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Olney: Clock is ticking for Jays, who will get more value for young stars in July than December

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The Toronto Blue Jays, who are in the midst of a 13-game stretch against opponents currently under .500, are quickly approaching a crossroads in their season.

Four series - two at home, two on the road - against the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, White Sox again and Pittsburgh Pirates were circled as a point in the schedule to turn the early struggles around.

Toronto has split the first eight games, including a demoralizing 14-11 defeat on Sunday against the Tigers, leading ESPN's Buster Olney to sound the alarm on the season.

"They clearly, now, are a team at a major crossroads," Olney said on Tuesday morning as a guest on First Up on TSN1050.

"They're five games out for the third wild card. We're not even out of May and [their current playoff chances] are an incredibly low number."

Per FanGraphs, the Blue Jays enter play on Tuesday with a 0.7 per cent chance to win their division, and just a 17 per cent chance to qualify for the playoffs.

"Unless you have a turnaround here in the next two or three weeks, then you come face to face with a lot of tough questions," Olney said.

As Olney notes, the emphasis by the team in the off-season was placed on internal improvement from players who struggled offensively in 2023, including outfielders George Springer and Daulton Varsho, as well as first baseman Vladimir Guerrero. The hope was those players would reverse their fortunes in 2024 and return to their career norms.

That hasn't happened for any of their key hitters, contributing to an offence that ranks 25th in the majors with 210 runs scored through 53 games. 

Blue Jays extended hitter struggles

Player (year) Average On base plus slugging Home run rate
George Springer (career)  .265  .825  4.6% 
George Springer (2023)  .258  .732  3.1% 
George Springer (2024)  .196  .570  2.0% 
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (career)  .280  .842  4.4% 
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (2023)  .264  .788  3.8% 
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (2024)  .297  .811  2.2% 
Daulton Varsho (career)  .226  .718  4.0% 
Daulton Varsho (2023)  .220  .674  3.4% 
Daulton Varsho (2024)  .205  .750  5.3% 
Alejandro Kirk (career)  .263  .739  2.5% 
Alejandro Kirk (2023)  .250  .692  1.9% 
Alejandro Kirk (2024)  .209  .581  1.0% 
Bo Bichette (career)  .295  .813  3.7% 
Bo Bichette (2023)  .306  .814  3.3% 
Bo Bichette (2024)  .247  .663  1.9% 

Given the relative struggles by Guerrero and Bo Bichette this season, who are each set to become free agents after the 2025 season, Olney notes the organization could be stuck again hoping for internal improvement that may not come.

"They decided to roll it back, not really change anything and move forward with the expectation that it's going to get better," said Olney. "Well that's exactly where they would be with the question of what to do with Bichette and Guerrero Jr."

"If you don't shake up the roster now, not only are you probably going to lose the last significant value in either one of those players by not trading them before the trade deadline, but you're also sort of dooming yourself, if that's the word you want to use, to rolling it back with the exact same group to move forward."

Olney notes a close comparison that exists with the San Diego Padres - a team that has spent significant capital building a roster that can compete for a World Series, but is falling short of expectations this year at 29-28.

The Padres are only five games out of the division lead in the National League West, and a hot stretch can get them in the playoff mix very quickly.

But San Diego made two moves early in this season - acquiring pitcher Dylan Cease from the White Sox in March and infielder Luis Arraez from the Miami Marlins in April - which is a route Olney thinks the Blue Jays may need to consider.

"[Padres GM A.J.] Preller made aggressive trades to acquire those two, and maybe he gave up an extra 10 per cent of value because of the time of year, but they've got a fighting chance. They're in the mix," said Olney. 

"If at some point before the deadline the Padres feel they're not contending, they can flip some of the players they got, they can put Cease back on the market, or Arraez back on the market, and I think that's the path the Blue Jays should take in this moment."

The timing plays an important factor in a potential deal as well. In February 2020, the Boston Red Sox traded former MVP Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers in order to reduce payroll and get under the luxury tax threshold, as Andy McCullough noted in The Athletic.   

Olney reports that executives around the league estimated the team lost roughly 40 per cent of potential value in trading Betts in the off-season, rather than at the trade deadline in July.

"The Red Sox should have traded him in July because you're just going to get more ... If you don't think you're going to keep [Bichette and Guerrero] long term, then this is the summer you have to look at making the move to get prospects in return to bolster the farm system," he said.

Olney concedes that if the Jays are not sold on selling assets, the Marlins and New York Mets could form logical trade partners to upgrade the roster. If the Mets are going to start selling big-league contracts, as they sit at 22-30 and have lost 10 of their past 13, Olney mentioned outfielders Harrison Bader and Starling Marte as potential bats to acquire to bolster Toronto's lineup.

But he is confident changes need to be made in one direction or the other for Toronto.

"I do think, in some respects, you're sitting on the Titanic: the boat's going down and you might as well try something," said Olney. 

"At this point, with the trajectory they're on, we know where it's going to end up. We saw it happen last year, and we've seen it for the first two months this year."