than doubled from $70 million in 2010 to $163 million in 2017.

Over time, I think a realistic goal for the Blue Jays is to generate enough resources to where they can spend enough on payroll to approach the luxury tax. I don’t really care much beyond that because MLB has set up the system so that you start running into some serious diminishing returns on your investment once you go beyond that threshold. However, if the luxary tax is at $197 million like it will be in 2018, I think the Blue Jays should be able to get to a point in the coming years where they spend in the $195 million neighborhood in that scenario.

The potential resources the Jays are sitting on is one of the reasons why 2017 was so disappointing. They got off to a dreadful 2-11 start, spent the entire season under .500, and had several big name players miss significant time; and despite all of this, they still managed to post the highest attendance of any team in the American League and the highest average number of viewers for games on their on their RSN (Regional Sports Network) of any team in baseball.

What this tells you is that fans completely bought into the success of the 2015 and 2016 teams that made back to back LCS appearances, and that they were an audience hungry for more. There’s an entire generation of young Blue Jay fans who barely even knew what meaningful baseball in September was before 2015, and a generation above that who soured on baseball after the 1994 strike that were - And hopefully still are - enthralled by the Blue Jays.

This is why a 76-win season in which the Jays buried themselves early could be costly going forward. It really makes you wonder what type of momentum they could have had here if they had a great season and made it to the playoffs again.

As it turns out, there was really only four great team in the American League this year (Houston, Cleveland, Boston and New York), and the Blue Jays should have been able to challenge for that fifth (second Wild Card) spot. If you look at the final standings, the Yankees grabbed the first Wild Card with 91 wins, the Twins took the second Wild Card with 85 wins, and then everybody else was under .500.

If the Blue Jays just started the season off 8-5 in their first 13 games instead of 2-11, they would have been in the hunt for a playoff spot all summer long and provided a much more entertaining product. It was obvious early that they were in an overall regroup mode after the highs of 2015 and 2016, but as much as the ceiling came down on the second Wild Card, I feel like a Blue Jays team that had a little more depth or was a little luckier with injuries would have been able to make some noise down the stretch, even if they ultimately came up short anyway.

I mean, they really only needed to win 83 games to make things exciting for the vast majority of the schedule, and most projection systems going into last season pegged them between 81 and 85 wins, so that wasn’t too much to ask.

What will be interesting to watch now is how large the attendance / TV audience is in 2018 coming off a disappointing season. I know one thing, getting off to a fast start would help to lure any fans on the fence back in. A good season here probably allows the Jays to keep their new, larger fanbase into the next wave of strong prospects hitting the majors, which will hopefully allow them to get to the point where they are a young team with money in two or three years. That’s the ideal spot to be in for a major league franchise, and being able to navigate the road to that spot is largely what’s at stake in 2018.

2) A strength can become a weakness in the blink of an eye

The 2015 Blue Jays had one of the best offenses in baseball history when you compare how many runs they scored (891) to how many runs the second best offensive team (the Yankees) scored that season (764). No deficit seemed to large to overcome, and every inning felt like a scoring opportunity.

For reference, this year’s Houston Astros were an offensive juggernaut; leading all of baseball in scoring, and riding that strength to a World Series title. They scored 896 runs, just five more than the 2015 Blue Jays. However, the Astros did it amid a 2017 run scoring environment that saw 1,800 more runs cross the plate throughout baseball than 2015.

So it’s really quite astounding and sad that the Blue Jays went from being the best offensive team in all of baseball by a wide margin in 2015, to the team that scored the fewest runs in the entire American League in 2017.

Toronto scored only 693 times last season, which is 198 times fewer than 2017. But again, it’s actually even worst than that when you consider the ever expanding run scoring environment across MLB. The average AL team scored 53 more run in 2017 than 2015 (763 runs to 710), so when you add that to the calculation, the Blue Jays actually lost 251 runs to the field in just two years despite names like Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis, Russel Martin, Kevin Pillar and Justin Smoak appearing in both lineups (and yes, there are obvious caveats there).

