Thoughts on the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays, looking back, and looking forward

It was a strange year, not unlike the one before it — at times phenomenal, at others completely unbearable. But overall, despite the ups and downs, the bats that never woke up, and the finish that left us wanting more, 2016 was very, very memorable. 

The season opened with a confusing set of expectations. 2015 was incredible. So incredible, that the two-and-a-half months that were fantastic completely overshadowed the four sometimes-great-but-usually-gut-wrenchingly-frustrating months that preceded them. 

Everyone knew that the success of the Jays of August and September, the team that went completely nuclear and pounded their way to a 40-18 record to end the season, wasn’t going to be sustainable. But still, most of the players who contributed to that run were coming back again, so there was reason to believe that the team would be really good again. 

And they were! Though it wasn’t always easy to see or appreciate, the 2016 Blue Jays were a very good team in a vastly different way than the 2015 team was. Sure, they were frustrating as hell because it was easy to see just how dominant they could be if things just came together for them, but that’s baseball. 

They took a month to find their stride, but for a good chunk of the summer, the Jays looked like a team that could win a World Series. The bats were quiet, but instead of clubbing teams to death, they had excellent starting pitching that compensated for the dry offence and shaky bullpen. They never went on a massive 11-game winning streak or month-long tear, but between May and September, they only lost more than two games in a row twice. Then, in September, they lost is again, tripped over themselves, and barely stumbled their way through the finish line. 

A span of just a few months saw the Jays rise from a middling, underachieving team off to a bad start into the class of the American League East, then all the way back down to a borderline playoff team with consistently strong pitching and an offence that over and over again looked like it was catching its stride but never did. 

A span of just one week saw the Jays squeak by Boston to earn home field advantage in the Wild Card game, beat Baltimore on a three-run walk-off homer in that said game, then kick the crap out of the top seeded Texas Rangers in a much-anticipated rematch, capped off by a an even more memorable walk-off that featured Josh Donaldson dashing home to complete the sweep.

A span of just a few hours saw the Jays give themselves a chance to give themselves a chance by knocking around the unhittable Cleveland pitching juggernaut in Game 4 only to be suffocated the following afternoon by a pitcher nobody had ever heard of. 

With how up and down this season was, it’s perfectly fitting that the playoffs pretty much went down the exact same way. 

On the excitement and disappointment of the playoffs and perspective:

It’s a difficult pill to swallow because Cleveland, much like Kansas City, didn’t really seem like all that big of a deal. I mean, after they made the Boston Red Sox look like the Tampa Bay Rays there was certainly some room for concern, but this was a series I think most of us expected the Jays to win. And honestly, if you play this series over one hundred times, I bet the Jays win it more times than they lose.

Obviously nobody wants to hear it, but if I had told you in March that the Jays would lose in the American League Championship Series again, damn near all of us would take it. And if I had told you that same thing in June 2013 a couple hours before a Chen Ming Wang start, you probably wouldn’t have even believed me. 

Not long ago, the idea of ever playing meaningful baseball in September seemed abstract. The idea of playoff baseball at the Rogers Centre was something only for dreams. Coming from a 23-year-old who was born six months before Joe Carter hit that walk-off in 1993, I can’t feel anything but happiness for what this team has brought me over the past couple years.

When you yearn for the playoffs as long as we have, you aren’t just dreaming of that moment it all comes together and you watch your closer strike out the final batter, throw his arms in the air, get squeezed by the catcher, and mobbed by teammates, you’re dreaming of the journey and everything involved with it. 

For two decades we watched literally every single other team take a swing at the prize in October, and every year we all thought about how great it would feel to be a part of it. Last year brought us the bat flip, a moment worth re-watching a dozen times over the course of the winter, and this year brought us Edwin’s walk-off and the Donaldson Dash, two more epics to add to the nostalgia carousel.

I won’t blame you for feeling down after this postseason. We’re all different people and we respond to things in different ways. It was disappointing, it could (should) have gone better, and, as I’ll touch on in a minute, it’s (likely) the end of an era. But don’t forget where you came from. 

Don’t forget being out by August, don’t forget begging for competitive baseball in September, don’t forget the careers of Roy Halladay, Carlos Delgado, and many, many others being wasted on below-average teams. It won’t change the fact that a World Series-calibre team fell short yet again, but it’ll make it much easier to think back and smile at what we were just given. 

On the window of opportunity that just closed and the next one after it:

There is absolutely a big-picture reason to feel disappointment, though. This year was this group’s final lap. We aren’t going to see Edwin and Jose, the guys who put this organization back on the map, win a championship here together. It sucks. 

There was a sense of urgency last season, hence the aggressive deadline moves to bring in David Price, Tulo, Ben Revere, and Mark Lowe, to capitalize on the core with the rapidly approaching expiration date, but this year, it was even more dire. Since spring, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion’s impending free agency has been a topic of discussion, because both players are going to hit the market seeking significant raises from the team-friendly deals they signed a few years back. 

