The Bridge to 2020: Short- and Long-Term Outlook in Toronto is Bright

We’re just a few games into the season so busting a nut about how the team has looked thus far is a little ridiculous, but given the way things went last year, I’m happy to lean into some potentially premature positivity.

I know it’s trendy to crap all over the Cleveland Boys — they came into Toronto in fall 2015 just as Alex Anthopolous’ squad, the greatest team in Blue Jays history, broke the franchise’s 22-year playoff drought, booting the architect out of the picture — but, at this point, you don’t have to look very hard to see their plan coming into fruition. And if you’re willing to take a bit of a risk, you can start to get excited.

Let’s back things up for a moment. Many complained that the new Rogers cronies would inevitably slash the budget and blow up our beloved team. They didn’t, as largely the same squad reached the ALCS in 2016. Then after a horrific, injury-riddled 2017, many complained that the new Rogers cronies didn’t blow up the old, over-the-hill team when they had the chance. It was an odd contradiction but isn’t all too surprising from a crowd of people who enjoy being angry because it gives them the illusion they have agency over a situation they’re passionate about but have no control over for the sake of being angry.

What Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins inherited from Alex Anthopolous was a strange situation. There was a team with an old core of expensive players, a young and cheap core of good pitchers, and a largely empty farm system. But despite that farm system being fairly barren, Anthopolous left the Cleveland crew with a golden ticket in Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who he signed as a promising teen in 2015.

So there was essentially a high-risk, high-reward team in the short-term and a genuine potential superstar base to build around in the long-term. The key was figuring out the best way to go from Point A to Point B — building a Bridge to 2020.

TORONTO, ON – OCTOBER 14: Jose Bautista #19 of the Toronto Blue Jays throws his bat up in the air after he hits a three-run home run in the seventh inning against the Texas Rangers in game five of the American League Division Series at Rogers Centre on October 14, 2015 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 583944595 ORIG FILE ID: 492684094

How after the run in 2015 that brought a passion for baseball back to Toronto — the trade deadline, the subsequent run, the the bat flip — could you pull out? The idea of dealing names like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and even Josh Donaldson for a king’s ransom as their years of control waned could certainly be attractive if you’re into that sort of thing, but flags fly forever and prospects are for poor people.

The Cleveland Boys stayed the course. They let David Price walk and replaced him with a cheaper option in J.A. Happ. It worked nicely and the Jays made the playoffs again in 2016. They stayed the course again that winter. They let Edwin walk and replaced him with a cheaper option in Kendrys Morales. It didn’t work at all. Age caught up with the team. Jose Bautista was nowhere near the same player he used to be, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin experienced age-related decline, and Josh Donaldson, among many others, struggled with injuries.

After the 2017 disaster, there were two lines of thought: Blow this thing up and get what you can for the future or go all-in on Josh Donaldson’s last year. Most originally leaned towards the former, but as the bizarre free agent market produced oddly-cheap solid players, many began to shift their focus to the latter. But again, the Cleveland Boys stayed the course.

They focused on building depth rather than acquiring high-quality talent. They made signings like Curtis Granderson and Jaime Garcia without any long-term implications and acquired versatile players like Yangervis Solarte, Randal Grichuk, and Aledmys Diaz who, all together, massively raised the floor of the team. It wasn’t sexy, but it ultimately plugged the holes of the 2017 team that allowed the ship to sink. That 2017 team wasn’t great, but it wasn’t as bad as the record indicated. There was still a core — Donaldson, Justin Smoak, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, a good ‘pen, and so on — that was worth investing in because it built a Bridge to 2020.

The Bridge to 2020 involves putting together a team that’s good enough to compete built around Toronto’s already-existing blend of cheap, young talent and savvy veterans without having to spend high-quality talent from the farm or make financial investments that could impede the team in the future.

Mar 26, 2018; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. gives a press conference before the game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Olympic Stadium. Guerrero Jr. is the son of former Montreal Expos player Vladimir Guerrero. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The team right now is good enough to make the playoffs. Are they going to win the American League East? I doubt it. Are they going to make the wild card? Sure. The starting pitching is strong, the bullpen behind it has a lot of bullets, and the offence, while not potent, boasts home run power and a lot of depth. It’s a nice recipe for under-the-radar success.

But, ultimately, the eyes are focused on 2020.

By Opening Day 2020, Vlady Jr. is going to be 21-years-old and will more than likely have kicked the door down to the Major Leagues. Bo Bichette will be 22-years-old and will more than likely be right there with his teammate. Prospects like Anthony Alford, Teoscar Hernandez, Danny Jansen, Lourdes Gurriel, Ryan Borucki, and Nate Pearson could be there with them too.

Best of all, though, is that these prospects will be breaking into the league on a competitive team. There’s obviously a reason to be competitive for the sake of the fanbase who just recently fell in love with baseball for the first time since the 90s. But there’s also something to be said about prospects joining competitive teams rather than being thrown into a barren wasteland and have the expectation of resurrecting a team from the dead.

