Usually, when a well-planned demolition is scheduled and designed, the explosives are planted at strategic places to make the implosion as seamless as possible.
Not with the Toronto Blue Jays of 2018, however, a team that destructed well enough on its own, thanks to an unsightly trifecta of mismanagement, underachievement and general poor play.
Ultimately, the teardown came months earlier, and not nearly as tidily as planned, resulting in the team limping to a record of 73-89, making them a decided non-factor in the American League East.
A last-ditch effort to remain competitive was abandoned mid-season and, since the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the team has been in full-blown rebuild mode.
General manager Ross Atkins and team president Mark Shapiro have loosely warned a fan base not to expect a seriously competitive team until 2021 or so.
Left in the rubble, then, is an organization that is now solely the work of the ‘Shatkins’ tandem, one that will make or break on the backs of the wealth of prospects stockpiled and developing in the minor leagues.
There has been considerable spin on the Jays’ plight since the season ended, some of it to rationalize the off-season inactivity, including a mostly quiet time at the recently completed winter meetings in Las Vegas.
But none of it should distort the events of this past season, one which began with management declaring that the team could still be competitive if a confluence of factors parlayed successfully.
From starting pitching, to superstar third baseman Josh Donaldson, to closer Roberto Osuna and more, the parlay crumbled and, by Canada Day, it was fire sale time.
High in the obit of 2018 is the dubious fact that the Jays finished 35 games behind the division-leading and eventual World Series-champion Boston Red Sox, the furthest they’ve finished out of the AL East league since 1980.
After a decent April record of 16-12, things went sideways in a hurry with a 9-19 month of May, a page on the calendar in which the Jays did not manage to win two games in a row even once.
By season’s end, the team had traded away its best player (Donaldson), its best starting pitcher (J.A. Happ) its best reliever (Osuna) and fired one of the most popular managers in club history (John Gibbons).
With injuries and incompetence conspiring against on-field success, the team set a franchise record with 63 players seeing at least some playing time.
Painful as it might be, we look back at the lows and occasional highs of the latest edition of Canada’s only major-league team.
BRINGER OF PAIN
Perhaps nothing, or no one, epitomized the saga of the Jays in 2018 than the unravelling of the team’s relationship with 2015 American League MVP Donaldson, who ultimately was dealt to the Cleveland Indians at the end of August.
A forgettable season for both the team and arguably its biggest star began on the wrong foot and never returned to balance.
On the final day of spring training in Dunedin, Donaldson talked about staying back from Montreal for the final two pre-season games to continue to work through what he thought were minor aches and pains.
The rest of the season spiralled down, first with a mysterious dead-arm injury and later a major calf ailment that limited the Bringer of Rain to just 36 games in his final season with the Jays. It ended in bitterness from both sides as Donaldson believed management was trying to rush him back to work and had serious issues with the Jays’ ill-named high performance department.
Donaldson wound up walking for next to nothing, the official ending of an era in franchise history that was marked by two playoff appearances and some of the greatest fan support the team has ever seen.
The Jays gambled and lost by heading into 2018 with Donaldson on a one-year deal. And now to rub it in, the third baseman has landed with former Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos in Atlanta.
THE ATTACKING SUITCASE
The season wasn’t yet a write-off when the Jays prepared for a June 21 game against Anaheim, but what unfolded hastened the process.
With his first chance to pitch in front of family and friends not far from his California home, Aaron Sanchez was rocked by the Angels. It was later revealed that he had a badly bruised finger and tried to pitch through it. Much later Sanchez would say he got the finger caught in the handle of his suitcase.
Ultimately, it would doom a second consecutive season for Sanchez, who was 4-6 in 20 starts with an ERA of 4.89. After yet another lengthy stint on the DL, the campaign was cut short for surgery and indications were that Sanchez should be in good shape physically by spring training.
As an addendum to the Sanchez file, his agent Scott Boras doesn’t exactly help the headache ease. Under the guise of looking out for his client, Boras has been outspoken this off-season, ripping Jays management and ownership for not spending enough to be competitive in the ultra-tough AL East.
Meanwhile … how bad was the starting rotation overall? The Jays started a whopping 14 pitchers over the course of the season, a club record.
Before the September callup kids arrived to salvage some feel-good moments in the waning days of the season, there was J.A. Happ providing the rare rays of light. Make that all-star, J.A. Happ.
Happ was good, but not enough, to make up for the off-year of Marco Estrada and the injury-riddled campaigns of young would-be workhorses Sanchez and Marcus Stroman.
