By: Dan Grant
During this Blue Jays season I’ve used a bunch of different gimmicks each month to discuss the team. I’ve had (fake) interviews with Alex Anthopoulos, I’ve warred within myself as Regular Dan and Pessimistic Dan and I’ve reminisced about simpler, happier times. I’ve hoped for the best and put a shine on the worst. I’ve been encouraged, destroyed, angry, overjoyed, impressed and disillusioned, not necessarily in that order and sometimes all at once. And I’ve been frustrated. Always frustrated.
It feels like the fan base at large is frustrated, too. As this season finished with a whimper, a 1-0 loss to the Baltimore Orioles team that spanked them in the season’s second half, the overwhelming feeling is that something has got to give with this team. Prevailing story-lines in the media voraciously discuss changing the manager, changing the general manager and moving out big salaried veterans for flexibility in free agency. They ruminate on the somewhat odd benching of a starting centre fielder in September. They discuss a part-time designated hitters assertion that this team wasn’t really ‘going for it’. All of these conversations have taken their place on the bullshit carousel, joining the discussions about whether R.A Dickey is an ‘ace’, whether the team has ‘heart’ and whether or not we should trade Jose Bautista to ‘maximize his value’.
I mentioned earlier that I was eternally frustrated. It hasn’t always been with the team on the field.
No, it’s with this never-ending string of horse-plop.
The bottom line, is none of these questions matter, because none of us can change the past, or predict the future.
What does matter, you ask? Here’s a checklist of five realistic things you would have wanted from the Jays before the season started:
1. Improve on last years 74-88 record. They finished 83-79. Check.
2. Contend for a playoff spot deep into the season. They finished 5 games out of the 2nd Wild Card and 6 out of the first. They led the division into July and were playing ‘meaningful baseball’ (that old chestnut) into mid-September. Check.
3. Develop young talent while receiving productive seasons from veterans. Check.
4. Be in a position to do all three things again next season. Check.
5. Actually make the playoffs.
And that’s it really. If there’s anything else, please feel free to tell me and then I will tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about. It’ll be a blast! Four out of five major goals accomplished. Obviously, the biggest one wasn’t and that’s a problem. But this season wasn’t lost. It wasn’t a waste. If anything, it was a step in the right direction.
The thing is, the season is only looked at as a failure because the shine is starting to wear on Alex Anthopoulos’ tenure as General Manager and on a certain level, I can understand why.
Since the Jays last made the playoffs, 21 of the 30 big league teams have played in the World Series. The careers of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Chipper Jones started and finished (Jones technically played 8 games in ’93, but you get me). Friends, The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost and Breaking Bad all ran their entire durations. Nearly three full presidencies have begun and ended. We’ve had four different prime ministers. Family Guy and South Park have produced a combined 30 seasons and close to 500 episodes. And with the Kansas City Royals appearance in the Wild Card playoff Tuesday night, the Jays officially own the dubious distinction of being the team with the longest MLB playoff drought.
So this is a city and a team desperate for results. This is a city and a team that were so high on AA when he first got going – the Rasmus trade, the Marlins deal, the Dickey cherry on top (at the time that’s what it was! Stop throwing things! That’s YOUR computer screen) – that now when things have plateaued a little, it seems like failure. The thing is, the guy has only been here four years. In a results oriented business, that might seem like a long time, but it really isn’t. There was a two year tear-down and now, a two year build up. The time is now but it’s not like it’s been forever on this watch.
Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail wrote a column maligning the Jays chances of ever being good if they stick to their current formula of five year contract limitations. He said:
By this rationale, they have no shot at any of the premier starters available on the market this winter. Less than none. The Jays will never again sign an established superstar as a free agent. Ever. Think about that for a while.
It was meant to be a ‘shocker’ but when was the last time they signed a superstar free agent? 40 year old Dave Winfield? 36 year old Paul Molitor? Were AJ Burnett and BJ Ryan superstars? When was the last time most teams landed a marquee player? Unless you’re the Yankees, Dodgers or Angels, the instances have probably been few and far between. Robinson Cano to the Mariners was a shock. Prince Fielder to the Tigers was a disaster. Ditto with BJ Upton to the Braves. You have to develop your own superstars – they don’t come walking through the door, ever. There’s a reason players are free agents.
What I see when I look at AA is a guy who takes chances, for better or for worse. Regardless of what you think about the Jays approach toward free agent contracts, I’d point you to the Bautista and Encarnacion deals (the best value in baseball, bar none), the Melky signing, and the production of bargain signings such as J.A. Happ, Dioner Navarro and Adam Lind. The excellent management of Drew Hutchison, coming off Tommy John surgery. The conversion of Brett Cecil and Dustin McGowan to effective relievers. These are wins, none of them small.
The constant, wearying professionalism and corporate line-toeing often masks the fact that under AA, this team hasn’t been afraid to take those chances. Mike Napoli being flipped for Frank Francisco was a bad one. Counting on a bullpen that was brutal in the second half of 2013 to somehow repeat the surprising-at-the-time first half of 2013 was a major oversight. Josh Johnson was an unmitigated disaster. Trading Roy Halladay and essentially receiving back Kyle Drabek (middle relief), Anthony Gose (4th outfielder) and half of the R.A. Dickey package does not look great in retrospect. And Ricky Romero, always Ricky Romero. These are losses, none of them small.
The jury is still out on Brett Lawrie. He’s just 24 and the talent is certainly a win, especially given that we only gave up Shaun Marcum, who has been injury riddled since the trade. That said, Lawrie hasn’t been able to stay healthy, a major problem for a player expected to be a cornerstone of the Jays moving forward.
The jury is also still out on the brightest source of hope for this team moving forward: its young starting pitching. Marcus Stroman had a phenomenal four and half months in the rotation. Aaron Sanchez looked dominant out of the bullpen. Daniel Norris, while looking like he needs more time, obviously has the stuff to be a big league starter. Can these three make a positive impact on the 2015 Blue Jays season? Was AA right to hang on to these guys?
Is Melky coming back? What are we doing about centre field? Will Edwin and Jose ever both stay healthy for a full season? Can we find a lefty-masher to pair with Lind? Who is going to play 2nd base? How far away is Dalton Pompey? Can Jose Reyes play another full season at short? Should he, or should he move to 2nd? Where is my hat? Who shot J.R.? Is Brandon Morrow’s arm actually made of pipe cleaner material?
These are important questions, none of them small.
When you put that all together, what do you get? Some wins, some losses and some TBDs, both good and bad. You get a GM who has taken shots, some good, some bad. You get a team that improved this season, with reason to hope for the future. You get a future that’s in flux.
You get a baseball team. You get a goddamned baseball team. Nothing more, nothing less.
If we look at 2013 as a starting point, this year was a step forward. AA and John Gibbons have earned the right to try and take another step forward in 2015. So we can debate all the questions, big and small, and we can ride that bullshit carouse l- I’m sure we all will, all off-season long. But when we discuss the losses, let’s remember the wins and vice versa. It’s about a body of work. There are positives with this team. It’s not all doom and gloom. Let’s identify those and move forward. If failure rears its head again in 2015, I’ll be the first one to admit its time for a change.
The Red Sox, Rays and Yankees are all fixed to improve in the off-season. Baltimore isn’t going anywhere. It’s going to be a tough road to hoe. But the potential is there. You can see it, if you just get off the carousel long enough to look.
No more gimmicks. It’s time to shoot at the kings, AA. But you best not miss.