Shi Davidi reported today that the Blue Jays’ longtime head trainer, George Poulis, has jumped ship to Atlanta, becoming the #bAArves’ new director of player health and head trainer. The move maybe isn’t terribly surprising. The Jays fired a pair of Poulis’s lieutenants earlier this fall, trainer Mike Frostad and strength coach Chris Joyner. And judging by his new title, he’ll have responsibilities in Atlanta that may have been given to the fancy new High Performance department in Toronto.
As fans it’s impossible to know how good a job Poulis had done in his years with the Jays, but that he was kept on after Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins took over, and that Alex Anthopoulos sought him out in Atlanta speaks well. This is a loss for the Jays.
But it’s also something else.
Poulis has been a part of the Jays experience for years, be it in the dugout, on the field when players have been injured, or giving injury updates to the media. He spoke emotionally at Roy Halladay’s celebration of life service recently. He wasn’t just a faceless guy working behind the scenes. People, though they could hardly offer a tangible reason why, seemed to really like the guy. And because there’s that sense out there, and because it’s another defection away from the new regime and toward the old, some people have tried to hold it up as a repudiation of Shapiro’s leadership.
SHAPIRO BRINGS CLEVELAND STAFF TO TORONTO: "wow whats wrong with the Jays"
ANTHOPOLOUS BRINGS TORONTO STAFF TO ATLANTA: "wow whats wrong with the Jays"
— Cam Lewis (@cooom) December 5, 2017
For the most part this stuff is pretty amusing, but there were definitely a couple tweets that had me shaking my head. “I don’t blame him, I wouldn’t want to work for this regime either” said one. “I wonder if the way the Jays handled the Roy Halladay news contributed to this,” said another. And more still touted the mythical version of events where Anthopoulos, like a baseball Johnny Appleseed, single-handedly brought the sport to Canada.
I’m being a bit hyperbolic about that last one, but the perception genuinely remains out there that the previous GM left the team in such great shape that it’s obviously justifiable to be upset at what Shapiro and Atkins have done with it since. And at the risk of treading again into a subject that I called insufferable the last time I wrote about, I think we should think about that a little bit.
And we’re going to do that with a little thought experiment…
* * *
It’s the end of October 2015. The Kansas City Royals have just won the World Series. The Toronto Blue Jays did not make the playoffs.
You see, in this universe the Jays, who woke up with a record of 50-51 on July 29th, with the trade deadline fast approaching, declined to make any significant deadline trades. Despite a much stronger Pythagorean record than their actual record (at the time the Jays had scored 530 runs and allowed 436, for a Pythagorean winning percentage of .588 — a 95 win pace), the Jays sat in fourth place in the American League East, eight games behind the division-leading Yankees. They were only three games back of the Twins, who at that moment held the second Wild Card place, but the Rays and Orioles were also between them and that spot, with the White Sox a half game behind, the Tigers a game behind, and the Rangers two back.
Fans and players alike were upset at the lack of deadline activity, but management insisted they believed in the team they put together over the previous winter, including the fantastic acquisitions of Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson. The Jays had claimed they believed that they were good enough as constituted to play more in line with their run differential than with their results to that point, and felt that they could claw back into the race without making very costly and very risky additions. It almost worked! The Jays played better over the season’s final two months, brought the city of Toronto and the country of Canada closer to genuine “meaningful September baseball” than they’d been in years, but just missed the playoffs. For a little while, people were pretty excited!
The contract of general manager Alex Anthopoulos was about to expire, and with club president Paul Beeston on his way out, to be replaced with Cleveland president Mark Shapiro, the decision was made that, due to the Jays’ inability to make the playoffs during his six years in charge, Anthopoulos was out. Shapiro would eventually bring in one of his Cleveland protégés, Ross Atkins, to be his General Manager.
Let’s look at what the Clevelanders have inherited…
The Jays’ infield is pretty well set, with Josh Donaldson at third, Devon Travis at second, Edwin Encarnacion, Justin Smoak, and Chris Colabello manning first base and DH, Russell Martin behind the plate, and Ryan Goins and Steve Tolleson as backups. That depth could be improved upon (the also club has an option on Maicer Izturis for 2016, but it’s unlikely it will be exercised), but the only real problem would be José Reyes, who is clearly not the player he once was, and is owed $48 million over the next two seasons (including a $4 million buyout on 2018).
The Jays’ outfield is in pretty good shape, with surprising four-win centrefielder Kevin Pillar in centre, José Bautista in right, and a hole in left field, but some internal options to fill it. There’s Michael Saunders, who still has a year remaining on his contract, though his health is a question mark after having missed most of 2015 due to a run-in with a sprinkler head. There’s also Dalton Pompey.
