This wasn’t supposed to be the year the Toronto Blue Jays took the big leap forward.
But, like so many other things in 2020, here we are.
When MLB announced it was expanding the postseason from 10 to 16 teams in an effort to recoup lost revenue on top of a drastically reduced schedule, it changed everything. No longer were the young Blue Jays a year or two away from competing for a spot in October. Almost instantly, the playoffs were there for the taking.
They’re far from perfect. But in a season like this they don’t have to be.
With Toronto set to play playoff baseball for the first time since 2016 later on Tuesday, here is a look at their most significant periods of the last four years..
The changing of the guard
Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion were among the most feared middle-of-the-order duos in baseball for years. From 2010 to 2016, they combined for nine All-Star appearances, 480 homers and 1,307 RBI. Both were essential in Toronto’s playoff runs but nothing lasts forever. Especially when it comes down to money.
Bautista and Encarnacion were scheduled to become free agents at the end of 2016 and re-signing both seemed like a difficult task. Bautista told reporters the previous February that he was not a believer in hometown discounts. What the right fielder was asking for was never made publicly clear, but it seemed like he was aiming high. On the other hand, Encarnacion was coming off 42 home runs and a career-high 127 RBIs, so it didn’t seem like he’d be accepting much of a bargain-deal, either.
In mid-November, the Jays reached a three-year, $33 million deal with designated hitter Kendrys Morales, all but eliminating the chance of Encarnacion returning. In January, he signed a multi-year deal with Cleveland, the same team that ended the Jays’ season months earlier.
Bautista ended up returning to the Jays one a one-year deal but struggled mightily in 2017, hitting just .203 with a .366 slugging percentage.
With Encarnacion gone and Bautista a shell of himself, the results showed. The Jays went from fourth in homers and ninth in runs scored to 10th in longballs and 26th in runs. The lack of offence was apparent right away as the Jays scored more than four runs just twice in their first 10 games. They dropped nine of those and finished fourth in the AL East at 76-86.
A glimpse of the future
In July of 2015, the Blue Jays signed Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as a free agent at 16 years old. He quickly shot up the Jays’ system and became one of the best prospects in baseball in the years that followed.
With Josh Donaldson’s contract set to expire at the end of 2018 and few signs of friendly dialogue between him and the front office, many felt Guerrero was the natural successor at the hot corner.
When Toronto wrapped up spring training with a two-game series in Montreal against the St. Louis Cardinals in late March, fans were abuzz at the possibility of seeing the 19-year-old phenom. They didn’t just want to look ahead to the future, but also be reminded of the past. Guerrero’s father spent the first eight seasons of his Hall-of-Fame career in Montreal and was the franchise’s last true superstar before the team moved to Washington D.C. in 2004.
Vlad Jr. received a standing ovation upon entering the game in the seventh inning but didn’t pick up a hit in his first two at-bats. Looking back, all anyone remembers was day two, anyway.
He entered the game as a defensive replacement again and eventually stepped to the plate in the ninth inning with the score still 0-0 against hard-throwing Cardinals righty Jack Flaherty.
Flaherty fell behind in the count 1-0 and came back with a slider in the second pitch of the at-bat. Except he left it up and out over the plate and Guerrero Jr. didn’t miss it, barrelling one up into the left centre field seats just like his father had done so many times before for a walk-off winner.
"You don’t see many celebrations in spring training games. That was pretty neat," then manager John Gibbons told reporters.
Jays shake things up
In case things weren’t clear the season before, the Jays launched themselves into a full rebuild in 2018. They got out to a fast 12-5 start but ended the month of May six games under .500 and fourth in the AL East. With little hope of competing, on came the trades.
Utilityman Steve Pearce was the first to go in late June, landing with the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Santiago Espinal. Next came J.A. Happ in the midst of an All-Star season, who was sent to the New York Yankees for Brandon Drury and Billy McKinney. The Jays also traded reliever Seunghwan Oh to the Colorado Rockies that day.
Toronto’s next trade had more to do with just baseball. On May 8, star closer Roberto Osuna was arrested and charged with a single count of assault. He was subsequently placed on administrative leave and later suspended 75 games under MLB-MLBPA’s joint Domestic Violence Policy.
