Better late than never.
The Toronto Blue Jays have finally, if reluctantly, launched wholeheartedly into the aggressive rebuild that should have started 18 months ago but, for reasons of business concerns and competitive delusion, did not.
This is good, and there’s not much point dwelling on the fact “Shap-Kins” — the nickname attached to the Jays executive duo of Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins — waited this long to get started. We all know why. They were managing up, trying to meet the desires and demands of ownership to keep folks coming to the ballpark and watching on television while preparing the team for the rebuild that ultimately had to come.
They got lots of support from the local media, folks that went along with the dreamlike belief that sure, the Jays could be competitive if Aaron Sanchez could be healthy and Jose Bautista could hit 40 home runs again and Kevin Pillar turned into Devon White overnight. After all, who wants to cover a loser? Much better to cover a team that could win if every possible good news scenario comes true.
That’s done. If anybody was at all uncertain any more about how this is going to go now, the release of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki this week was the final nail in the coffin that contains all the belief and excitement that was breathed back into the franchise in 2015 and 2016.
This was scorched earth stuff. Tulowitzki was hurt most of the time he was with the Jays, but when he played he was at times very effective, and beyond that, he was a high-profile, highly-paid veteran player. It cost $38 million (U.S.) just to make him go away.
Dumping him was the same as moving captain Dion Phaneuf was to the Maple Leafs. A symbolic statement as much as anything. Gets everybody’s attention.
A move that tells the world winning games is no longer the immediate priority, and tells the fans it’s time to view visiting the ballpark as a chance to view young players who might be reliable regulars some day. And to watch the other team.
This is going to take a while. The Boston Red Sox won 97 games in 2013, then dipped to 71 and 78 wins the following two years while demolishing one roster and building another, then got right back into the thick of things in 2016 with 93 wins. A superbly executed turnaround.
The Blue Jays are going to spend longer in the hinterland than that. There were the last two wasted seasons (76 and 73 wins) and now, we’re guessing, at least three more outside the post-season before Jays fans can even seriously consider the possibility of October baseball again.
This should be liberating for the Jays’ front office. They don’t have to play pretend anymore. Everybody understands exactly what’s happening here. There’s a job to be done, a big job, and they can now focus solely on that task. No longer should any move not serve the objective of the rebuild. The question that precedes every potential decision should be, “How does this help us take a run at a playoff position in 2022?”
That’s not going to make life very enjoyable in the short term for new manager Charlie Montoyo. Baltimore won just 47 ball games last year and Kansas City only 58, and those may be the numbers Montoyo is staring at in his first crack at managing a big league club. You’ve got to believe John Gibbons saw this one coming a mile away.
The reason to watch next season in Toronto is going to be to watch Vladimir Guerrero begin his quest to be as good or better than his famous dad, and perhaps Danny Jansen and Anthony Alford take the big leap forward. At some point, probably not next year, Bo Bichette will get his chance.
It looks like Justin Smoak will be part of this for now, and decisions will have to be made on Russell Martin, Pillar, Sanchez and Marcus Stroman. It’s useful to have veterans around, but they have to be the right veterans, the ones willing to teach and share. Apparently Tulowitzki wasn’t viewed that way.
The Jays spent the winter meetings searching for bargains, not stars, and grabbing an 18-year-old pitcher in the Rule 5 draft.
“We have an incredible feel for the opportunities,” said Atkins.
We’ll leave it to your imagination to guess at what “opportunity” might be to Atkins at this point in time.
So it truly begins. The prototype for teardown/rebuild in this town is obviously the Leafs, but baseball isn’t set up like hockey, and only a fool would imagine the Jays can go from 30th to near the top in just over two years like the Leafs have done.
So no point holding them to that standard. But Guerrero could by the Jays version of Auston Matthews, that seems clear, and possibly the first top-flight position player Toronto’s baseball organization has truly developed in a long, long time. If the Jays can develop three or four more good to very good major-leaguers, two of them pitchers, then they’ll truly be in business, and with a team that might be able to be more sustainable than the squad that Alex Anthopoulos (briefly) built.
And that’s what you want. It was a thrill, sure, to see the Jays back in the post-season, but that was an old team, the oldest in the majors, in fact. It was built on trades and two players — Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion — who were acquired as fringe Major Leaguers and blossomed into massive stars in Toronto.
Now we’ll see if Shap-kins can construct a winner from this scorched earth. It could be really interesting to watch, although painful.
At least we know where this is headed. No more confusion. No more pretend.
Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin