Is there hope for the Blue Jays in 2018?

Jays revamp outfield with Granderson and Grichuk

Is there hope for the Blue Jays in 2018?

The 2018 Major League Baseball (MLB) season is going to be tough for the Toronto Blue Jays. The Boston Red Sox have maintained their pitching and hitting power, and the New York Yankees have acquired powerhouse Giancarlo Stanton — who hit 59 home runs last season — in a trade that didn’t see them lose many significant players. That’s right, the Yankees now have 2017’s National League MVP and American League (AL) Rookie of the Year in their lineup, and the Jays are going to have to compete with that for years to come.

In terms of significant transactions, barring the Stanton trade, this year’s offseason has been rather cold, seeing minor trades here and there and no spectacular free-agent signings — José Bautista is still in limbo, belonging to no team quite yet.

Attempting to fortify a team not ready for the strong competition brewing in the AL East, the Jays signed free agent and former Met and Yankee player Curtis Granderson, dishing out $5 million USD for one year. Granderson, who is going to be 37 years old come Opening Day, will most likely split time in left field as part of a platoon. Granderson is a left-handed hitter — a type of player the Jays desperately need. Hitting 26 home runs last year for the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets, Granderson’s signing is encouraging but not an addition that can single-handedly lead the Jays to the playoffs.

What is exciting, however, is the trade that brought 26-year-old outfielder Randal Grichuk to Toronto from St. Louis, with pitchers Dominic Leone and Conner Greene going the other way. Not only is Grichuk a reliable defenseman more than qualified to fill Bautista’s spot in right field, but with enough plate discipline, he can shine with a bat as well. Offering a measly .238 batting average for 2017, Grichuk, who batted .276 in 103 games in 2015, is far too young to be written off as mediocre and will hopefully thrive in a hitter-friendly ballpark like Rogers Centre. Words of encouragement: he hit over 20 home runs in each of the past two seasons. Here’s hoping that number only rises.

But, in the interest of being realistic and objective, Grichuk would have to go through a Justin-Smoak-like transformation to be a power-hitter that is feared in the AL East – something that is very unlikely to happen.

In additional trades, the Jays picked up infielders Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte from St. Louis and San Diego respectively to play the middle of Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak’s corners of the infield. Along with Troy Tulowitzki — who can hopefully rise up from his steady decline — and Devon Travis — who can hopefully stay healthy for a season straight — the infield is the team’s most stable and secure area. The outfield is fine too: the cast of six outfielders are an upgrade from last year, but it is nowhere near rivalling the outfield of the Yankees.

Pitching is something that has also been heavily neglected by the Blue Jays’ front office this offseason. It would be best for the team and the fans if the rumours of regular reliever Joe Biagini being promoted to a number-five starter remain just that — rumours. The Jays need to pay a starter and pay him well. Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman can’t carry this team on their two backs, and the Jays’ underwhelming goings-on in the bullpen only cast a shadow over the overall pitching situation.

Call me misguided, but I believe with enough pitching fortification, the Jays can confidently secure a Wild Card spot in the 2018 MLB season.

Not all is lost, but at this point, unless the front office can stir up a trade that gets Toronto a reliable starter and reliever — or two — the only hope for the team to make the playoffs is if they move to a different division altogether.

The Jays can extend their World Series window

An insight into the Toronto Blue Jays’ offseason

The Jays can extend their World Series window

Entering last season, expectations for the Toronto Blue Jays were high, despite the losses of slugger Edwin Encarnacion and relief pitcher Brett Cecil. However, the Blue Jays were unable to deliver on experts’ predictions of a playoff finish, ending the 2017 season with a .469 record, nine games back of the final wildcard spot in the American League.

Missing the playoffs after consecutive trips to the American League Championships Series has left fans pondering a dangerous question: has the Blue Jays’ World Series window slammed shut? If so, then a rebuild would be on the cards, and a difficult one at that. Toronto boasts one of the oldest rosters in the MLB, and they are burdened by the untradeable contracts of veterans Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin, both earning $20 million for each of the next two seasons. The future is bright with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette on the way, but they still find themselves playing High-A ball in Dunedin.

With the notion of a rebuild out of the question, how can the Jays squeeze out another shot at the playoffs? Let’s consider the team’s options this offseason.