Less than a week before he was permitted to return, the Houston Astros acquired Osuna in exchange for right-hander Ken Giles and pitching prospects David Paulino and Hector Perez.
"We do feel a responsibility to the fans and we do feel empathy for the fans and we ultimately work for the fans," general manager Ross Atkins told reporters. "That's how we do our jobs. We are human and it is very difficult for accusations not to influence us in some way.
"Having said that, this made sense for the organization from a baseball perspective."
The prosecution withdrew the charge against Osuna later that year in exchange for a one-year agreement he stay away from the mother of his child and continue counselling.
Toronto’s next big trade was one that fans saw coming for a while, but it wasn’t the most popular of moves at the time. In the midst of his second injury-plagued season in a row and hampered by a calf strain that saw his trade value depreciate exponentially, the Jays dealt former MVP Josh Donaldson to Cleveland for a player to be named later.
And nothing else.
Despite elite production for the majority of his four seasons with the Blue Jays, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Atkins and team president Mark Shapiro elected not to trade the three-time All-Star that winter citing a desire to remain competitive but had little reason to hang onto him once the team fell out of contention and chances of reaching an extension became slim to none.
Their hands might have been tied, but it was still a disappointing split given all Donaldson accomplished in his time as a Jay.
Toronto finished the 2018 season at 73-89 and placed fourth in the AL East for the second year in a row. Change had been the theme for the organization lately and it kept coming.
In the final days of the 2018 season, the Jays announced John Gibbons would not be back as manager, extinguishing one of the final flames from the playoff runs a couple seasons before.
If there was ever a guy who deserved a shot as big league manager, it was Charlie Montoyo. He appeared in over 1,000 minor league games as a player and spent over two decades in the Tampa Bay Rays organization at pretty much every level imaginable. Except as a Major League manager. So off he went to Toronto.
Except as Major League manager. So off he went to Toronto.
"Charlie is passionate about the game, with a superior ability to connect and relate, and we are confident he will have an overwhelmingly positive influence on Blue Jays players and staff," Atkins said at the time of Montoyo’s hiring.
The future arrives
Anticipation of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette had been building for years by the time spring training 2019 rolled around. Neither were expected to break camp and head north but it was a matter of when, not if, they’d be joining the big club that season.
Miraculously – or not – Vladdy got his call after spending just enough time in Buffalo to gain an extra year of team control. Regarded as the consensus top prospect in baseball and probably the most anticipated prospect in Jays history, Guerrero made his debut on April 26 against the Oakland Athletics in from of nearly 30,000 fans at Rogers Centre.
Guerrero picked up his first hit on a double in the ninth inning and came around to score the winning run on a walk-off homer by Brandon Drury.
"Just the way I dreamed it," Guerrero told reporters after the game.
When the dust settled, Vlad Jr. finished his rookie season with 15 homers and a batting average of .272. He had his moments, but he didn’t set the world on fire like many were expecting.
But Bichette did.
On July 29, Bichette got his call and picked up a hit in his first Major League at-bat. Then he kept on hitting.
On Aug. 8, Bichette set an MLB record by doubling in his ninth consecutive game and also upped his hitting streak to 11 games to start his career.
"We’re watching history, that’s what he’s doing," Montoyo told reporters.
The injury bug would bite the young shortstop later on in the season but he still finished his rookie campaign with an absurd .311/.358/.571 slash line in 46 games.
With Bichette and Guerrero up and contributing, light was starting to emerge at the end of the tunnel for the Jays.
Reloading in the rotation
Despite the arrival of Guerrero, Bichette and Cavan Biggio, the Jays still struggled through the 2019 season and were once again sellers as the trade deadline approached.
Marcus Stroman had been steady in starting-fives often filled with question marks over the years but having been burned a year earlier on the Donaldson deal, Toronto seemed to want to cash in before it was too late. On July 28, off Stroman went to the New York Mets for pitching prospects Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods-Richardson. The next big name to go was the oft-injured Aaron Sanchez, who went to Houston in exchange for Derek Fisher.
As the Jays hobbled to yet another disappointing season with gaping holes in the rotation, Atkins and Shapiro did something they hadn’t done much of during their time in Toronto so far. They spent.
