From the time the Blue Jays slid out of contention for good at the end of June and focus turned to 2018 and beyond, the front office has repeatedly indicated that they intend to field a contending team in 2018. That was what Ross Atkins said in late July, it’s what he said in October, it’s been the premise whenever he’s been asked about their plans.
Of course, these are just words and talk is cheap; not to mention that Atkins’ public proclamations thus far have had a, shall we say, complicated relationship with the truth. The moves they’ve made since then don’t explicitly confirm their intentions in the sense of strongly committing them to contending, but between only trading expiring contracts at the deadline and re-signing Marco Estrada, at the very least nothing they’ve done refutes their stated path. So let’s take them at their word and assume that was what they were going to do.
There has been a lot of debate this winter about what path forward the Blue Jays should take, whether it be that publicly stated contending path, a short rebuild/reload focussed on 2020 (maybe 2019 if all went well), or a total teardown. While the latter doesn’t make sense, the first two were both viable strategies at the outset of the winter. It really came down to what one thinks of the wild card: they didn’t have much of a shot at the division, but a reasonable chance of making it to the wild card game. It’s hard to just give that up.
But the ground has seismically shifted under the Blue Jays’ feet over the last week. Giancarlo Stanton going to the Yankees yesterday was a significant aftershock, but the bigger tremor was Shohei Ohtani choosing the Angels.
The Yankees already projected as a better team than the Blue Jays, although not so far ahead of them that if things broke right for the Jays or against the Yankees in 2018 they couldn’t finish ahead of them. Stanton makes that less likely, but it’s the Angels adding a player who projects to be an above average producer essentially for free that really hurts.
Prior to Ohtani, the Angels projected more or less similarly to the Jays, pretty close to average. They certainly have some holes, but also money to spend to fix them and a pretty formidable core. Ohtani instantly moves the Angels to first tier contenders in 2018 rather than second tier. Add in Boston, Houston, Cleveland and the aforementioned Yankees, and that’s now five strong, first tier contenders in the AL.
It’s therefore quite plausible that claiming even the second wild card could take 90+ wins. And that’s not the extent of the bad news for the Blue Jays. There’s a pretty robust number of second tier contenders in Seattle, Minnesota, Tampa and maybe even Texas. The Twins in particularly are worrying, because while they outperformed last year and might even project a bit behind the Jays on paper, they’ll spend a third of their schedule beating up on rebuilding Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City teams.
The inescapable conclusion that the notwithstanding anything the Blue Jays have done or will do, the road to making the playoffs is much narrower than a month or two ago. That has significant implications for the relative costs and benefits of the two strategies. It was one thing to stick with the current core for one last push when, with a plausible level of additions, they had roughly as good odds at the second wild card as any one else.
But that’s no longer the case, and the calculus has been altered. Even if payroll were pushed close to $170-million, allowing them to spend $25-million on a couple free agents, they still likely need further reinforcements. That would mean dipping into future assets, that is, subtracting from the potential core in 2020, 2021, 2022.
The good news is, the Jays are surprisingly, perhaps even astonishingly, well positioned to execute a strategic pivot. Normally, by the eve of the winter meetings, a lot of free agents have already signed and trades have gone down. Contending teams would normally have already made, and have had to make, “win-now” moves lest their targets go elsewhere. The last three offseasons, most of the Jays’ shopping was done by now, and which would make it very messy to reverse course in the face of the last week’s developments, to say the least.
Instead, if they wanted to rethink their intended path, the door is wide open - for now. The removal of the Stanton and Ohtani overhangs should unblock the market in quick order, especially with the environment the Winter Meetings provides to grease the transaction wheel. But it’s a limited window, and even a week from now could well be closed.
All this is not to say the Jays absolutely must pivot to short term rebuilding rather than contending in 2018. But it was a pretty close call before, and the backdrop has shifted against them in a way that should be cause for reflection. It’s time to see the Shapiro/Atkins response to the variously attributed adage: “When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?”