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On the timing of making a contending push

Revisiting the Blue Jays of the mid/late 1990s and perhaps a cautionary tale

Boston Red Sox v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

On the cusp of Spring Training, the future for the Blue Jays looks bright. An exciting nucleus of young players appears poised for bigger things, and adding George Springer and Marcus Semien among others on top of Hyun-Jin Ryu last winter has further accelerated that timeline. The time to win is now, with an urgency that wasn’t necessarily there prior to laying out almost $200-million this winter.

I became a baseball fan and Blue Jays fan in the summer of 1997, and if it is true that baseball is never better than when you’re 10 years old, it’s understandable that those late-90s team are indelible, almost idyllically so, in my memory. Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Jose Cruz Jr. in the middle of the lineup, Roger Clemens and then David Wells anchoring the rotation with Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay and Kelvim Escobar emerging behind them.

For a long time, Blue Jays history tangibly began at that point for me. Alas, those teams never went anywhere, good for 80-some-odd wins and third place in the AL East every year like clockwork. What I didn’t understand until much later was how those teams were built, and in particular how 24 years ago the winter of 1996-97 set the team firmly down a path that ended in the meandering mediocrity of the ensuing five years.

In the last month since the Jays made their big moves, it has occurred to me there’s more than a few parallels between the situation now and then. That’s not to say this winter’s push is destined to end similarly, but as the saying goes—if history doesn’t repeat itself, it often rhymes. Is there a perhaps cautionary tale lying in past? I think it’s worth taking a trip down memory lane.

After winning the World Series in 1992 and 1993 with one of the older teams in baseball comprised of expensive veterans, in 1994 age started catching up to them and the Jays slumbered to a 55-60 record when the strike brought the season to a premature end. While disappointing, it was seen as a blip, and with the core still in place and under contract, new GM Gord Ash not only stuck with it but aggressively upgraded by acquiring ace David Cone. Indeed, rebuilding would have been unthinkable, even more so than 20+ years later after 2017 when it similarly was off the table.

But rather than a blip it was instead a harbinger. In 1995 the bottom fell out as the Jays fell to 56-88, the first full season under .500 since 1982. Even to the extent that the Jays were very reluctant to embrace the first wholesale rebuild in franchise history, their hand was forced as Roberto Alomar, Al Leiter, Devon White and Paul Molitor all departed as free agents, with Cone traded in August.

That left no option but to rebuild and embrace a youth movement. The good news was the Jays had accumulated a collection of highly regarded and promising young talent that was just waiting for opportunity. Shawn Green, Carlos Delgado and Alex S. Gonzalez were all top-10 Baseball America prospects in the 1993-95 period, with Shannon Stewart on their heels. A little further beyond them was a wave of pitching prospects headlined by Chris Carpenter, Kelvim Escobar and the most recent first round draft pick in Roy Halladay.

Sound remotely familiar?

So the future was bright. In fact, the Jays were in the midst of a historically successful run of draft success, as each year from from 1991-95 except 1994 their first round pick ended up at least a future regular (and they nabbed Gonzalez out of a Miami high school in the 13th round in 1991).

Despite all the losses after 1995 with no backfilling as payroll plunged from $45-million to under $30-million, the Jays modestly improved in the standings to 74-88 despite numerous of black holes in the lineup. With Pat Hentgen emerging as a Cy Young-winning ace, Juan Guzman rebounding to win the ERA title, and Delgado blossoming, Ash was ready to make a push to put the Jays back in their rightful place atop the AL East. It further helped that Interbrew was eager to see attendance and revenue rebound to enable realizing top dollar in their ongoing sale, so were all too happy to go along and provide ample budget space.

It started with a big trade, leveraging that financial firepower to absorb salaries Pittsburgh could no longer, acquiring Carlos Garcia, Orlando Merced and Dan Plesac for six prospects and ostensibly plugging two gaping holes at 2B and in the outfield. Benito Santiago was signed for $7-million as a free agent to upgrade behind the plate. Guzman was extended, and Hentgen had another three years tacked on his deal to keep him through 2001.

All that set the stage for the final and most audacious move of all: convincing Roger Clemens to spurn the Yankees and come to Toronto. In landing a (arguably the) premier free agent on the biggest average annual value to that point in baseball history, the Jays instantly vaulted from the middle of the pack, to bona fide contender.

Again, seeing any parallels?

Alas, it was not to be. Despite Clemens turning in a dominant Triple Crown season for the ages, Hentgen a more than able #2 sidekick, and Woody Williams even emerging as a solid mid-rotation option, that was basically it for pitching as Erik Hanson and Juan Guzman combined for 75 innings. In the lineup, Garcia totally flopped while Santiago regressed, and the team lacked force in the middle of the order. A slump in late June dashed any hopes of making a run en route to a very disappointing 76 wins, a measly two-game improvement.

