In some ways, the situation the Blue Jays find themselves in exiting this decade is the same as when they entered it.
On Dec. 16, 2009, Alex Anthopolous pulled the trigger on a deal that would send Roy Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies for a collection of prospects.
It was a really unfortunate situation for Anthopolous to inherit. He took over from J.P. Riccardi in October and his first matter of business was finding a new home on a contending team for a franchise legend. Halladay had just one year left on his contract, was getting into his mid-30s, and had never seen the playoffs before in his career. Justifiably so, Halladay wanted to be moved to a contender as the Blue Jays were nowhere close to contending.
With Doc gone, the Blue Jays became faceless.
Though the team had missed the playoffs in every single season since winning back-to-back World Series Championships in 1992 and 1993, there was always star power associated with the Blue Jays. There was Carlos Delgado, there was Roger Clemens, then there was Halladay. Sure, there were well-known names like Vernon Wells and Scott Rolen and young faces like Ricky Romero and Adam Lind, but these guys weren’t franchise icons.
The Jays were entering the 2010s floating around in purgatory, a roster filled with random names, ugly jerseys, and a massive playoff drought with an end nowhere in sight. This was a team so badly in need of a superstar.
In 2010, completely out of the blue, they found that guy. And with him, the Jays found their heart and soul and identity for the decade.
Jose Bautista, a journeyman who had been the team’s fourth outfielder for the past year-and-a-half, showed up and mashed 54 home runs in 2010. Not only did he hit 54 homers, making him the first-ever Blue Jay to join the 50-homer plateau, but he also did so with a swagger that the team hadn’t seen in ages.
While the Jays waved goodbye to Roy Halladay’s insane work ethic that allowed the franchise not to be a complete joke over the past few years, they welcomed in Bautista’s new badass energy. The guy would just club homers with a distinct crack of the bat, watch the ball soar into space for a brief second, and then trot around the bases time and time again with this zoned-in facial expression that made him look like he was just jogging on the treadmill at the YMCA. It was like he did not have a single fuck to give because it was so easy.
The early 2010s were supposed to be all about rebuilding. Halladay would get dealt and others surely would after him too as the franchise, loaded with Anthopolous’ new-and-improved scouting staff, built from the ground-up. But, out of the blue, the Jays had a star now. And with him, there was a window of opportunity.
Though this breakout was completely unexpected and there was considerable risk to signing a one-year wonder long-term (and people were all hot and bothered that the Jays were either cheating with some man in white in the stands stealing signs or giving Bautista steroids) Anthopolous leaned into and gave Bautista a five-year contract ahead of the 2011 season.
Bautista proved Anthopolous right in 2011, putting up an even better season than he did in 2010. He didn’t smack 54 homers, but his 1.056 OPS led Major League Baseball. Unfortunately, all the team could do was put together an 81-81 record. The following year, Bautista missed roughly half the season due to injury and the Jays posted a paltry 73-89 record.
After spending the past few years loading up with draft picks and stockpiling high-upside arms, Anthopolous was ready to make the Blue Jays competitive. He pulled the trigger on two massive trades, selling a good chunk of the farm to acquire Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. The Jays had already been pencilled into a playoff spot before the season started but nothing went according to plan. They won just one more game in 2013 than they did in 2012.
Things went better for the Jays in 2014. The team got off to a strong start and a nine-game winning streak had them leading the American League East in late May. They carried that lead into July and finally imploded. The Jays lost their lead during a road trip in Oakland in early July and they never gave it back. Despite the team being in the mix, Anthopolous did nothing at the trade deadline, sparking frustration from Bautista and other veteran players.
Anthopolous went hard again in the off-season ahead of the 2015 season, trading for Josh Donaldson and signing Russell Martin. The team was seriously flawed, but they were good. You could see it bubbling beneath the surface. The 45-46 record the team had at the All-Star break was in no way indicative of the Jays’ actual skill level and Anthoplous couldn’t let this one slide by. So, at the deadline, he went all-in, acquiring David Price, Troy Tulowitzki, LaTroy Hawkins, Ben Revere, and Mark Lowe.
It was like the pre-2013 off-season all over again. But this time, it worked. The Jays plowed their way through the rest of the season, won the American League East for the first time in 22 years, and, to add an exclamation point, Bautista did this…
Why am I walking through all of this stuff that everybody knows about? I mean, I’m not really into the whole obligatory New Year’s let’s look back and rank all the good shit that happened this decade thing, but I’m certainly not one to pass on a chance to put out a Jose Bautista love-fest post.
Ultimately, all the good stuff that happened this decade began and ended with Bautista. The Jays entered the 2010s trading away a franchise icon in Roy Halladay and became a completely faceless sack in the process. Immediately after, though, Bautista took the chance to become the new face of the Blue Jays, and, in doing so, he gave the team an opportunity to build around.
While the plan early in the decade was to build through the draft, Bautista’s breakout changed everything. He created a reason for Anthopolous to go all-in. They had to capitalize on Bautista’s window, which they failed to do with Halladay. That’s what prompted going all-in with the Marlins and Dickey trade. It didn’t work immediately, but it also led to the Jays having to go for it in 2015.
If Bautista doesn’t show up and become the face of the Blue Jays in 2010 with his unexpected 54-homer season, who knows what the decade would have been. Who knows if Anthopolous would have been aggressive and gone for it. Who knows how long it would have taken to find another star. Who knows if they would have broken their playoff drought.
Here we are now, heading into the 2020s in a somewhat similar way. The Jays, right now, are faceless. But they won’t be for long.
It’s a shame we never got to see Bautista and Vlad Jr. play on the same team together. There would have been something so wildly poetic about Bautista passing the torch over to Vlad as the former’s career wound down and the latter’s career got started. But the symbolic torch-passing is still there. Bautista grabbed a faceless Blue Jays team stuck in purgatory and put his stamp on it.
Vlad has a chance to grab this team and bring it to life this year, just like Bautista did a decade ago.