Marcus Stroman made a remarkable comeback from a spring knee injury and pitched at the end of the year, looking like he’ll be ready to take a rotation spot into 2016. The Jays have a contract option on R.A. Dickey that they’ll likely exercise after another disappointing-but-still valuable season. Youngster Aaron Sanchez was dominant as a reliever, but will definitely be a rotation option for the club going forward. Drew Hutchison is an unsexy option for the back-end of the rotation as well, but the exciting options are Daniel Norris and Jeff Hoffman, who are big league ready or very close to it. Matt Boyd is another option. Marco Estrada and Mark Buehrle both become free agents at the end of the season (Buehrle chooses to retire).
This group could certainly use an addition or two, but is in pretty OK shape thanks to the club’s outstanding young closer Roberto Osuna, and veteran Brett Cecil. Beyond those two, options include Liam Hendriks, who had a surprisingly strong season, Aaron Loup, former All-Star Steve Delabar, Miguel Castro, Bo Schultz, Ryan Tepera, and an interesting minor league arm in Danny Barnes.
So Where Do They Go From There?
The assumption that a lot of Blue Jays fans make is that Shapiro and Atkins were itching to tear this roster down, and that the incredible, magical successes that marked the end of real 2015 season threw a wrench into those plans. Looking at it objectively, though, the makings of a very good team for at least 2016 are certainly still there. In fact, it was a very good team in 2016, albeit with a couple significant and pricey additions: the re-signing of Marco Estrada, and the re-acquisition of J.A. Happ. Those two starters provided significantly more value in 2016 than the departed Norris and Hoffman did for their new teams, and the rotation in our thought experiment certainly looks thin as is. The club’s new overseers perhaps could have used that as justification to “reset” and cash in on the final contract years of Bautista, Encarnación, Cecil, and Dickey. But let’s assume they see what seems quite plain — that the roster is pretty well setup and, with some tweaking, could be capable of making at least another run at the playoffs — and follow this through.
Let’s start with the financial picture.
Between Reyes, Martin, Bautista, Dickey, and Encarnación, these Jays are on the hook for $71 million. In arbitration, Donaldson, Smoak, Cecil, Saunders, Loup, and Josh Thole will end up earning another $23.3 million between them. That’s eleven players making $94.3 million. If they added nobody else, the remaining 14 players on the roster will be pre-arb, making about $520K per player, for another $7.3 million. The grand total, then, is $100.6 million.
In 2015 the club’s payroll began at $125 million. In the real 2016, after their successes, it went up to $136 million.
Another assumption that Jays fans like to make is that Rogers wanted payroll to go back down, and they brought in Shapiro and Atkins in the hopes of doing so. Maybe that’s true, but I doubt it. You’re not going to entice a lot of executives to leave a good situation and come and run your baseball team if you’re insisting on immediate austerity measures. So let’s say that, in this hypothetical, Shapiro and Atkins would have been able and willing to make the business case to take payroll to a similar level.
Now, obviously a major thing to consider next is the fact that José Reyes is supposedly still here. And that he would have been a member of the Jays when, on Halloween 2015, he was charged with assaulting his wife after an incident at a hotel in Hawaii (the charges were later dropped when his wife stopped cooperating with law enforcement). We’re definitely not going to just pretend that didn’t happen in this new universe of ours, and so I think Reyes has to go. There are garbage teams who will be still willing to take him at this point (hi Mets!), but not at anything close to the $20 million per year the Jays owe him. But rather than try to dream up a trade for him, let’s just make the logical assumption that, be it through a straight-up release or a salary dump trade, Reyes is no longer here, but his salary is. It would have been very hard to see the club going forward with him.
The Jays now need a shortstop. They need to add at least one pitcher to the rotation. They could also use bullpen help (especially if Sanchez does indeed return to the rotation), and they have a question mark in left field. They plausibly have $20 to $30 million to work with.
If they wanted to, there would have been a number of ways they could have gone with this, but let’s not get too cute about it. We clearly know that the Jays were at that point interested in — and capable of landing — two names in particular: Marco Estrada, who ended up signing a two year deal with the club that winter, paying him $11 million in year one, and J.A. Happ, who signed a three-year deal with the Jays that paid him $10 million in year one.
If the Jays then looked to the free agent market for a shortstop their options would have been somewhat limited. Ben Zobrist was a free agent that winter, but not really a shortstop primarily, and probably not about to land with the Jays. Ian Desmond would have been an option, though he was coming off a woeful season at the plate. Asdrubal Cabrera would have been a consideration, though. The former Clevelander was even then a poor fielder, but had been worth nearly four wins over the previous two years combined, and ultimately signed for just $8.25 million per season over two years, with a 2018 option.