Unless by some divine miracle both Edwin and Jose are squeezed into a budget that already has more than $60 million dedicated to four players over the age of 30, we’ll be looking at a totally different group than we’ve fallen in love with the past few years. But that doesn’t mean the window is completely shut. 

Last fall, it seemed like signing David Price was an absolute must in order for the Blue Jays to maintain their status as a legitimate contending team. But rather than ponying up the $30 million plus per year it would have cost them to keep him around, they allocated cash to re-signing Marco Estrada and grabbing J.A. Happ in free agency, who were incredibly valuable to the team, combining to be worth 9.4 R9 wins above replacement. 

A couple of contrasting articles came out at Fangraphs the other day that go over where the Jays are at and where they can and should go. David Cameron suggests that the Jays should utilize their aging talent to do a quick rebuild so that they can set themselves up long-term with a core built around Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna, Marcus Stroman, Devon Travis, and other young talent that may or may not be in the system yet. Jeff Sullivan makes an equally strong case for the idea that the Jays should reload and go for it again next season, seeing as how they’ve generated more fan interest these last two years than the previous twenty combined. 

It’s impossible right now to say exactly what’ll happen, but there are options with positive outcomes here. The Jays can let all of Bautista, Encarnacion, and Saunders walk, allocate the money to cheaper, short-term options, like Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran, or Kendrys Morales, and take another go at it with the excellent pitching rotation and remaining talent they already have. If it doesn’t work out, the front office can start to fire off older assets like the Yankees did this year and gear themselves up for a quick turn around. Hell, they could also just open up their wallets and sign both Bautista and Encarnacion! Or even just one of them! Or they could trade for Joey Goddamn Votto or something off the wall like that, who knows! But the infrastructure of a good, contending team is still very much so here even without the two guys who put this team back on the map. 

On Jose and Edwin: 

Let’s forget about the contract situations and where the team is heading right now, and take a moment to look back and appreciate the incredible careers of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion had as Blue Jays. If they end up coming back next year, that would be great, obviously, but if they don’t, there’s no denying the magnitude of the impact they had on this franchise.

Edwin had an incredible season, tying a career high in home runs with 42, setting a career high in RBIs and leading the league with 127 RBIs. He’s gone from the guy known as E5 because he couldn’t filed a lick at third base to one of the franchise’s all-time greatest power hitters and beloved players.

Jose is a little more complicated. He struggled this year, which can be expected for a player at his age. But the abuse and general lack of respect he’s taken from the fans is ridiculous. This is the greatest position player in franchise history, the guy who single-handedly won the team games for years, and then showed up in the biggest moments possible last fall, damn near dragging the Jays kicking and screaming through the playoffs. 

His outspoken nature and competitive personality certainly put a sour taste in the mouths of many fans and other players around the league, but it’s that swagger that helped push the Jays from years of peddling in mediocrity to back-to-back ALCS appearances. 

They both came to the organization as castaways, and they both grew into superstars here. Regardless of where they both end up or how it goes down, both deserve a massive standing ovation when they returning to Toronto next year, and both should have their names placed on the level of excellence one day. 

Concluding thoughts:

The Blue Jays lost in the ALCS this year. But on the other end of that, Cleveland won. There are two sides to every play, every game, and every playoff series. It isn’t just as simple as the Jays not being fundamentally sound, not trying hard enough, lacking a sense of urgency, being stupid, being too predictable, one-dimensional, or being unable to lay down a bunt. There’s another team on the other side that we don’t care about and don’t pay much attention to that won the series, and they deserve credit for it. 

I mentioned earlier that I won’t blame anyone for being upset at how this season ended. We’re all different people, we consume baseball differently, and it’s hard to swallow what happened, especially when you know deep down that the same guys aren’t going to be back next season. 

This series can be hyper-analyzed over and over again, we can try to figure out why certain players didn’t perform the way they should have, and we can replay situations in our heads over and over again until we want to vomit, but it isn’t going to change anything. And it never will. What should happen won’t always happen, and that’s what makes baseball as great as it is.

Baseball is a weird, frustrating, sometimes rewarding, sometimes punishing, and always unpredictable game. More so than any other sport, the results come down to luck and circumstances, skill and effort don’t always shine through and determine the results, and the best team doesn’t always come out on top. That’s why you can’t get too caught up over the results. Don’t get me wrong, I badly want the Jays to win a World Series more than I probably should, but the individual moments that make up the long grind of the journey shouldn’t be overshadowed by who makes the final out at the very end of it. 

The Toronto Blue Jays provided us with a lot of great moments this summer, and really, that’s all you can ask for from a baseball team.