When the Blue Jays first compiled that array of sluggers in 2015, I never expected it to deteriorate so fast. Sure I anticipated a drop off, but I still expected them to have a solidly above average (let’s say top five) offense in 2016, maybe fall back to mid pack in 2017, and then need some work ahead of the 2018 season. What we got was a team that fell back to near mid pack offensively as soon as 2016, and then tumbled all the way to the bottom of the American League in 2017.

If we got that slower drop off, opportunities for more success were there for the taking. Perhaps a better offense pushes and maybe even defeats a 2016 Cleveland team that was short on starting pitching (the failures to hit in that series were a nasty harbinger to 2017 looking back on it). Furthermore, a middle of the road offense in 2017 probably puts the team a couple games over .500 keeping them in contention for a playoff spot all year long like we talked about in the point above.

I guess the lesson here is that no matter how much of a strength something appears to be on a team, it still needs to be monitored and maintained. The Blue Jays were an older team, so naturally more at risk for something like this to happen, but the speed at which this offense came apart really seemed to catch everyone off guard.

For me it was so extraordinary, I compared it to the evaporation of the Aral Sea in July, and then needed to take the next three months off from writing about baseball to recharge (This had as much to do with a busy summer, a new job, writing about baseball for five straight years up to that point and Tulo getting hurt as the offense drying up, but the bats coming down off that high probably figured somewhere on that list, even if it was near the bottom).

3) A lack of depth can kill you

This last one’s sort of obvious, but it really is the story of the 2017 Blue Jays, and fortunately seems to be something the front office is trying to prevent in the future if you look at the way they are slowly but surely stacking the farm.

2017 was always going to be the year the Blue Jays were most vulnerable to injuries after they pushed all their chips into the middle of the table in 2015. Whenever you take on that many big contracts and create a gap in the farm being able to supplement talent, you create a dicey situation for yourself. This isn’t to say the Jays shouldn’t have gone for it in 2015 (I don’t think any Jays fan would trade the Bautista bat flip game for anything short of a World Series title), but this was just part of the long term course they were going to have to negotiate once they decided to go down this path.

Much of this is connected to the crumbling offense. The bench got worse and worse over the last two years as large contracts sucked up much of the payroll and there were no new young spark plugs to give the bats a jolt. The regulars got older, and became more of an injury risk, and the next thing you know, you’ve got several fringe MLB hitters collecting hundreds of bats. In fact, of the 14 players to rack up over 100 plate appearances on the 2017 Blue Jays, only two of them (Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak) posted an OPS+ over 100.

Also of note are these games played numbers:

Devon Travis: 50 games (A big deal given the middle infield situation)

Troy Tulowitzki: 66 games (A big deal given the middle infield situation)

Josh Donaldson: 113 games (A big deal given he’s an MVP candidate when healthy)

Russell Martin: 91 games (A big deal given the backup catchers combined to post a .479 OPS)

Then there’s the pitching side of things where the good fortune of 2016 ran out. In 2016, the Jays had five guys (Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada and R.A. Dickey) combine to make 152 starts and only used seven starters for the entire year. In 2017, their five most used starting pitchers combined to make 127 starts, and they needed 14 different guys to make at least one start.

While they may have been unlucky in 2017 with the lose of Aaron Sanchez for what pretty much amounted to the entire season, this cruelty is probably closer to baseball reality than the incredible health the rotation enjoyed in 2016. Sure the Blue Jays have a very solid top four rotation spots that can hold their own with any pitching staff in the AL, but things drop off pretty dramatically from there, and once those other starting options are handed the ball a few days a week on a regular basis, the rotation quickly morphs from a strength to a weakness.

In other words, the Blue Jays need more pitching depth to protect against a hole opening up in the back of their rotation, and the options are still tight. The farm doesn’t appear quite ready to hand you a great option here, and the free agent market is a mine field of bad contracts waiting to happen. On one hand, you don’t envy the front office here, but at the same time, you do appreciate that they already locked up Marco Estrada for another year before the off season began, making their job a little bit easier now.

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts as we wait for the off season to start producing some fireworks. Much of this was part of the inevitable cycle set in place by the 2015 moves I suppose, but there are some good lessons for the front office to take forward as they try to create a deeper, stronger, and longer lasting core in the coming seasons.