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25 years of changes to baseball makes repeating more difficult

25 years of Toronto Blue Jays changes in the approach taken to managing the roster and their development makes winning and repeating as champions difficult.

The 2018 Toronto Blue Jays, a team with one of the oldest starting lineups in the majors,  started the season unsure whether they should make a run for the post-season or rebuild for the future.  By the time they realized a rebuild was in their immediate plans, many of the pieces they thought they could divest themselves of, to acquire new ones, went down with injuries or started to quickly show their age.  This greatly diminished their collective value.

Oct 23rd represents the anniversary of Joe Carter‘s home run in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series (their 2nd in a row).  2018 also marks 25 years since they accomplished that feat.

It’s should be of little surprise that when you compare the Big four sports (Baseball, Basketball, Football, and Hockey), baseball has the fewest repeat champions over it’s history (with baseball ironically having the longest professional history to draw from). Most recently, the 2018 Houston Astros were removed from the conversation of potential repeat champions after losing to the Boston in the ALCS.

A quick search on why back-to-back championships are so difficult to attain suggests there are a number of different points of view.  Here are are couple of my favourites:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/sports/repeat-champions/?utm_term=.47e2e9dfe2e0

https://www.cbc.ca/sports/hockey/nhl/stanley-cup-scotty-bowman-pittsburgh-penguins-1.4135762

Since 1993, only the Yankees have been able to repeat the feat.  Why is that?  What is so unique about the last 25 years?

Just in case you weren’t keeping track, here are a few of the changes in the game we’ve witnessed:

  • Introduction of the Luxury Tax
  • Introduction of the Wild Card
  • The explosion in the use of Analytics and Advanced Metrics in both assessing players and in decision-making during games.
  • Reduction in the usage of starting pitchers, bullpens, and the introduction of the ‘opener’
  • The introduction of “The Shift”.
  • Introduction of policies that target PEDs, Domestic Abuse, and personal conduct both on and off the field.
  • The role ‘The Internet’, Social Media, and Technology has played in every facet of the game (from player development to marketing).

These changes had a profound effect on all of Major League Baseball (and the Blue Jays where no less immune to them).  However, when we look at the Jays specifically, there is a more pointed and long-standing influence that has directed this team over any other; their approach to building a competitive roster.

Fielding a competitive team – A time-based look at the Jays’ approach.

TORONTO, CANADA – APRIL 8: Former president Paul Beeston of the Toronto Blue Jays throws out the ceremonial first pitch before the start of MLB game action against the Boston Red Sox on April 8, 2016 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

1977 – 1993:  Leading up to the championship years, under the guidance of Paul Beeston and Pat Gillick, the Jays learned how to build a team from scratch, accurately value assets and find hidden value in the marketplace.  After investing in the creation of a strong farm system that developed some of the most iconic players in early years of the Blue Jays, they used some of those prospects to pull off one the most important trades in MLB history (Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez to the Padres for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter).  Soon thereafter, they acquired (and paid market rate for) a number of complimentary pieces, that put them over the top.  In 1992, those pieces where represented by Dave Winfield and Jack Morris.  In 1993, they were represented by Paul Molitor, Dave Stewart, and Rickey Henderson.

11 Aug 1994: Fan holds up a sign in protest of the baseball strike during a game between the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California. The Mariners won the game 8-1.

1994 – 2000: Dealing with the hangover of winning back-to-back championships, the Jays were less successful in managing prospects and the risks associated with developing them.  Yes they needed to rebuild,  but a combination of the 1994 players strike, coupled with the financial pressures to put a competitive product on the field to win back fans disenfranchised from the strike  hindered their ability to blow it all up and restart .  Some people say prospects were sent up prematurely with many of those not realizing their full potential on the parent club.

As the millennium came to an end, the powerhouse that was the New York Yankees (with unlimited resources and revenue sources) overshadowed the AL East (and the entire league).   The Jays best record over that span was 88-74 in 1998 (the Yankees won 114 games).

WASHINGTON – MARCH 17: Major League Baseball Commissioner Allen Selig (R) listens to the testimony of U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning during a hearing investigating steroid use in baseball on Capitol Hill March 17, 2005 in Washington DC. Commissioner Selig will give testimony regarding Major League Baseball’s efforts to eradicate steriod usage among its players. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

2001 – 2009:  We all agree the world changed after 9-11, and none were impacted more than Major League Baseball.  The steroid era peaked and was quickly coming to an end with the new policies on deterring PED usage.  For the Blue Jays, it was all about the ineffectiveness and controlling nature of GM JP Riccardi to put together a team that could win significantly more than then 80 games.

