For the longest time, Toronto Blue Jays fans can be forgiven for asking themselves, “how was this different from last year?” The question is a legitimate one. The Blue Jays, in their own way, have been inhabiting baseball limbo for years. This Great Mediocrity began in 1996. Allow me, if you will, a word or three to describe where it all began.
Let your mind travel back to 1996. Baseball has returned from the canceled World Series of 1994, and the strike shortened 1995. The Blue Jays are owned by a beer company, but it isn’t the original Canadian owner, Labatt, as they has been taken over by Interbrew, a foreign corporation. The sophomore General Manager is Gord Ash. The manager, Cito Gaston. There are still names on the roster from the World Series teams of 1992 and 1993, like Olerud, Carter, Sprague, Hentgen, Timlin, but the Jays manage a meager 74 wins, and lose 88 times. They barely avoid a 90 loss season, and finish fourth.
By 1998, a youth movement, coupled with the unstoppable Cy Young hurling of Rogers Clemens and the motivational stories of new manager Tim Johnson, leads the Jays to an 88 win season, but they fall just short of a 90-win benchmark.
With the exception of 2004, the ‘annus horriblus’ of modern Blue Jay teams when injuries dragged them down to a 67-94 record, Toronto has bounced between 89 wins and 89 losses. Their average season in that span, including the low point in 2004 is 80-82. Even in the aforementioned 1998 season, they struggled to contend because the Yankees were destroying the world with a 114-48 record and one of the greatest teams of all-time. So the Blue Jays have not climbed up the ladder of greatness, or fallen into a pit of disaster. They have sat in the middle. For 18 years.
That’s a pretty incredible feat, because in 18 seasons, they really haven’t been shy about changing things. They have had three majority owners; Labatt, Interbrew, and Rogers Communications. They have also had three General Managers; Gord Ash, J.P. Ricciardi, And Alex Anthopoulos. Finally, they have had, and this is a good one, seven managers, but they’ve come in 9 different stints. In the toughest division is baseball, you would figure that it would have all bottomed out at some point. It’s remarkable that with payroll limitations, personnel conflicts, staff dismissals, and poor drafting records, the Jays have still sailed the sea of mediocrity. Even with infusions of new blood, free agent splash moves, and mega-blockbuster trades, the Jays have still floated along n the land where hopes start high, and fade by July.
You might be thinking this is the way it is for lots of teams. 18 years without the playoffs, and without blowing it all up to rebuild, maybe this happens to teams in the middle of the baseball landscape. It doesn’t. If you were thinking that, you would be wrong. Let us examine, briefly, the paths of the three teams who have also played close to .500 ball over the last eighteen years. Those three are the Arizona Diamondbacks (80.68 wins avg.), the New York Mets (81.28), and Seattle Mariners (80.05). The D’Backs have had one year where they won 100 games, and another where they lost 111. They’ve also made the playoffs five times in that span. The Mets have won 97 games twice, and won as few as 66, and made three playoff appearances in that window. The Mariners run included a historic 116 win season and two 100 loss campaigns. They also logged three playoff appearances.
These teams have had their ups and downs, but when opportunities have been there, they’ve managed, on occasion, to be in the right place at the right time. They have played with something on the line in September and October. Even though the overall record looks like they have something in common with the Jays, really, they don’t. So, does anybody have the same kind of consistency that Toronto has had?
The three winningest teams in baseball in this post strike era are the Yankees, Braves, and Red Sox. This is a reminder that, though a lot of things can happen in a single baseball season, in the long run, money talks, and smart money talks louder. The Yankees worst season in this span was 2013, where they won 85 games, on par with some of the Jays best. The Sox had that 2012 disaster where they won only 69, and were under .500 in 1997. The rest of the time, they’ve been a better than average team. The Braves were a 72 win team in 2008, but have won more than they’ve lost in every other year. All of these three teams have gone to the playoffs a billion times (it seems pretty close to a billion, anyway.) Good people come to work for them and to play for them because they spend where they need to. As a result, things work out much more often than not. This is consistency, but it’s much easier to see where it comes from. If the Yanks or Braves have a sudden financial problem…they might suddenly become the Mets, a team that hasn’t hit 80 wins since the Wilpon family had to refinance pretty much everything.