Now committed to winning-now, Ash tried to retool via free agency. In came Darrin Fletcher, Mike Stanley, Tony Fernandez and Jose Canseco to plug holes in the lineup and provide some punch. Randy Myers got $18-million to be the stopper at the back of the pen. But once again, the team record languished in mediocrity through the middle of the summer, hopelessly behind the runaway Yankees.

That prompted the towel to be thrown in at the end of July, with a number of the big contracts dumped at the deadline. Ironically, the team then went on a torrid run, from under .500 to 88 wins and flirting with the Wild Card into September (ultimately finishing four games behind). Delgado and Green finally broke out as forces, Stewart emerged as a regular and Carpenter a solid starter, while Escobar was dynamite down the stretch.

But rather than being a launching point to renewed success, this ended up instead the high water mark. Interbrew’s red ink from high payrolls, a falling Loonie and languishing attendance caused them to pullback and payroll flatlined amid a backdrop of booming salaries league wide. Thus in real terms, it amounted to lower buying power and there were no more splashy free agent signings. Moreover, Clemens had been lured to Toronto on the promise of a return to the early-90s with veteran additions and the ability to demand a trade if they went in a different direction. Now he wanted out.

Meanwhile, that young core was getting much more expensive. In 1997, Delgado, Green and Gonzalez combined for $1.5-million. In 1998, it jumped to $5.5-million as they were first time arbitration eligible, then above $10-million in 1999. It would have been above $15-million in 2000 before they all hit the open market and retaining them would have cost more like $25-million plus annually. Compounding that, the wave of young pitchers a couple years behind them started getting more expensive too.

While they were in their primes and adding organic wins every year, in consuming more and more of a flat payroll, it was ultimately running on a hamster wheel at the team level. And so, 84 wins in 1999. 83 in 2000. 80 in 2001 (this time with payroll boosted past $70-million in the first year under Rogers). All respectable teams, but never serious contenders. And so it was curtains for Ash, and an entirely different approach with J.P. Riccardi. Ultimately, nothing ever came of that ultra-promising young core, the beginning of 20 years of playoff darkness in Toronto.

In the end, it was a confluence of things, many things that could have been done differently. Hindsight is 20/20, but looking back, that winder of 1996 strikes me as pivotal. While there was good reason to think they could contend sooner than later, they locked themselves into a contending posture ultimately a couple years before the collection of young players was ready and able to carry a contending load.

When setbacks occurred, the near term misfortune was compounded by creating financial stress that had longer term implications—Interbrew’s claimed baseball osses went from ~C$10-million in 1995-96 to ~C$80-million in 1997-98. I can’t help but wonder how things turn out if the Jays wait a couple years, until the core really emerged in particularly the second half of 1998, and they were instead positioned to add to the internal growth in 1999 and beyond instead of having it offset. And right as the AL East became more competitive as well as the Yankee dynasty waned.

2012 comes to mind as well. It’s not exactly analogous since there was more a barbell of major league stars in their prime like Bautista and Encarnacion, while the best prospects in the farm system were largely still yet to arrive. Nonetheless, what looked circa 2011-12 like a potentially long contention window through the end of the decade was significantly truncated. That window effectively amounted to just three years (and two seasons of serous contention).

That brings us back to the present day. With $25-million a year committed to George Springer on top of the $20-million for Hyun-Jin Ryu last winter on long term deals, Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins have firmly — and essentially irrevocably — committed the Blue Jays to legitimately contending over the medium term starting in 2021. Alea iacta est: the die is cast.

There are good reasons to think this is the right strategic move, that big market teams should use their financial resources to jam windows open as early as possible and for as long as possible. But at the same time, it was a discretionary choice, and there was a reasonable alternative course of sticking to shorter contracts and retaining near maximal flexibility this winter while the core continues to develop. That is, more the path the Jays pursed in the early-1980s, leading into the breakout of 1985.

After all, while they snuck into the bloated playoff field and won at the full season pace of 86 wins, they had a negative run differential. If one figures they were more of an ~80 win true talent team, it’s still a pretty heavy lift to ~90 wins and legitimate contention. We hope the core collectively takes another step forward, but it’s quite possible they stagnate and even conceivable they take a step back, in which case it’s very unlikely any amount of external addition is going to be able to offset that and bridge the gap to contention.

The broader context is very different too. There’s much more payroll parity, and Rogers should have enough of a long time horizon were short term setbacks should not cause austerity as it did with Interbrew whose overriding priority was exiting baseball ownership at the maximal price. As 2015 showed, there’s significant upside to contention and if Springer is “their guy” and not merely the most palatable option this winter, then it’s even less of a calculated risk.

Only time will tell if they got the timing right. If all goes well, they are catalyzing a lengthy run of prosperity that hasn’t been seen in 30 years. My only hope is that a generation from now, young fans don’t look back on the early-2020s as wistfully as I look back at the late-1990s and wonder what could have been.