Two years ago, I looked at the performance of the Shapiro/Atkins front office after three years in charge, a time when the Blue Jays were at the trough of a rebuild and they bore the weight of the disenchantment. Now on the other side, coming off a postseason appearance of sorts and things broadly looking up, I thought the end of the year was a good to update/repeat the exercise at the five year mark with more information and data now available.
Thus far, the first three posts in this series have focused on evaluating pure exchanges of value — how much production was bought in free agency, were trades won or lost, are drafts and international signings providing a pipeline of talent? These are questions of execution at what I would the tactical level, getting the most out of the resources available.
But high level strategic considerations often dominate lower level decisions. Winning trades or getting value in free agency doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t move the needle or fit together as part of broader plan. The inchoate nature of the Gord Ash years were perhaps the prime example of this. In this last part then, we’ll take a high level look at how things have fit together and the strategic choices that have been made and not made.
The biggest and most critical choice made over the last five years remains what was done after the 2017 season. To the extent there were recriminations of Shapiro and Atkins beyond them displacing or not being the Sainted Alex, it was largely for not having done enough supplemental the considerable talent base they inherited, or decisively pivoting to a rebuild and getting future value from that talent.
This was bitterly and hotly debated, not to mentioned examined in depth a couple years ago, so there’s little need to rehash it especially since the team has moved on from those difficult days towards hopefully much brighter days on the field. It is worth underlining though that to the extent the decision was out of their hands, and higher-ups at Rogers nixed an explicit rebuild for one last hurrah, it shouldn’t be held against Shapiro and Atkins. And by not doubling down hard with long-term commitments, the pivot was about as painless as possible and even though 2019 brought 95 losses, the future was arriving.
Once the rebuild became inevitable, there were a few significant discretionary decisions, one of those being Josh Donaldson. Of course, ideally it would be nice to have Jack Flaherty behind Hyun-Jin Ryu in the rotation (though I still think that trade would have been considered not enough at the time). But even once that was off the table and injuries impaired his value, they had choices beyond dumping him to Cleveland.
Perhaps Julian Merryweather will yet vindicate that decision, if he can ever stay healthy. But given that Donaldson still had enough market power for one year deal from Atlanta for $23-million, the Jays probably should have extended a qualifying offer. They’d have either ended up with a late first round pick that would have been more valuable, or Donaldson on a reasonable one year deal below what he ended up commanding.
The bounceback he had was no sure thing, and presumably the driving factor in not opting for the QO route was to turn the page and clear the way for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. I think that could have been managed for half a season until the trade deadline, but even at worst they could have flipped him that winter for something, with likely more suitors to get better value.
The other quibble would be the type of players they targeted in trades. I’m talking mostly about when they moved J.A. Happ. Even if the expectations for a premium prospect in return for the best available rental starter were inflated against a soft market, almost certainly they could have insisted in a package of a couple lower level lottery ticket prospects. That would have fit the competitive timeline better than Brandon Drury and even Billy McKinney.
Moving onto the fresh ground of the last couple years, there’s not a whole lot to scrutinize given that the course was largely set and it’s been more a question of tactical execution. Now that the groundwork is in place for contending over the intermediate future, this is where important strategic decisions will come into play. Make a big free agent splash? Trade prospects for a star in his prime? These will be huge calls.
That said, there are a few discretionary decisions that can be scrutinized. The first the decision to trade Marcus Stroman at the 2019 trade deadline, instead of waiting until the off-season or pursing an extension. Despite it not being an overwhelming return that would have made it a slam dunk, I thought it was the optimal decision given the likelihood of it being the peak of his value. Subsequent events have certainly vindicated their decisions, in terms of what’s happened to Stroman specifically and 2020 going to hell which was not.
On the flip side, keeping Ken Giles did not work out. Certainly, ill-times injuries frustrated and perhaps thwarted the ability to sell really high, but there was a pretty clear case for moving him in the offseason before the pandemic and Giles requiring major surgery. Unless his medicals had a red flag that destroyed his value in a way his success to end 2019 would belie (2.45 ERA, 35% strikeout rate in 22 IP after July 17), this was a missed opportunity.
Finally, they made the decision to aggressively spend money and make upgrades last winter, even coming off a 95-loss season and with the young core just emerging. Philosophically, this is a chicken-and-egg question: do you try and force the window open as early as possible with the risk that the army won’t be able to support the calvary’s charge, or play it safe?
It’s one thing if a soft market pushed players into the team’s lap at such attractive prices it was a slam dunk. But $80-million for Ryu was certainly stretching things value-wise, and 33 year old pitchers tend not to have long shelf lives. Obviously, it proved the right call, as even though the most valuable year in terms of expected performance was truncated, it was offset by expanded playoffs ballooning their realistic playoff odds. And Ryu was decisive in actually making it (and even being in the position to make the upgrades they did).
Now: what’s their encore this winter?