 

The addition of an infielder

The Jays boasted a middle infield comprised of Ryan Goins, Tulowitzki, and the oft-injured Devon Travis last season. A healthy Travis started at second, with Tulowitzki at shortstop, and Goins deputizing both positions.

Injuries to Travis, Tulowitzki, and Josh Donaldson exposed the lack of depth in the infield and resulted in Toronto playing some combination of Darwin Barney, Chris Coghlan, Rob Refsnyder, and Goins — none of whom are with the club today — alongside Justin Smoak. This leaves Richard Urena and Gift Ngoepe as the Jays’ only depth at middle infield, making a utility infielder a top priority.

Eduardo Núñez is one such utility infielder. Valued at almost $12 million, he can play virtually anywhere in the field should a starting player go down with an injury. Batting .313/.341/.460 with 12 home runs, 58 runs batted in, and 24 stolen bases last season with the San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox, Núñez would bring some speed to an aged squad.

Speaking of speed, Dee Gordon may find himself leaving Miami soon, as new Marlins CEO Derek Jeter attempts to lower the club’s salary. A left-handed batter with a high on-base percentage makes Gordon the ideal leadoff man. He even snagged 60 bases last season, making him an attractive trade option for the Jays. Gordon would take over at second full-time, benching Travis, and making Goins the backup shortstop, creating depth by pushing the incumbent starters down the chart.

Depth at starting pitcher

The Jays’ rotation currently features Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, and JA Happ, leaving a vacant starter slot. Toronto have rightly expressed interest in Jake Arrieta, one of the top pitchers on the market and a World Series winner with the Chicago Cubs. With a Cy Young Award and two no-hitters to his name, Arrieta’s proven track record makes him a tantalising option for the Jays. The downside? Arrieta would command almost $27 million per year on a long-term contract.

The most interesting option is dual-threat Shohei Ohtani, who is free to be signed on a minor league contract. Unproven against MLB opposition, he is considered a promising starter with a good bat. The one caveat to signing Ohtani is that all teams in MLB have a shot at signing him, so the Jays need a contingency plan should they fail. Toronto should take a run at him, but they will show reluctance to play him in the field if they succeed, as they’ve shown reluctance to push young players, such as Sanchez, too hard for fear of injuries.

Expect Toronto to pick up a few low-cost starters to improve pitching depth. Don’t rule out a return for Brett Anderson. 

Not splurging on sluggers

The loss of Jose Bautista has left the Jays short of a slugger in right field. With big-money power threats JD Martinez and Jay Bruce hitting free agency, it can be tempting for a club to spend big on a long-term deal for either, but they shouldn’t. If Toronto is serious about reaching the World Series in 2018, they need more than just Martinez or Bruce — they’d need to improve the infield depth and the pitching rotation to stand a chance against teams like Houston. Such moves would prove costly in the long term, as the Jays would be stuck with the hefty contracts of Martin, Tulowitzki, and any free agent acquisitions.

Instead, the team should place their faith in Teoscar Hernández, who showed some pop during a September call-up, to spare themselves the stress of carrying several overpaid veterans in the future.

Verdict: the Jays will express caution, making deals to improve depth and hope that last season’s misfortunes were but a blip. This team is good enough to turn things around on their own, and should get back to winning ways with minimal alterations.

Celebrating the life and career of Roy Halladay

The greatest pitcher in Blue Jays history died in a plane crash last week

Celebrating the life and career of Roy Halladay

Roy Halladay loved being a Blue Jay. He loved playing for Toronto’s baseball team, and he was vocal about it. Though a Blue Jays team fresh off of two consecutive ALCS appearances is genuinely something to be proud of today, Halladay, commonly referred to as ‘Doc,’ was part of a very different baseball team. His was an era before bat flips, sell-out games, walkoff home runs, and — to be blunt — competent baseball.

Halladay, nothing less than a prodigious pitcher, had little to be proud of, and yet he pitched in Toronto for 11 years, not once making it to the playoffs and not once complaining about it. This humbleness and kindness is what makes up the core of Halladay, a man who put as much effort into enriching Toronto’s community as he did to throwing his two-seam sinking fastball.

Halladay died at the age of 40 on November 7, when his plane crashed in the Gulf of Mexico.