For his work, Happ was rewarded as the Jays representative at the midsummer classic in Washington, where he earned the first save of his pro career. He continued his solid work through the rest of July, which earned a trade to the Yankees where he just re-upped for two more years.
The always classy Happ had talked about returning to Toronto, but given the state of the franchise, we’re thinking it was never a real possibility. Indicative of the Jays season: Even though he was gone for the final two months, he was voted the team’s pitcher of the year by the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
The disaster of 2018 coming hard on the heels of a 2017 season that was almost as bad certainly wiped out much of the good will from a fan base that led the American League in ’15 and ’16.
Overall this past season, crowds at the Rogers Centre dipped to 2.3 million from 3.2 million each of the previous two seasons, the largest drop in the major leagues.
All indications suggest a further drop in 2019, even with the eventual arrival of phenom prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr.
NO STRO SHOW
At the team’s annual Fan Fest back in January, Stroman brazenly declared that he was already among the elite of the young starting pitchers in the major leagues and the sky was the limit.
Never lacking in confidence, we’re sure Stroman believed that to be true, though what followed was a regression in form in 2018 that ended in him shutting down for the final month of the season due to a blister injury on his finger.
That was Stroman’s second stint on the DL, the first coming back in May that was listed as “shoulder fatigue” but one he acknowledged was precipitated in part due to confidence issues.
Bottom line on the season was a 4-9 record with an ERA of 5.54, a significant ballooning from the 3.09 mark in 2017. But alas, Stroman was back to his buoyant self in December when he issued this declaration on his Instagram account: “I’m going to be a beast this years and every year going forward.”
The smiling faces at the season-ending press conference belied the truth: This was in no way a mutual parting of the ways.
Gibbons was too classy to talk about just how aggressively he was pushed out the door with two years remaining on his contract. But he did let it be known that he liked working with young players.
And say what you will about the personable, old-school skipper, he wasn’t responsible for the dog’s breakfast of a roster he was handed to fill out his lineup card on a nightly basis.
Once Gibbons was out the door, Atkins not so subtly made it clear why he felt the 56-year-old Texan wasn’t suited for the rebuild. In hiring Charlie Montoyo to replace him, Atkins wasn’t shy to highlight the fact that the new manager is anxious to teach and embrace analytics, suggesting he was a departure from the style of Gibbons.
Just as the misery of the month of May was getting under way, the Jays were hit with a bombshell when word from Toronto police that ace closer Osuna was arrested for assault of a woman.
Major League Baseball responded swiftly suspending the native of Mexico for 75 games, effectively ending his career with the Toronto organization that gave him his big-league start.
Rather than deal with the potential fallout once that suspension was over, Atkins dealt Osuna to the Houston Astros for a package that included Ken Giles. The good news for the Jays is that Giles regained some of his form, converting all 14 of his save opportunities with his new team.
Among the intriguing upsides of 2018 was the tantalizing potential shown by young Cuban Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who could well be the team’s anchor at shortstop as the influx of prospects ramps up.
Gurriel made waves around baseball in July when he had multiple hits in 11 consecutive games, a club record. The 24-year-old Gurriel became the first rookie to do so and just the seventh player since 1900 to unleash such a streak.
Overall, Gurriel batted .281 on the season, fourth best among AL rookies with at least 200 plate appearances. That comfort level no doubt was a factor in the Jays decision to buy out Troy Tulowitzki for a whopping $38 million US in December.
KIDS WERE ALL RIGHT
Among the more promising debuts among the Jays youngsters was the work of left-handed starter Ryan Borucki, who made an immediate impact when called up from triple-A Buffalo in July.
By season’s end, the 24-year-old had 11 quality starts, tying Marco Estrada for the team lead in that department. The hard-working southpaw’s 3.67 ERA was the sixth best all time by a Jays rookie and his 2.65 ERA in September was ninth best among all AL starters for the month.
And Borucki precipitated a steady stream of kids who left a mark, opportunity for them being the upside of the poor season overall.
There was batterymate Danny Jansen who made the most of his callup, essentially heralding calls for him to be the catcher of the future and paving the way for the eventual exit of veteran Canadian Russ Martin.
Starting pitcher Thomas Pannone had a couple of good outings and then there was big Rowdy Tellez who was a fringe callup but turned into a beast at the plate. On the very first big-league pitch he saw, Tellez ripped a double. The 23-year-old then had three doubles the following night. That feat allowed the Californian to become the first player in history to belt out a double in his first three plate appearances.