Toronto made its biggest free agent splash in years, signing former Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu to a four-year, $80 million deal.
"We’ve got an ace," Montoyo said of the move.
He wasn’t kidding. Ryu won the National League ERA crown at 2.32 and finished second in Cy Young voting in 2019.
It was a dramatic pivot from their free agent signings in the past and signified the Jays felt they were ready to start contending. Maybe not immediately, but it was on the horizon.
Then, everything changed.
The landscape shifts
COVID-19 hit the sports world hard in mid-March and threw everything into flux.
Weeks of uncertainty turned into months. By all accounts, baseball came this close to not having a season after the league and players’ union struggled to come to an agreement on finances. When 2020 finally got the green light, the two sides agreed to an expanded postseason structure that would see 16 teams play October baseball as opposed to 10.
That changed everything for Toronto. Three extra playoff spots in the American League suddenly meant the Jays weren’t just hoping to contend – they were expected to.
But before they went searching for a playoff spot, they needed to find a home. COVID-19 made international travel difficult and the Canada-U.S. border was no different.
The Blue Jays were allowed to hold summer camp at Rogers Centre but playing regular season games there was a different story. If the Jays were to play at home, they’d need special approval from the Canadian federal government to circumvent the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon entering the country. On July 18, six days to Opening Day, they were denied.
Dunedin was a logical backup option, but a surge in COVID-19 cases in Florida and ballpark without a roof in the mid-day summer heat made that a challenge. Big league venues like Pittsburgh and Baltimore were possibilities until that was nixed by local health authorities.
That left Triple-A Sahlen Field, originally the planned alternate training site facility, as one of the only viable options remaining. Just hours before their first game of the season in Tampa Bay, a decision was made. The Jays would play their 2020 home games in Buffalo.
Try explaining that one at the start of the year.
A giant step forward
The Jays got off to a slow start in 2020 and things looked grimmer by the day as the injuries mounted. Things got worse when Toronto dropped two games on Aug. 17 to fall four games below .500 at 7-11. With the season hanging in the balance the following day in Baltimore, Ryu delivered the kind of performance the Jays paid $80 million for, allowing just one run over six innings in an eventual 7-2 win. From there, the Bluebirds took flight.
That kicked off a six-game winning streak and helped get to them one game over .500 as of Aug. 26, well within the playoff picture. The front office took notice.
The next day, the Blue Jays acquired proven starter Taijuan Walker from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for a player to be named later. And that was only the beginning.
On Aug. 31, the Jays were as active on trade deadline day as they’d been in years, picking up veterans Robbie Ray, Jonathan Villar and Ross Stripling in three separate trades.
"Obviously, had things in the win-loss record gone differently, we may not have added as much. Maybe there would have been other opportunities, but we felt very good coming into spring training, as you saw in our off-season acquisitions. We wanted to be in this position," Atkins told reporters.
With a winning record and a re-loaded roster, there was really only one thing left keeping the Jays from returning to the playoffs – the New York Yankees.
The 2020 MLB season operated under circumstances far from normal and scheduling was no different. Toronto didn’t have a game against the Yankees for the first month-plus of the season, but once early September hit, they were set to play them 10 times in fewer than 20 days.
The Jays went just 24-33 against the Yankees the last three seasons and were outscored by a total of 80 runs. If struggles continued in 2020, it could cost the Blue Jays a playoff spot.
Whether it was catching the injury-plagued Yankees at the right time or Toronto simply being a better team than in years past – or both – the Jays held their own. They went 5-5 against New York and clinched their seventh postseason appearance in franchise history with a 4-1 victory over those Yankees.
"We keep believing in ourselves," Montoyo said. "It's awesome. I'm so proud of this group. I'm the happiest guy right now."
The Jays will take on the top-seeded Tampa Bay Rays in a best-of-three wild card round series beginning Tuesday evening. While they did play Tampa Bay relatively even during the season, facing the trio of Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton backed by one of baseball’s best bullpens isn’t an easy task.
But neither is anything in 2020, and yet here they are.
Jays fans have had to wait four years for their team to return to the playoffs. Regardless of how things go this season, they shouldn’t have to wait near as long next time.