The trade market would have provided some more interesting options. That winter saw Andrelton Simmons, Jean Segura, Brad Miller, Jedd Gyorko, and Jed Lowrie moved in trade. Oh ho! And in this universe the Jays have some pieces they could have used to possibly acquire one of those guys. Matt Boyd, Jake Brentz, Miguel Castro, Jimmy Cordero, Jeff Hoffman, Jairo Labourt, Dawel Lugo, Daniel Norris, Jesus Tinoco, Alberto Tirado, and Nick Wells are all still in the organization. And not only that, their presence allows the club to more readily consider moving other pieces, like Conner Greene, or Sean Reid-Foley. Liam Hendriks, who was moved for starting depth in the form of Jesse Chavez, remains, too. And Drew Hutchison would have intrigued a team or two at that point also.
Now, we can’t simply assume that the front office would have hit a home run with whatever trades or signings they would have made here, or that our hypothetical 2016 Jays would have necessarily been as good as they were with some of the core pieces having been changed — especially without the leadership and the defensive steadiness of Tulowitzki. We also can’t discount what it would have meant to this fan base — and ultimately the payroll — not to have had that magical 2015 run.
But could 2016 not have been the magical year?
It’s not difficult to see how a very, very good team could have been forged out of this roster, this payroll, and this collection of prospects. Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnación, Martin, Travis, Pillar, Stroman, Sanchez, Dickey, Osuna — they were all still here. Sure, a 2016 run likely wouldn’t have felt quite the same as our now-disappeared 2015, where the real Jays turned into an absolute juggernaut that by all rights should have won the World Series. But the ending of the drought, and the late summer realization that the team really might have it in them to get into the playoffs, would have produced many of the same effects.
Yes, this is all completely made up, and things likely wouldn’t have played out as well as they possibly could have. But the elements were there. And with the Reyes money due to come off the books at the end of 2017, these hypothetical Jays are quite a bit better positioned for 2018 and beyond, too. Less payroll commitment, more prospects, more pitching depth. Resources — like the $13 million they paid to have Francisco Liriano pitch for them in 2017 — could have been used to upgrade other areas of the roster. Perhaps they would have felt more comfortable making a large play for Edwin Encarnación, and maybe that would have worked out differently.
I know, I know, we can’t say any of this! But I guess the point is, while yes, Anthopoulos brought winning baseball back to Toronto, by going so hard in on doing so in 2015, he made it that much more difficult for it to be sustainable winning baseball in the years that followed. I don’t think anybody would trade what really happened in 2015 for having that specific collection of prospects back, but when you start thinking about some of the things that could have been done in the name of winning in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 if he hadn’t, you at least start to understand why Shapiro might not have been so happy with his moves — and why the idea that the Jays had to become a contender when they did and the way they did simply isn’t right.
An incredible amount of credit for the hypothetical 2016 Jays I’ve posited would have had to go to Anthopoulos. He did amazing things to build the Opening Day 2015 roster, including a trade for Josh Donaldson that’s quite possibly literally the greatest heist in the history of baseball. I defended him a lot through all of this, and I’m not asking anybody to lose sight of it — nor should anybody lose sight of the fact that what happened in this city and this country in 2015 really was truly special. But I think it’s worth understanding the actual scope of the consequences of those moves. That scope would have been very, very easy to understand if things hadn’t worked out so well. Fans would have a drastically different view of the end of AA’s tenure if, say, Donaldson had stepped on a base awkwardly, or Edwin’s finger injury had landed him on the DL for an extended time, or Chris Colabello regressed harder, etc., and they ended up missing the playoffs because of it.
And that’s just it. A successful roster is a precarious thing. A lot of things have to go right for a team to be a winner. That’s why we can’t act like my hypothetical Jays were certain to have ended the club’s long playoff drought, or anything close to it. But it’s also a thing very worth remembering before we wave away the risk that went into those 2015 deadline trades and act like the playoff payoff was such an incredible win that the consequences are irrelevant. Especially when those consequences are only being felt by Alex’s successors, while his myth is still being held up as something to bash the new guys with.
There is some universe out there somewhere where the Jays didn’t make those trades in 2015 and ended up much better off for it. In fact, there are probably a whole lot of them, because how that might have happened simply isn’t difficult to see. That is, if you’re willing to see it.
I don’t say that to bash Anthopoulos or the way things worked out, I say it because a lot of Jays fans don’t seem willing to see it, and thus can’t seem to give Shapiro and Atkins a fair shake. I don’t think anyone should wish that 2015 didn’t happen, but I sure as hell wish some of its myths didn’t endure — maybe then I wouldn’t keep feeling the need to keep beating this damned dead horse.