The Blue Jays have just under $17 million invested in players for the 2020 season. That’s $14 million to Troy Tulowitzki and about $3 million to Lourdes Gurriel. J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, Curtis Granderson, Steve Pearce, and Josh Donaldson’s deals expire after 2018. Justin Smoak, Russell Martin, Kendrys Morales, Jaime Garcia’s deals expire after 2019. In 2020, the Jays will be in final control years of Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Kevin Pillar, Roberto Osuna, and Devon Travis.

So as the new core breaks into the league, the current core will be moving into their free agent years, and the old core will be off the books. There’s a tremendous amount of financial flexibility to augment the Bo and Vlad core come 2020, which could encompass new deals for Sanchez, Stroman, Smoak, etc. or major free agent upgrades at the necessary positions.

There’s a lot to like about the direction this team is headed. We all know the future is bright, but much of that comes actually down to what’s happening in the present. It hasn’t been sexy, the front office has managed to maintain a competitive team all while keeping their eyes on the future.

  • Teddy Ballgame

    Very nice piece. I too am feeling the positive vibes. But two quibbles:

    “…they came into Toronto in fall 2015 just as Alex Anthopolous’ squad, the greatest team in Blue Jays history…”

    You’re gonna have a hard time convincing this old timer that the 2015 team was better than the 1992-1993 squads. 6 Hall Of Famers, WAMCO, a batting title, 2 championships, and one of the most iconic moments in baseball history. And for Jays teams that didn’t win it all, I’d nominate the 1987 team. Without crazy injuries in the last week, I don’t doubt they would have crushed the playoffs. Now get off my lawn.

    Also, you misspelled “Shatkins” as “The Cleveland Boys.”

    • Barry

      Yeah, there’s a healthy dose of recency bias in calling the 2015 the best in history. I might argue that they were actually better than the 1993 team, though, which got away with a rather suspect rotation. But I couldn’t put them ahead of the 87 or 92 teams, and perhaps not even the 1985 team, though I admit to a certain bias for the mid-80s teams. But the 1987 team had the misfortune of injuries, and of coming out on the short end of the one of the most incredible showdowns in regular-season baseball — the final two weekend series against the Tigers. A single well-timed hit on the final weekend — or had Manny Lee fielded a sharp grounder — and the Jays could have found themselves in a one-game playoff.

      I don’t want to understate how good the 2015 team was, because they were really damn good, but I don’t think one could fairly say they were better than some of those earlier teams.

    • DAKINS

      “Shatkins” needs to be shot into the sun and never mentioned again, and yeah, the 2015 team is probably the best in franchise has ever seen, regardless of the lack of a WS title.

      • Teddy Ballgame

        I will continue to say Shatkins…and I say it as a supporter of our front office…because it makes me giggle. I reserve my right to be immature sometimes, especially when discussing baseball.

        And I loves me 2015, but like Barry I see a lot of recency bias in calling them the best Jays team of all time. I’ll still go to the wall for that stacked 1987 team. And pretty much the entire roster homegrown, which is pretty remarkable.

          • Teddy Ballgame

            Oh hell yes. As much as the end of that season was truly, deeply crushing, I’ll never, ever forget the pure joy when Beniquez got that hit. I was so sure a World Series appearance was gonna follow…

        • DAKINS

          As much as it’s tongue-in-cheek when mentioned here, there are enough people who say it as an intended insult that the joke is getting less funny.

          I see the argument against 2015 can be made since they didn’t get really good until the end of the season. If they did have an entire 162 games of the post deadline roster, I feel it would be head and shoulders above the teams from the 80’s and 90’s.

  • Kristen Sprague

    The plan to bridge to Vladdy Jr and Bo Bichette era was always in place. The FO has been pretty consistent in following it. It’s pretty much what Atkins has said all along.

  • Player to Be Named Later

    Signing Happ instead of Price – despite the enormous pressure to do the latter – turned out to be utterly brilliant. They caught a LOT of flak for it at the time. But can you imagine how this article would read if they’d have caved and signed Price and Bautista to long term deals?

    • The Humungus

      Shhh….we’re not talking about this. Bob McCown needs to let his shitty old man take about not offering Price a contract breathe for a few more years.

    • Cam Lewis

      I actually wonder what would have happened if it was Beeston and Anthopolous in charge that winter. Would Jose have been given that extension? Price? It’s an interesting thought experiment.

  • Regulator Johnson

    I’ve been thinking about this a bit & I think much of the hostility is related to the difference between strategy and tactics:

    Jays fans are conditioned to believe that you need a strategy to pry open a brief window that will beat the Yankees & Sox. Build up enough prospects to go all in and win in that zone.

    Shapiro doesn’t really believe in strategy. He just thinks that so long as you keep drafting and developing well & signing targeted bargains the team will make it’s own window. That’s basically what happened in CLE.

    So I think it drives fans nuts when they ‘see’ management letting the 2015 roster atrophy without trying to extend the window, whereas Shapiro doesn’t care about that and wants to focus on a winning process.