Animosity towards the Cleveland Boys is at an all-time high right now. Given how turbulent Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins’ relationship with the fanbase has been since their arrival back in late-2015, that’s really saying something.
Despite performances from the organization’s future core in Vlad Jr, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Lourdes Gurriel, fans were pushed over the edge by this year’s fire sale at the trade deadline. Firing off Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, the final major connections to the 2015 and 2016 runs, gave the impression that the Blue Jays are nowhere near even trying to be competitive.
Atkins preached the importance of those trades for helping to add to a massive pile of depth the organization has in the minor leagues. Unsurprisingly, fans didn’t echo Atkins’ glee over the advent of turning 12 years of control into 42 years of control.
On Thursday, Mark Shapiro made an hour-long availability to media in order to do some damage control and remind the fanbase of the front office’s long-term vision. There are plenty of breakdowns to read about what Shapiro said (here, here, here, and here), but the major thing to take away from this talk was around the opening of the team’s contention window.
“Part of the plan from Day 1 and part of the understanding has been that there will be a time that we need to outspend, outpace revenue with spending on players. When? They’ll rely on us, they’ll rely on Ross Atkins, they’ll rely on Joe Sheehan, Mike Murov and me, the rest of our front office to say, ‘OK, we are close enough to a contending team that we need to go out and spend on players now that supplement this core.’ We’ll have the flexibility to do that starting this off-season, because when you’re young, by nature your payroll goes down, but I think the key is as we start to mature, and guys start to get in their prime, they’re going to become more expensive, we need to make sure we A, keep those players in place and B, we add the necessary pieces at the right time.”
Basically, I would say all wins aren’t created equal. A player who’s a three-win player who takes you from 82 to 85 wins probably doesn’t move that (financial) needle. But if you’re at 87 wins and it takes you from 87 to 90, does that make sense? So it’s more like when we’re at that point, when you can get the player who helps take you from a good team to a team that’s a potential championship team, and we need to go out and get that player, that (financial) support will be there.
“The reason why I say it could start as early as this winter is not necessarily the evolution of our core, but more the efficiency of our payroll. We’ll be opportunistic, but it’s going to be a tougher environment this winter. I don’t think we’ll have a choice to do it when we get on the brink of contention or just before that.”
Shapiro indicated that he empathizes with the fanbase’s frustration with losing and that the organization feels a sense of urgency to win. Despite that, his comments make it pretty clear that the Jays aren’t going to dive head-first into free agency to kick their contention window wide open this winter. I mean, if they did have designs of really going for it next year, Marcus Stroman probably wouldn’t have been traded. The goal is to augment the roster once the opportunity presents itself.
The front office has jettisoned virtually all of the financial obligations they inherited. As Stoeten pointed out in an article in The Athletic a few days ago, the Jays will have only about $57 million committed to the roster next season. There’s the final year of Troy Tulowitzki’s contract, Randal Grichuk’s extension, Lourdes Gurriel making around $3 million, a few guys like Ken Giles set to hit arbitration, and a bunch of kids making near the league minimum.
With all that open space, the Jays are seemingly in a position to really dive headfirst into this thing and have a big free agency period. But is it time to take the leap?
The model I like to look at when thinking about the future of the Blue Jays and their rebuild is the Houston Astros. I wrote in-depth about them a few months ago, drawing some comparisons to their full-on tank to what the front office is doing here.
The Astros had three seasons from 2011 to 2013 in which the front office completely tore the team down, shrank their on-field payroll down to as low as $26 million, and actively embraced losing to stockpile elite talent at the draft. In 2014, they went 71-91 but had encouraging performances from young players like Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Dallas Keuchel.
That 2014 team had a payroll of just $ 50,485,800, affording the Astros quite a bit of wiggle room in the off-season. They went out and signed Colby Rasmus, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, and Jed Lowrie, and traded for Luis Valbuena, Dan Straily, and Evan Gattis. Those acquisitions, coupled with a breakout season from rookie Carlos Correa, helped the Astros explode to 86-76, good for a wild card game appearance.
This team’s biggest financial commitment was Scott Feldman, who was making $10 million that season. None of the commitments they made that off-season were major. Rasmus signed for one year, Gregerson for three, Neshek for two, Lowrie for four, but it was front-loaded to essentially be a three-year deal.
Houston would go on to miss the playoffs in 2016, posting a decent 84-78 record. Then, prior to 2017, they really dove in. They signed Charlie Morton, Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran, Yuli Gurriel, and traded for Biran McCann. At the trade deadline, the Astros were running away with the American League West, so they made their biggest investment of all, acquiring Justin Verlander and his gigantic contract from the Tigers. This Astros team would go on to beat the Dodgers in seven games to win their first-ever World Series that fall.
The lesson to learn from the Astros is that they augmented their promising young core with some solid-but-inexpensive talent in order to help the team be competitive but ultimately waited a few more years before really taking the leap. This allowed Houston to see what they had in their young talent on a fairly competitive team before making the right additions to augment a championship squad.
The Jays have a ton of financial flexibility this off-season and while it would be exciting to throw a bunch of cash at Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon, the smarter path to take is following what the Astros (or Twins, as I wrote about a few weeks ago) did. Making minor investments might not be sexy, but it’ll put the Jays in a position to see what they have in their group. We all know that Bo, Vlad, and Gurriel are players, but we need to see if guys like Danny Jansen, Sean Reid-Foley, and Derek Fisher can be a part of a winning team.
Obviously, there needs to be some urgency given that Bo and Vlad aren’t going to be cheap forever, but rushing into a bunch of massive contracts when we only have a skeleton of a contending team assembled isn’t prudent for long-term success.