As the 4PM eastern trade deadline approaches tomorrow, the Jays have already been quite active over the last month in reinforcing and remaking the bullpen through smaller deals, culminating in the acquisition of Brad Hand from Washington. Now the question is whether that’s a prelude to something much bigger and significant. That’s the descriptive picture; but the normative question is the more interesting debate: what should the Blue Jays be looking to do?
Let’s start with a clear eyed view of the landscape. The Blue Jays are legitimately one of the better teams in baseball in terms of talent and performance, with a +97 run differential that currently ranks 6th (8th before yesterday’s blowout). That’s not a mirage either, with FanGraphs projecting a top-5 run differential for the rest of the season.
While that would weight in favour of aggressively loading up to make a run, unfortunately the Jays have dug themselves a very deep hole in underperforming that baseline. At 9.5 games behind the division lead with ~60 games to go, they have to win at a 17% higher rate the rest of the way and make up a game roughly every week.
That’s a very tall order and quite unlikely, but it’s Tampa Bay sitting just off the lead that makes it prohibitive. It’s not implausible that a reinforced team that was already very good could get blisteringly hot (à la 2015), or Boston could epically collapse (à la 2011), but outrunning two teams by the magnitude of margin required is simply illusory. Even if they played .750 baseball the rest of the way as in 2015, Boston or Tampa pull out the division (if barely) just by winning at the same rate the rest of the season they’ve done so far.
So that leaves the wild card. Here the news is better, as the Jays sit only 3.5 games out of the second wild card spot. Oakland is certainly a solid team, but when you’re already projected at two games better over the remaining games, making up that kind of deficit is hardly insurmountable. The bigger issue is having two other teams between them, meaning three teams have to be outplayed.
Granted, one of those is Seattle, who look like mirage with a -58 run differential, and the other is the Yankees who have been terrible recently but have already upgraded and on paper are projected by FanGraphs slightly ahead of the Jays. Ultimately, Fangraphs puts the odds at about 25% and 538 at 28%, which feels about right.
What one makes of that and thinks the Jays should do over the next 36 hours is inextricably tied to what one thinks the goal should be. One view is the Jays are getting a historic season from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., huge contributions from impending free agents Marcus Semien and Robbie Ray, while Hyun Jin Ryu has made all his starts and continues to do his thing. All those things lining up, with other supporting contribution, is fortuitous and unlikely to recur, so one has to take the shot even if it’s a long shot. Accordingly, the Jays should be aggressive buyers.
The flip side is that the Jays have a young core whose runway extends well into the next few seasons. There will be money to add, more help on the way in the upper minors. There are foreseeably better shots to take in the future, don’t mortgage the future. At brass tacks, the Jays are essentially drawing dead for the division, which leaves maybe a 1-in-3 chance at a one game playoff.
A final camp would be that with the bottom line odds quite marginal, the Jays should actively be looing to reinforcing the future, and flip Ray and Semien for more value than a supplemental first round draft pick will bring this winter. The optics of this are complicated by the much hyped return to Rogers Centre after 22 months.
To lay my cards n the table, I’m certainly not in the first camp, that would view the 2021 season as a failure or a waste if they don’t play past October 3rd. Baseball with its 162 game seasons is as much about the journey as the destination. Certainly, it’s regrettable that they haven’t fully capitalized on numerous standout performers and the close losses have been frustrating (to say the least).
But on the whole the Jays have played good baseball that has been entertaining and enjoyable to watch day-to-day. Would being right at the top of the AL East make that even moreso? Sure. But the converse is not true. Not making the postseason does not turn the campaign into an unmitigated failure, does not erase or negate all great things along the way.
What I am hoping for is that rather than picking a direction strategically and then proceeding, the Jays will approach the market opportunistically given their positioning. Or to put in Mackenzie King’s terms: buying or selling if necessary, but not necessarily buying or selling.
That is to say, if there are upgrades available, especially who help in 2022 (or beyond) at reasonable prices, by all means, be buyers. Even when it comes to rentals, if the market is such that you could pull off a move like J.A. Happ in 2018 (a quality veteran starter for ultimately extra guys or spare parts), go ahead. But I don’t see core farm system pieces given up in a desperate win-now push.
Equally, I think the Jays should be feeling out the markets for Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien. If it’s a seller’s market generally or for either of them specifically, and there’s the potential to bring back premium, impact prospects, they would be remiss not to seriously consider it. And it that doesn’t materialize, let the season play out, issue qualifying offers and go from there.
At any rate, I really hope that last avenue is not completely off the table due to the coincident return to Toronto. I can’t imagine it would be a matter of selling tickets; given reduced stadium capacity and two months left, there’s maybe 500,000 available tickets in a market that normally clears 2-million annually when the team isn’t great — and that’s without accounting for pent-up demand. In any event, I’d expect that season ticket holders and other pre-sales will have first priority, so to shouldn’t be something that stops them.
They can even pursue the two simultaneously: move players with expiring contracts at the pea of their value as rentals, while buying others who are helpful this year but also beyond. It wouldn’t be throwing in the towel on 2021, there’s plenty of remaining talent to rip off a run at the second wild card if a few guys step up or get hot.
And failing that, staying the course and seeing how things play out is would be fine with me too. With the acquisition of Hand on top of Trevor Richards and Adam Cimber previously, they’ve made a bona fide effort to plug the one gaping hole. It’s probably the case that the horse was already too far outside the barnyard, but at least if the hitting and starting pitching carries them the last two months, there’s a good (or better) chance they won’t be undermined.