The three losingest teams in the same era are the Kansas City Royals, The Tampa Bay Rays, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Royals and Pirates have been awful, managing only three winning seasons in the 18 year period we’re examining here. The Rays started out awful, but then some very smart people started trying to squeeze every bit of value out from their limited resources. They suddenly became awesome, in a way that their stadium and attendance never will be. From these three teams, we can see the danger of the small market. We can also see that you can overcome those limits if you think in ways that do not follow convention.
So, how does this relate to the Blue Jays? It tells us that there are lots of ways to manage a team, but there are fewer paths to consistent high level play. One way is to have a lot of money, and be ready to spend it whenever necessary to shore up your roster and patch over mistakes. The other is to run your team as a ruthless business, seeking out any inefficiencies in the market, and to be willing to take advantage of other teams that have more conventional thinking. Billy Beane‘s teams win games because he understands how to find undervalued players. The Rays are the same. The Red Sox returned, in 2013, to a model of looking for specific value, helps along by ample resources to obtain that value. They won a World Series championship.
Many years ago, in the early 1980s the Blue Jays had a competitive advantage: their scouts ruled the Dominican Republic. Kids came to play at the Blue Jays camp, and would sign as international free agents. They didn’t conquer the world with this strategy, but their knowledge of a pool of players that nobody else had access to made the organization better. In the early 1990s, the Jays had the highest payroll in the game. They could bring veterans in on short contracts to fill holes on an impressively stacked roster. What do the Jays have now?
They have a smart general manager. Alex Anthopoulos is a skilled tactician, there’s no denying that. He worked over the free agent compensation system that was in place before the last CBA when paid a half million dollars to obtain Miguel Olivo, just to decline his option. Why? Because Olivo would net the team a compensatory draft pick for the ‘loss of his services’. He has traded for Colby Rasmus in a three-way trade that involved 11 players, and he isn’t afraid to try to get what he needs from other teams, even if that means taking risks with his assets.
The man they call AA has also been at the helm of two drafts in which the Jays failed to sign their first round pick. The organization hyped Sam Dyson, promoted him, and then wasted him as an asset. Anthopoulos has given away both Mike Napoli and Yan Gomes, players who have been far more productive than the players for whom they were traded. Not only that, but they both had the ability to fill in at catcher, a position of need for the Jays since AA’s arrival.
All executives in baseball make mistakes. It is a pressure packed job, and forces those who do it into taking large risks with big dollar amounts attached to them. When Billy Beane took over the A’s, he had to be smarter than 29 other GMs to be successful, but they had no idea what strategies he was employing. Now a GM has to be smarter, and more creative, than Beane. He has to be smarter than Theo Epstien of the Cubs, Ben Cherington of the Red Sox, and Andrew Friedman of the Rays. These are the great poker players working as baseball executives. You find them at the final table almost every year, even when some of them don’t start with very many chips at all.
It is only my personal opinion, but I’m not sure that the Blue Jays are playing this kind of poker very well. The results, obviously, haven’t been there. The process also shows big gaps. The team has a history of playing its veterans in lost seasons when a rookie is waiting in the wings. This past year, Marcus Stroman could have shown his worth against real hitters, and the team, and Stroman would have learned something. The injury rate for the team has been one of the worst in the majors for 2 years in a row, but the team is unwilling to commit to biomechanical research testing as a possible solution, a venture which would have minimal risk and potentially huge reward. They don’t have any idea what to do with Ricky Romero.
These aren’t all the problems that fans of this team have highlighted, just a few that I happen to agree with. It adds up to an organization that lacks a unified purpose. What is the pitching philosophy, or the hitting approach? There is no Blue Jay Way. And I don’t meant the ‘clubhouse culture’ that gets thrown around by ex-athletes on talk radio shows. I’m talking about something more fundamental than that.
Everyone in the organization should understand what it is that they are doing to advance the team closer to winning the World Series. Every man and woman working for the team should understand that every ticket sold, every extra batting practice session thrown, and every repair to the beat up Astroturf is an ingredient to a winning team. The idea of winning needs to include the coaches and trainers at each level, sharing what they know about player’s abilities, weaknesses, and injuries. It needs to include the same techniques and strategies which are reinforced to hitters and pitchers at every level. All players need to be developed and nurtured, it isn’t something they do on their own.
Without something to aspire to, and a method in which to accomplish it, I don’t think the results are going to change. There hasn’t been a guiding principle in the organization for a long time.
I love this team, but it needs to grow and change before it can get out of this unproductive rut.