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20 Things: The contention window isn’t going to open itself. When’s the right time to kick it open?

Welcome to Blue Jays Nation’s Season In Review. Instead of doing boring-ass, standard player-by-player reviews or handing out some arbitrary report cards, I’m going to talk about 20 things that are on my mind heading into 2020. Today, we have the contention window.

I wasn’t planning on writing about this topic until closer to free agency, but Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins’ end-of-season media availability kind of made it the topic de jour this week. When should the Blue Jays kick their contention window open?

Before I get into that, I’ll preface this topic with the reality that this Blue Jays team isn’t going to just stumble blindly into contention. We got to see the growth of a very exciting core this season featuring Bo Bichette, Vlad Jr., Lourdes Gurriel and Cavan Biggio, but that’s just a start. This Core Four (which could very likely expand to a Core Five in 2020 when Nate Pearson gets called up) is going to need some help.

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If you were hoping for the Blue Jays to have an out-of-the-blue Braves-style breakout in 2020, you’ll more than likely be disappointed. Beyond the Jays having “put together an entire starting rotation and add quality depth around the diamond” on their checklist, they also play in the American League East. The Yankees are outrageous, the Rays are still getting better, and the Red Sox are always one big off-season away from turning themselves into contenders.

The natural, internal progression of this team could bring them up to a .500 record in 2020, but that’s nowhere near the AL East banner and likely nowhere near good enough for a wild-card spot. That’s the reality of this rebuild. The contention window isn’t going to open itself and it’s going to have to be kicked open. None of this is ground-breaking stuff. The real question is: When should the Blue Jays go all-in?

Shortly after Ross Atkins said that the Jays will be in a position to spend some cash to improve the team this off-season, Mark Shapiro dropped a somewhat confusing quote about the team’s short-term direction:

“Some wins are more meaningful than others. Looking at others teams, even in recent history, San Diego, Philadelphia, that added big-name free agents, it’s kind of thinking about ‘are we looking to win the off-season or are we looking to take the next leap for this team.’ We want to take that next step, moving from competing to winning. What those opportunities are and when they present themselves, we have to be ready this off-season.

So there’s a lot going on here.

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The whole all wins aren’t created equal thing is one we’ve heard from Shapiro in the past. Back in August, Shapiro addressed the media to try and reiterate the organization’s direction after dealing Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, and others at the trade deadline. He talked about the difference between adding a three-win player that takes you from 82 to 85 wins vs doing so when it can take you from 87 to 90 wins. The whole thing was odd and it made it seem like Shapiro was planning to wait to make a free agent signing until this group naturally progressed to a mid-80s-win season.

This then goes into the part about San Diego and Philadelphia, who, of course, dove-in last winter by signing Manny Machado and Bryce Harper respectively. Neither team made the playoffs, but both saw a spike in attendance and they sent a clear message to their fans that they took winning seriously. And, of course, these are players signed for more than one year. Adding a superstar in their mid-20s like Machado or Harper is a long-term investment. The benefits of these signings will be seen well beyond their first seasons with their clubs.

All of this points to something we certainly could have already expected, which is that Shapiro isn’t going to be making a massive free-agent splash this winter. At the very least, he did say that they’ll be ready to make additions to improve the club as opportunities present themselves. That’s obviously super vague, but it’s something.

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While following this rebuild and trying to look to the future to predict what this front office will do, I’ve often taken a look back at what the Houston Astros did. I wrote in-depth about this during the regular season because it seems the front office is trying to emulate Houston’s tear-down-and-tank style rebuild that ultimately led to the Astros becoming a juggernaut.

TORONTO, ON – SEPTEMBER 01: Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros reacts after throwing a no hitter at the end of the ninth inning during a MLB game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on September 01, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Houston tore it down and bottomed out in 2011, 2012, and 2013. In 2014, they took a small step forward. After that, the Astros made some minor additions to make their team more competitive. They added Colby Rasmus, Pat Neshek, Luke Gregerson, and Jed Lowrie in free agency and traded for Evan Gattis and Luis Valbuena. Those additions, coupled with breakouts from young players acquired during their tanking years, got the Astros into the playoffs.

They took a step back in 2016 but then went all-in for 2017. The Astros signed Charlie Morton, Josh Reddick, and Carlos Beltran in the off-season and then traded for Justin Verlander prior to the trade deadline. The Astros would then go on to win their first-ever World Series that fall. Their payroll reached a low of $29,270,160 in 2013, it jumped up to $82,395,216 in 2015, and now sits at $187,386,304.

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The Jays and Astros aren’t perfect comparables, but I think Shapiro is trying to emulate what Houston did in some capacity. The Astros bottomed out to get Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Mark Appel, who didn’t pan out. Before bottoming out this year, the Jays already had Vlad Jr. and Bo Bichette. They’ll have the fifth-overall pick this year and, given the foundation that already exists, won’t have to bottom out again to find top talent as Houston did.

Following this logic, you could assume that the Jays are ready to have an off-season similar to what Houston did prior to their 2015 season. It might not end up with the same result, that being a wild-card berth, but it should make the team interesting and competitive.

I wouldn’t expect off-season additions like Gerrit Cole or Anthony Rendon this winter. Instead, I figure we’ll see the Jays take more of a Minnesota Twins approach, signing free agents that fall more under-the-radar. This could be buy-low guys like Dellin Betances or Alex Wood or Scooter Gennette. It could be nice mid-level fits like Jake Odorizzi or Marcell Ozuna. We could also see somebody acquired in a trade, like Corey Kluber, from a team looking to shed salary.

The 2019 season was about throwing darts against the board. The goal, beyond saving Rogers a bunch of money and tanking for a high pick, was to see if guys like Teoscar Hernandez, Brandon Drury, and Rowdy Tellez deserve to be around long-term. The 2020 season will feature more dart throwing, this time with pitchers. Are Anthony Kay, T.J. Zeuch, Ryan Borucki, and Trent Thronton long-term options for the rotation?

By the end of the 2020 season, there should be a very good idea of what the core is moving forward, and those who aren’t a part of it can get left behind. After that, though, it’ll be time to dive in.

The 2021 free-agent class could feature names like Stephen Strasburg, Mookie Betts, George Springer, and James Paxton. Beyond game-changing free agents, there’ll be talent available in trades. Going back to the Astros, Houston built their entire Big Three of their starting rotation — Verlander, Cole, and Grienke — through trade.

So, long story short, the time to kick this window open is quickly approaching.

Bo and Vlad aren’t going to be cheap forever and the Jays have stockpiled a wealth of talent in their system. The first step is to make the minor additions to help the core get the opportunity to play competitive baseball games next season. After that, you should know exactly where you need to make major additions. It doesn’t have to be signing the biggest free agent on the market, but, by 2021, this team really needs to be pushing for a playoff spot.

The Astros never made a huge free agent signing, but they were opportunistic in augmenting their team with good depth on the open market and finding elite pitching from teams that were selling. Over the next couple of years, we should be seeing the Blue Jays take a similar strategy in opening their contention window.