“Blow it up!”
The Jays have seemed so adamant about trying to be competitive in 2018 that you don’t hear those words too much these days. But it’s a sentiment that’s still out there. The Yankees look stupidly good (and will likely get under the luxury tax and then spend huge next winter). The Red Sox are still very dangerous (and will be more so when they add J.D. Martinez). The Wild Card is probably the best this team can do, and it doesn’t look like it’s getting any easier next year or the year after that, either. “Trade ’em all and let God sort ’em out!”
It’s not a bad idea. But it’s not a very good idea — not at this stage, when most of the trade value of the guys you’d actually want to trade is gone, to the point where the likely return doesn’t justify writing off 2018 altogether right now, rather than taking a crack and then seeing where you’re at on July 31st — and it’s definitely a total chickenshit idea.
More importantly, though, it’s not a foolproof idea.
That’s not a new concept, of course, but it’s part of the conversation over the urge to throw in the towel and rebuild that I think sometimes gets a little overlooked. And it’s an idea that I think was quite excellently given voice in a piece this week from Tom Ley of Deadspin about the Los Angeles Lakers.
“The Lakers are facing the hard truth that every team on a long-term tanking project has to face: It’s hard to get good again. NBA seasons do not exist within a computer simulation, and lottery picks can’t just be plugged into a roster and guaranteed to enjoy steady, sustainable growth. A roster doesn’t build itself and a competitive team doesn’t coalesce out of thin air. It’s hard enough for any team to achieve its winning goals in any given season, and doubly so for one that suddenly wants to flip the switch from ‘losing on purpose’ to ‘playing good basketball and competing.'”
Yes, yes, it’s a different sport, lots of differences, but you see it. Don’t tell me you don’t see it.
The thing is we all want the same thing here: for there to be as good a team as possible surrounding Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette when those two are (presumably/hopefully) massively underpaid young stars in the first five or so years of their big league careers. Those guys might not work out as well as we hope, they may not be the catalysts we want them to be, and it would be real nice if there were more of those types around, but that’s a pretty good and pretty simple goal.
To get there, and be good enough when the time comes, the Jays will need to keep adding impact talent. So how do they do that?
They could do that to an extent by trading their best veterans, though as noted in the piece linked above the hauls they’d get for the likes of Josh Donaldson or J.A. Happ right now probably aren’t better enough than what they could realistically expect to get at the trade deadline to justify blowing up 2018 and everything that entails (notably, the drop in payroll you’d expect going forward).
They could also do it by dealing young veterans like Roberto Osuna, Aaron Sanchez, or Marcus Stroman. But the thing about that is, those are players who are still going to be under team control through 2020. Those are guys it would be nice to still have around in the early years of the Bichette-Guerrero era. They’re looking like they’re going to be especially crucial to the 2019 Blue Jays, with Donaldson, Happ, and Marco Estrada due to hit free agency. (Granted, I examined the idea of trading Osuna, which isn’t a half bad one, earlier this week.)
If you trade one, or all of those young pitchers, you’ll get some great pieces in return, but will you get someone ready to come in and be Marcus Stroman on Opening Day 2019? Not likely. So do you throw away 2019 right now? If you do that, you throw away 2018, too. You might as well trade everybody now — blow it up — it’s an idea.
But let’s think about the recent gold standard rebuilds, and about their timelines.
Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow took over the Cubs and the Astros respectively in between the 2011 and 2012 seasons. The Cubs got good a little ahead of schedule, winning 97 games in 2015. But that still meant three seasons of 101, 96, and 89 losses from the time Theo took over. The Astros, meanwhile, though they made the playoffs from a Wild Card berth in 2015, did so with just 86 wins — a low number for a playoff team even in the two Wild Card era. They won 84 games the following year, and so didn’t get especially good until 2017.
Vlad and Bo will certainly be in the big leagues at some point in 2019, if not sooner. If the Jays ended up on an Astros-like rebuild timeline, the first year that the pair were on an especially good team would be their fifth in the majors. Granted, it would likely be their fourth for service time purposes — and it would be a year sooner if they were on the Cubs’ timeline — but is that really the best way for the club to use the precious resource that is those two guys playing for the league minimum? I mean, it’s not awful, but I don’t think it’s great, either.
And that’s before we even start to reckon with the Ley’s bang-on assessment that it’s hard to get good again. Those are the absolute, knock it out of the park, best case scenarios. In other ones you become the Padres, or the Phillies, or the Cleveland Browns.
So, the thing is, in my estimation, though this path is a perilous one as well, the best way to have Vlad and Bo surrounded with actual talent in their early years is to… uh… actually have talent already on the roster. Re-sign Josh Donaldson! Add a Lorenzo Cain! Keep Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez! Keep digging for pieces like Aledmys Diaz! Keep helping guys like Justin Smoak unlock their potential! Keep drafting Logan Warmoths and Nate Pearsons! Enjoy what you get out of Anthony Alford instead of worrying if he’s caught between eras!
Radical, I know.
This isn’t to suggest that I think the Jays should be keeping players at all costs and never moving them out for prospects, because they’ll have to do that sometimes, it’s to say that trying to be good isn’t so bad. It’s to say that you’ll reside in the “mushy middle,” as so many like to derisively term it, for only as long as it takes for more talent to emerge and grow and be traded for and bought. Stay good in 2018 and a bunch of the $46 million coming off the books from Donaldson, Happ, and Estrada will probably still be there to spend (hopefully on Josh himself!). Stay good in 2019 and $32 million going to Kendrys Morales and Russel Martin comes off. It probably won’t all be there to spend, but use that money wisely, draft wisely, trade wisely, extend wisely, and how much worse off in 2020 are you than if you packed it in right now, sold off, and started waiting for prospects? Not very? Not at all?
There are many paths to building a good team. For fuck sakes, these very Toronto Blue Jays were one of the best teams in baseball in 2015 and 2016, and the last time they picked a significant contributor in the top 20 picks of the draft was Ricky Romero! Just about all of the shrewd trades of the first five years of the Anthopoulos era fell flat (Halladay, Morrow, Rasmus, Escobar, Dickey, the Marlins, etc.). These very Blue Jays got a top two or three (or one!) talent out of the 2016 draft at pick 66!
They’ll be OK.
And, ideally, they’ll be OK enough for long enough that they never have to worry about flipping that switch and being faced with the task of going from losing on purpose to trying to be elite. Don’t pine for making the jump from where they are back to the top any harder than it has to be.