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Strange Thoughts On a Strange Season

I’ve been struggling for two days, staring at my computer screen, trying to eulogize the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays season. Part of that is on me, of course — my inability to come up with the proper words, and the odd obligation I feel to do so and not just let the damn thing pass — but part of it is maybe that what we just went through escapes easy definition. If the 2015 season was about unprecedented grandeur and swagger, and 2016 was about a reluctant and worrying fan base being dragged nearly to glory by their heroes, what the hell was 2017 about?

Obviously those are oversimplifications of what happened in the two previous years, but it feels to me like those seasons had real, strong narratives, real purpose, and that 2017 was more about a bunch of threads that don’t necessarily go nowhere, but the ends of which we can’t see yet. The departure of Edwin Encarnación, the end of José Bautista, the beginnings of the Josh Donaldson contract saga; the emergence of Justin Smoak, of Marcus Stroman, of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. It was the end of something, hopefully the beginning of the next thing, but right now it feels like a bit of a non-entity.

Thinking back, I guess a lot of that comes down to the way the season began. I scoffed in March when people seemed overly worried about an early spring calf problem suffered by Josh Donaldson, but it certainly plagued him for longer than a couple inconsequential spring weeks. Donaldson carried a 110 wRC+ into July 22nd. Aaron Sanchez made just eight starts and threw just 36 innings all season. The Jays fell to 6-17 on April 28th.

Most of the time we had to convince ourselves pretty hard that they were playing for anything. And in a year that wasn’t really supposed to be building toward anything, and wasn’t supposed to end in glory, it just kind of… was.

Oh, there is plenty we can remember in a good light about 2017. Coghlan’s leap. Stroman’s home run. Pearce’s walk-off grand slam. Smoak’s All-Star appearance. Osuna overcoming his anxiety. Edwin’s fond return. José’s fond farewell. For me, professionally, it’s been a great year, full of great contributions to this site and to our social media arms from Cam, Stacey, Dustin, Ryan, Daryl, and Andy — an awesome and incredibly talented team of people who have been great to work with. But if we’re being honest, beyond that kind of stuff, there really isn’t a whole lot of positive to take from this one, is there?

Except maybe that it’s over, and that we’re now we’re on to the next attempt, with another year of progress under the belts of the Blue Jays’ minor leaguers, and a bunch of lessons learned for going forward.

How those lessons will be applied, of course, is the tricky thing. Everybody knew last year that the team needed to get a bit younger, a bit more athletic, and a bit less right-handed, but making that kind of transformation without making things worse proved too difficult. Today it seems clear, at least to me, that the Blue Jays need better outfielders than Ezequiel Carrera and Steve Pearce, Kevin Pillar, and Teoscar Hernández, but how do they get there from here? They need legitimate middle infield depth, but how do they find it without being willing to give up their best prospects or being able to promise free agents a starting position? They need to not lose Josh Donaldson for nothing next winter, but they need to not lose Josh Donaldson.

I wouldn’t say that the club isn’t staring into the abyss, here. But I wouldn’t argue if you painted them as being out over the middle of it on a flimsy bridge of their own making. They can see Vlad and Bo on the other side, getting closer with each step, but out on that bridge 2017 was a real wobble. What happens with season ticket renewals could be another wobble, too. What happens with Donaldson could absolutely be another one. And those saviours on the other side could get hurt, or could simply be a mirage.

It’s an uneasy place for the franchise to be — and for its fans, especially the ones who still need to be dragged kicking and screaming into giving the front office anything remotely resembling their trust.

All that said, it was a year that in a lot of ways had to happen at some point. Bautista wasn’t going to last forever. Ditto the club’s incredible starting pitching health in 2015 and 2016. Tulo’s health was always going to pose a risk. Devo’s too, apparently. And their free agent choices weren’t always going to work out as absolutely swimmingly as J.A. Happ did. They might have made the playoffs if just a couple things had broken better for them. But they also, just as easily, could have had a year like this one a season ago. And may do so again next year.

They’ll have a chance not to, but realistically that’s about it. We’re not going to be talking about World Series favourites four-and-a-half months from now when pitchers and catchers report.

Yet with the rapid ascension of Guerrero and Bichette, which has only likely increased the amount of time that their Blue Jays careers will overlap with those of Stroman, Sanchez, Osuna, et. al., plus the addition of depth, the growth of other prospects, and early re-signing of Estrada, it’s not hard to see another 2016 potentially in the offing still, before the real hard decisions need to be made, and the real changes start.

And that’s sort of been the thing about 2017, I guess. It was always pushing us to either look forward, or to look back, but never to quite look squarely at it. That’s a pretty neat trick, when you think of it. And, all in all, given how the season went, probably for the best. Good riddance to the fucker all the same, though.

  • Will Murray

    I keep going back and forth on Donaldson. My preference is to sign him long term this winter. He’s a fantastic player to watch who should have some good years ahead of him even if we do have to tread water in 2018 while we wait for Vlad and Bo. But if Donaldson and the Jays are far apart and don’t look likely to get a deal done this winter? Then it gets tougher. While the second wild card keeps teams in the race longer, I think the Jays would need a lot of things to go right to be in the mix. The entire outfield is a question mark in terms of the kind of production you’ll get, an already declining Tulo is coming back from a bad injury, and who ever knows where Travis will be health wise. That’s a lot of concerns, and it’s hard to imagine come April enough of these would be solved that making a run with an impending FA Donaldson would be worth losing the value of assets you’d receive for a full year versus assets at the deadline if you have to pull the chute. Ideally, you sign Donaldson (and use your financial muscle to get it done), but if it’s clear your not in the same ballpark this winter, you have a tough decision to make.

    Thanks Stoeten et al, for another great year of coverage. As always a fun, insightful, and refreshing place to follow the team, even, or maybe especially, when it becomes more caustic than normal in the shitty times in the face of shittier takes from others in the media.

  • Nathan1

    Hernandez had a OPS+ of 129 in 2017, a UZR of -0.3, and a DRS of -1. Hernandez could be a starting right fielder for the Blue Jays in 2018, although his K% is high.

  • Jays of Thunder

    I’ll echo Will’s thanks for the great work this season to Stoeten and the BJN team. Especially for keeping things fresh once the writing was on the wall (I mean August, though you’d not be wrong if you said April).

    Atkin’s summary of the season was pretty on point. Disappointing and painful. I’m glad to hear clarity about the direction for 2018 (probably because I agree with the direction). Donaldson seems to be the fulcrum on which competing in late 2018 into 2019 will rest. If he’s not extended this winter, the team’s record will determine whether he is still a Jay past the ASB. He’s primed to have the best Jay’s career ever, it’s just a matter if whether he’s here long enough for it to happen.