The price of indecision in baseball can be steep. The Blue Jays might be about to show us how steep.
The 2017 Jays were a bad team. They went 76-86, but with runs scored and allowed totals more indicative of a 90-loss ballclub. They also ended that season with multiple veterans on the roster with one year left until free agency. With a stable of top prospects rising through the system, this was the perfect time to jump start a rebuilding process.
The Jays were coming off their second straight season leading the American League in attendance. The siren’s song of continued revenue, combined with misplaced optimism over an aging team’s upside prompted management to hold onto Josh Donaldson, J.A. Happ, and other pending free agents rather than trade them for younger players who could be part of the next winning team in Toronto.
That approach failed miserably. The 2018 Jays were dead and buried by Memorial Day (or Victoria Day, if you prefer). Donaldson got hurt immediately, crushing his value so thoroughly that the best Toronto could muster was an afterthought waiver deal on August 31. Attendance tanked despite the front office’s best efforts, with nearly 11,000 fewer fans per game clicking the turnstiles in 2018 than they did in 2017. Making matters worse, the Jays’ division rivals rocked: The Red Sox won the World Series, the Yankees won 100 games, and even the perpetually shoestring-budget Rays clawed their way to 90 wins.
The long climb back starts now, and it starts with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The best prospect in baseball wields supernatural hitting skill, and could light up the league as a 20-year-old rookie in 2019, similar to the way ultrayoung prospects like Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr. became immediate stars last season. (If anything, baseball’s rigid service-time rules and the disappointing way many teams interpret them deprived Jays fans of some potentially stirring moments in an otherwise dreary 2018 season.)
Guerrero should have plenty of company in the Jays’ kiddie corps. Twenty-five-year-old Lourdes Gurriel flashed some promising power and projects to start the season at shortstop with Troy Tulowitzki recently released. Twenty-three-year-old Danny Jansen brings impressive on-base skills to the catcher position, and should push Russell Martin into more of a superutility role. Right-hander Sean Reid-Foley punched out 42 batters in 33 1/3 in his major league debut season, and should get a look in 2019 with the Jays rotation already undermanned. Hitting prospects with more uncertainty surrounding their status include Bo Bichette, who turns 21 in March but isn’t as polished at the plate as Vlad Jr. is yet, and Anthony Alford, the oft-injured 24-year-old outfielder whose game disappointingly took a big step backward last season.
The question then becomes how the Jays handle the rest of the roster. Several veterans offer significant trade value right now, and GM Ross Atkins would be well served to market them aggressively, or risk holding the bag the way the Jays did with Donaldson, Happ, and friends a year ago.
The Rockies, hurting at first and filled with buyer’s remorse on Ian Desmond, are reportedly considering a play for Smoak. The 32-year-old Smoak pulled back a bit from his career year in 2017, but still cranked 25 home runs with an overall line 21 percent better than league average on a park-adjusted basis. For a one-year, $8 million commitment, he’d be an asset for the Rockies and a handful of other potential contenders.
Pillar has been one of the most consistent hitters in the majors over the past three seasons, but in this case that’s not a good thing. Expect a batting average around .250-.260, an on-base percentage around .300, and a slugging average near .400, and you’ll likely come pretty close to the real thing. Despite that subpar bat, Pillar has in the past retained value through strong baserunning and especially his Gold Glove defense. He still runs well, but according to Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved, Pillar went from the third-best defensive center fielder in the game in 2017 to the 21st-best last season. The Giants are reportedly interested in his services; given Pillar’s weak offense, advancing age (he turns 30 on January 4), and his diminishing returns with the glove, the Jays would do well to cash him in for any kind of prospects with upside.
Trading Giles and Martin could be a bit more challenging. Giles’ late-inning meltdowns were the reason the Astros shipped him to Toronto in the first place, and rival teams would seem likely to pursue some superior options in free agency before potentially turning their attention Giles’ way. Meanwhile, Martin is owed a huge $20 million in the final season of his five-year megadeal. A 35-year-old, injury-prone catcher hitting below the Mendoza line isn’t likely to attract much attention at that price, though the Jays could conceivably get a bit of value in return for Martin’s defensive prowess and ability to draw a walk, if they’d be willing to eat most of his salary.
All that said, you could argue that we won’t know if the Jays are truly all in on a rebuild unless or until they trade one or both of their top two starting pitchers. Twenty-seven-year-old Marcus Stroman and 26-year-old Aaron Sanchez both offer two years of club control. Both have flashed excellent results in the past, Stroman when he hurled 201 innings with a 3.09 ERA and finished eighth in Cy Young voting in 2017, and Sanchez when he led the American League in ERA and finished seventh in Cy Young voting in 2016.
In the case of these two right-handers, though, things aren’t that simple. Stroman is coming off an abysmal 2018 campaign in which he made just 19 starts and flashed an awful 5.54 ERA. Meanwhile, Sanchez has missed gigantic chunks of the past two seasons with injuries, firing just 141 innings since opening day 2017. If interested buyers are willing to bid on Stroman and Sanchez as if they were still the elite commodities we saw in the past, Atkins should try to cash in as quickly as possible. If suitors are trying to buy one or both righties for 53 cents on the dollar, it would behoove the Jays to wait, hope for rebounds by both pitchers, then put them up for bid again soon, ideally as soon as this summer.
The dawn of the Guerrero era could bring more optimism to Rogers Centre than we’ve seen since the team’s back-to-back runs to the American League Championship Series. The faster the Jays accept their fate as cellar dwellers and cash in veterans for potential Vlad Jr. running mates, the brighter that optimism will become.