The Blue Jays will always have Vlad Guerrero Jr.’s walk-off home run in Montreal.
The No. 1 prospect in baseball was wearing his father’s No. 27 when he returned to Vlad Sr.’s old stomping grounds for the Jays’ final spring training game back in March, and followed in dad’s footsteps in more ways than one by beating the St. Louis Cardinals with a drive to deep left-centre field — in the bottom of the ninth for a 1-0 victory.
“I’m pretty sure my father has already seen it because he was watching the game,” Guerrero said through an interpreter, “and he’ll be very proud of me after seeing what I did.”
The crowd of 25,816 at Olympic Stadium cheered for so long that the teenager took a curtain call.
It was a high point in a year of lows for the franchise.
Nine months after opening the regular season with a 6-1 loss to the Yankees, 14 members of the Jays’ 25-man opening day roster are now gone.
Three months after wrapping up a 73-89 campaign with a 9-4 defeat in Tampa and missing out on the playoffs for a second straight year, only 34 of the 65 players they deployed this past season remain Jays property.
Just one of the seven who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2015 — headlined The New Jacks — is still around: catcher Russell Martin, and his future is uncertain as trade rumours linger.
- Josh Donaldson, traded to Cleveland in August for right-hander Julian Merryweather after another injury-plagued season, signed with the Atlanta Braves as a free agent for one year at $23 million (all dollars U.S.).
- Troy Tulowitzki, released this past month, is a free agent with the Jays still on the hook for $38 million.
- David Price won a World Series ring in Boston.
- Jose Bautista played for the Braves, Mets and Phillies last season, and is looking for work in 2019.
GM Ross Atkins and the Jays had entered 2018 with high hopes.
“We feel like we’re putting a contending team on the field,” he told the Star’s Rosie DiManno at spring training.
The narrative back then was that Jays had enough to compete, and maybe surprise, in the American League East. With the 10th-ranked starting rotation in the majors according to MLB.com, Donaldson entering a contract year and the overall health of the roster improved by the spring, there was reason for hope.
By late May, though, the Jays were as many as 13 games out of the second wild-card spot, and the sell-off began with Steve Pearce — the eventual World Series MVP — traded to the champion Red Sox for 23-year-old shortstop Santiago Espinal.
“Other organizations are still shifting and thinking about whether or not they will be buying and selling,” Atkins said then. “We’re in a situation where the needle is pointing more to the future for us, given where we sit in the division and how far we are out in the wild card.”
Before the end of July, all-star left-hander J.A. Happ (Yankees) plus relievers Roberto Osuna (Astros, traded while serving a 75-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy), Aaron Loup (Phillies), Seunghwan Oh (Rockies) and John Axford (Dodgers) had also been dealt.
By September, Donaldson — the 2015 American League MVP, limited to 36 games at that point because of injuries — and Curtis Granderson (Brewers) were also on the move, while lefty Jaime Garcia had been released.
In return, the Jays got younger with infielder Brandon Drury and reliever Ken Giles, along with Espinal and three other prospects now ranked in the team’s top 30, according to MLB Pipeline: right-handers Hector Perez (No. 11) and David Paulino (No. 19), plus outfielder Billy McKinney (No. 18).
Fans caught a glimpse of the future when some of the newcomers and other top prospects were recalled in September, though attendance was down substantially from 2017 and the Rogers Centre was half-empty for the final home game — Gibbons’ farewell.
Jays president Mark Shapiro said recently that he doesn’t expect crowds to be any bigger next season, after dropping from first to fifth in the AL in total attendance. Fans want to see a winner, and the rebuilding club doesn’t expect to contend for a playoff spot until 2020 at the earliest.
The biggest drawing card, win or lose, will be Guerrero, who is expected to make his much-anticipated big-league debut early in the 2019 season. Now 19, he hit a combined .381/.437/.636 for a 1.073 OPS between the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats and Triple-A Buffalo Bisons this year with 20 home runs, 78 RBIs and just 38 strikeouts alongside 37 walks.
Guerrero’s promotion to Buffalo at the end of July marked the first time he and No. 2 prospect Bo Bichette had been separated in their playing careers, though the latter is expected to suit up for the Bisons early next season.
The progress of Guerrero and Bichette — along with Nate Pearson, Eric Pardinho, Cavan Biggio and a few others at the high end of the system — plus some of those September call-ups will determine how long it takes to return to legitimate contention. Atkins continues to look for pitching in the short term, but all eyes are on the future.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Guerrero said this past summer in Buffalo. “I just try to get better every day. I try to do my job, do the things I need to do to get better.
“If I’m here, I’m going to do my job here. If I’m (in the majors), I’m going to do my job there.”
From his lips to the baseball gods’ ears.
Laura Armstrong is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @lauraarmy