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Steve Phillips

TSN Baseball Insider


Now that the Toronto Blue Jays’ 2019 season is over, there’s no rest for the weary. 

This is when the work gets started for Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins and president Mark Shapiro in preparation for the 2020 season. The Jays front office feels optimistic about the rebuilding process as it stands at this point. The key young position players made the transition to the majors in 2019 and there is every reason to believe that they will be the core of the team moving forward. 

Atkins and Shapiro addressed the media on Tuesday and made it clear they are looking for targeted opportunities to help start the transition from competing to winning. Atkins went so far as to say that down the road when the club is winning on a regular basis, we will look back and see this off-season as a “big moment in time” in the process. He compared the expectations of this off-season to those of the off-seasons of 2015 and 2016 when the Jays were in it to win. 

The team won’t be looking to add just depth in the free agent and trade markets, Atkins said, but rather to seek impact players to count on and rely on while complementing the young core currently in place. He also mentioned that Jays management are excited about the financial flexibility they have to add players, as well as the depth in the farm system to make trades.

Shortstop Bo Bichette, second baseman Cavan Biggio, third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. have shown enough to be solutions for at least four of the first five spots in the lineup. Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire appear to be capable backstops and their offence will improve.

One of the areas that Atkins identified as an area where the Jays will improve is with the growth of their young core. They have development plans for all of them to get better. They have gained experience and maturity which will benefit them in the years to come. 

With the core in place, it leaves centre field, right field, designated hitter and first base as open positions that still need to be filled, although the core does offer some versatility and therefore flexibility for Atkins and Shapiro. Biggio and Gurriel can move around the field and Guerrero at some point could and will move to first base, too. 

Some may say that Teoscar Hernandez and Randal Grichuk are the answers in the outfield, but I don’t see it that way. They are the kind of guys who get general managers or managers fired. They show flashes of brilliance during the season, but their overall game has too many holes. They can have moments where they look like world-beaters. They tease a GM and manager into believing they are the long-term solutions, but then they go into the tank for a week or two at a time and you regret committing playing time to these types of players. At best, they are extra outfielders and relying upon them as everyday players would be a mistake. 

I have to admit I thought Atkins oversold the expectations for this off-season. The Jays will not be ready to compete for a playoff spot in 2020. I don’t see this off-season as a beginning of the transition from competing to winning. I see 2020 as a transition from rebuilding to competing and then 2021 as the year the transition goes from competing to winning. Then 2022 is when the team goes from winning to being a playoff contender. 

Shapiro was a bit more tempered in his comments than Atkins, saying the management team needs to evaluate over the next several weeks how much this off-season can move the Jays forward. He wants to take the next step from competing to winning, but he knows it may not happen in one off-season. 

The Jays have a long way to go from being a rebuilding team to becoming a playoff contender. They not only have holes to fill in their lineup but they have don’t have a single starting pitcher who is predictably better than a No. 4 starter just yet.

They will be able to compete next year as their young players continue to gain experience and maturity and if they add some quality pitching. The 2022 season is a more realistic target for being playoff-ready. This gives Atkins and Shapiro enough time to draft, develop, trade, claim or sign the additional players they will need. 

This past off-season we saw the San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox pursue Manny Machado and Bryce Harper despite neither team being playoff ready. The Padres did sign Machado yet they still finished in last place in the NL West. The philosophy was that they couldn’t wait until the perfect time to add stars because these players might not be available when their club is poised to compete. Sometimes a team has to sign a player a year too soon in order to land him at all. Players have choices, too, so rebuilding franchises have to give themselves ample opportunities to satisfy their needs. 

Atkins said the Jays will consider players of all different levels this off-season, but I can’t imagine that management will be overly aggressive in pursuit of Houston Astros starting pitcher Gerrit Cole as he heads to free agency. Nor do I see them as a major player in the market for Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon. They are definitely the two best players available this winter. Both guys will get seven-or-eight-year, $200-million deals. 