From his crazy draft decisions (Ricky Romero over Troy Tulowitzki), to some very bad free agent signings (Frank Thomas), to a revolving door of managers (Buck Martinez, Carlos Tosca, John Gibbons, Cito Gaston), JP had overstayed his welcome.

TORONTO, ON %26#8211; OCTOBER 14: Jose Bautista #19 of the Toronto Blue Jays flips 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)

2010 – 2016: Under GM Alex Anthopoulos, the Jays went back to building from the inside out.  Drafting good prospects, developing from within, and staying the course to allow the pieces to develop.  Once he had acquired enough prospects to make his move, he began to follow the approach of his mentors, Paul Beeston and Pat Gillick.  His well publicized epiphany on the importance of team chemistry and character was the catalyst for the acquisitions he made, that built the team that challenged for first place around the 2014 All-Star break, and the teams that made their run to the ALCS two years in a row.

Blue Jays

TORONTO, CANADA – NOVEMBER 2: Mark Shapiro is introduced as president of the Toronto Blue Jays during a press conference on November 2, 2015 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

2017 to the Present: Under the leadership of Shapiro and Atkins, the Jays appeared to continue in the same vein as Beeston and Gillick.  However, there was a noticeable difference.  Beeston and Gillick (and later in their apprentice Anthopoulos) were willing to take risks for high return when the farm system couldn’t produce the pieces needed in a timely manner.  Current Jays’ management focuses (to a fault) on getting exceptional initial value while taking on minimal risk, hoping to get high return on their investments in the future. It sounds great in principle, but it’s a bit of a lottery play.

I compare this approach to spending 40 dollars on pair of shoes in the hope they last and look good for a long time.  However, after that first pair (and four more similar) all quickly self destruct in close succession,  you realize you could have just spent $150 the first time on one good pair that would still be in great condition and look great, but without the additional cost and time wasted.

The other trend that has been picking up traction of late among the Blue Jays faithful, is that Shapiro and Atkins can’s seem to stay way from working with the Cleveland Indians.  We get it, they built that team and have intimate knowledge of it’s prospects up until 2016.  The Josh Donaldson deal sparked some recent dialogue among teams, and we could expect more rumblings if they continue in this vein.

What does this all mean for 2019 (and beyond)?

MIAMI, FL %26#8211; JULY 09: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

The consensus is that everyone sees a continuation of the approach Shapiro and Atkins have bought into for 2019.

Regardless of the perceived ‘purge of prospects’ that is generally considered the ‘all-in’ move Alex Anthopoulos made before his departure in 2016, the Jays find themselves well positioned with the ‘core’ of young players we saw (and followed) over the 2nd half of the 2018 season.

Let’s focus on the young core exclusively, and quickly review who fit’s where:

Catchers:  A catching core of Danny Jansen, Reese Mcguire gives the Jays youth and versatility.  Catchers are seldom historically instrumental in providing offence for their teams (their bodies take too much abuse, and the position negatively impacts their lower half traditionally), so as long as these two can manage the pitching staff and call a good game, we should be optimistic.

Infield:  With an upcoming core of Rowdy Tellez (1st), Lourdes Gurriel Jr.(2nd/SS) and Vlad Guerrero Jr (3rd), we should be very excited. Add Cavan Biggio (2nd) and Bo Bichette (SS) into the mix, and they have the potential for an All-Star infield which will also cover us through trades and injuries.

Outfield:  The decision to trade for Randal Grichuk (RF/CF) proved to be one of the best moves made by Shapiro and Atkins.  Young and fast, with a solid glove and spry legs will serve him well in the outfield. The other player I think should have a lock on a spot is Brandon Drury (though he can platoon between the infield and the outfield).

The remaining pieces are a bit of a crap shoot.  Teoscar Hernandez, Anthony Alford, Dwight Smith Jr. Richard Urena, Billy McKinney, Johnathan Davis.

Pitching:  The Blue Jays should be sold on Sean Reid-Foley, Ryan Borucki, and Thomas Pannone (the youngest of the pitching staff today) and their ability to represent the next wave of Jays pitching.  They showed their enthusiasm during a difficult time in the team’s season, and flashed signs of brilliance from time to time.  I’m not as sold on David Paulino, Jose Fernandez and Taylor Guerrieri.  However, pitchers need time to develop.

Next: Charlie Montoya reportedly joins the managerial race

What you see one season is not what you always get the next.  That works both ways, so let’s hope that between these six players, we can salvage three or four as everyday players.

T.

Tino Merianos (aka Coach T)

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