Obviously, the Jays front office has to target as many potential impact pitching acquisitions as possible. It’s an area where they can quickly improve their win-loss record. They will need to consider free agents as well as trades. They have put themselves in a position to consider contracts of all shapes and sizes. They have depth in the farm system to consider making a deal for an ace. And they are hoping that pitching prospects like Nate Pearson Alek Manoah, Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods Richardson progress and develop into aces.

A starting pitcher like Zack Wheeler may fit the criteria for the Jays. He has above average stuff and will pitch next season at the age of 30. At times, he has been a dominant starter and at times inconsistent. A change of scenery may be just what the New York Mets starter needs to maximize his potential. 

The player who should be the Jays’ primary target after the 2020 season is Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, who is heading into his last season before free agency. The Sox may try to trade him this winter as they are attempting to reset their payroll under the luxury tax threshold. Every indication is that Betts will test free agency after next season. If that’s the case, he should be the primary target for Toronto next winter when he’ll be just 28 years old. If the Jays can add Betts to the young core of talent, they will immediately become a contender – as long as the pitching has been adequately upgraded by that point.   

The Toronto Blue Jays are headed in the right direction – I just want to appropriately manage expectations. The year 2022 seems like a realistic target year for postseason aspirations. Maybe it will happen a year sooner, but I would sure prefer to under promise and over deliver than to do it the other way around.

This off-season is the next step in the process. Whether it’s the “big moment in time” that Atkins anticipates, remains to be seen. I predict that next off-season will be the more remarkable point in the process. Either way, there are plenty of better days ahead. 

Jays need to lock up their young core

One of the things the Jays should absolutely consider this off-season is locking up their young core for the long term. We saw the Atlanta Braves secure the futures of outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. and second baseman Ozzie Albies in 2019.

This step allows teams to avoid the arbitration process where the relationship between the player and club can be compromised and possibly buy a couple of free agent years on the back end of the deal. Typically, these deals get done when the players desire financial security and stability and are willing to forgo maximizing value that the year-to-years negotiating process may offer. Clubs like these deals because they can save some money, plus it gives them cost-certainty from year-to-year with their key players.

The challenge the Jays face is that Bichette, Guerrero and Biggio are not in the same financial place as some other players who seek financial security. They are all sons of wealthy former major league players. They don’t necessarily need to gain financial security and therefore may have less of an appetite to leave money on the table to secure it.

It’s worth exploring but not a necessity at this stage of the process. 

Fans will return if team evolves into a winner

The rebuilding process can take a toll on a fanbase. It is especially evident in attendance numbers. The Blue Jays drew 3.2 million fans in 2017 and were down to 1.75 million in 2019. Fans don’t like to watch losing baseball. But fans in Toronto are smart. They understand what the team is doing – they just don’t want to watch it. 

The Jays believe that the fans will come back when the club is rebuilt and winning again. They understand that there is a bit of resentment and frustration as the team goes through the process. There is even a bit of distrust that the “new guys” tore the team apart, trying to build it up the “right way.” Shapiro and Atkins believe that as long as they get it right, the fans will return and maybe even appreciate them for their efforts and wisdom. 

Certainly, a big trade or free-agent signing will start to re-energize Jays fans. When they see the transition from rebuilding to competing, more fans will come to the games. When the transition goes from competing to winning, even more fans will return to Rogers Centre. Then when they make the big splashy trade or free-agent signing that declares they are a playoff contender, they will be back in droves.

Here are my 2019 playoff predictions:

AL Wild-Card Game: Athletics defeat Rays

ALDS: Astros defeat Athletics

             Yankees defeat Twins

ALCS: Astros defeat Yankees

NLDS: Nationals defeat Dodgers

             Braves defeat Cardinals

NLCS: Braves defeat Nationals

World Series: Astros vs. Braves

World Series Champion: Astros

World Series MVP: Astros outfielder Michael Brantley