It feels wrong to define by numbers a man so known for his generosity and spirit, but the numbers Doc put up in his 15 years of pitching in the MLB were tremendous. He recorded a 3.38 earned run average in 416 games played — 67 of which were complete games and 20 shutouts. Doc led the league in wins above replacement for pitchers four times: twice in the AL with the Blue Jays and twice in the NL with the Phillies.

Halladay was impressive off the field as well; his benevolent efforts to enrich a city that never gave him a postseason berth will forever be cherished and appreciated. While in Toronto, Doc and his wife Brandy established “Doc’s Box,” a suite that they annually rented out at Rogers Centre, where children from SickKids Hospital and their families could enjoy a day at the ballpark. He was also a keen contributor to Toronto charities, donating $100,000 to the Jays Care Foundation annually.

Though his impact and legacy within Toronto are unquestionable, it is important to note that, after being traded in 2009, Halladay pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies and added a couple more achievements to his already impressive arsenal. And, almost as if written by a novelist, in his first career playoff appearance with the Phillies in 2010, he threw a no-hitter. It was only the second post-season no-hitter in MLB history.

Earlier that year, he threw his first perfect game, becoming the 20th player in baseball history to record one and the first pitcher to ever throw a perfect game and a no-hitter in one season. Halladay was magic; genius, hard work, and talent all rolled into one spectacular pitching performance after another. Phillies fans understood why Doc was so admired in Toronto, and they showed him the same calibre of love.

I became a baseball fan after Halladay had retired in 2013 due to injury, so I never saw the man don powder blue or stark black on the mound in the Rogers Centre. While getting acquainted with Blue Jays greats, before Joe Carter, Vernon Wells, and even Roberto Alomar, I learned about Doc — the savant who, when pitching, uplifted an otherwise depleted baseball team into greatness.

When Doc took the mound, Toronto was no longer the vehicle for other teams to flex their pitching and hitting skills — no longer the punching bag. Once every five games, Doc worked his magic, commanding the league to pay attention to an unexceptional team with an exceptional player. With his two Cy Young wins and eight All Star appearances — six of which were with Toronto — Halladay maintained the Blue Jays in baseball fandom’s consciousness. For that, I came to revere his name.

He was a methodical and calm pitcher who worked his magic on the mound and stuck with his team through tough times. In an institution where teams have ever-changing rosters of more than 40 athletes, and play more than 160 matches a year, it is a true accomplishment to stay relevant after retirement and an even bigger one to be labeled a legend so quickly.

Those who were baseball fans during Doc’s reign had profound reactions to the announcement of his tragic death. Every sports news station remembered and celebrated the pitcher, every publication put out a touching tribute, and experts, journalists and fans alike joined forces in remembering Halladay’s generous spirit and incredible talent. The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors both held moments of silence before the starts of their matches, effectively proving that Doc’s influence was not confined to baseball but rather spread into other sports.

It would be a disservice to remember Halladay as simply an athlete, and an injustice to recognize him solely by his statistics, as good as they may be. Halladay not only reignited a spark in Canada’s baseball community, but he put time and effort into enriching Toronto, both through his inadvertent ambassadorship when representing Canada’s team at an All-Star game and through Doc’s Box.

Already inducted into Canada’s Baseball Hall of Fame, it is only a matter of time before Doc gets his spot in Cooperstown. Now the conversation turns to the Blue Jays and how they will honour the man who breathed life into a team that was otherwise bereft of it. Put his name on the Level of Excellence, retire his number, erect a statue of him outside of the Rogers Centre — do anything and all that is possible to ensure that every generation of Toronto fans cherishes, appreciates, and reveres the legend that was Roy Halladay.

The emerging big market north of the border

Toronto’s major sports teams are ready to consolidate the city’s big market identity

The emerging big market north of the border

With the 2015–2016 regular season for the Raptors and Leafs coming to a close, we can look back at how important 2015 and 2016 have been for Toronto in the NHL, NBA, and MLB.

While the Leafs will never relinquish the mantle as the city’s biggest market, the season was an indicator of the potential for the Raptors and Blue Jays to become bigger attractions as well. For years, the city has seen the likes of Vince Carter, Chris Bosh, Carlos Delgado, and Roy Halladay leave for bigger markets to chase titles.

The year 2015–2016 initiated a shift in this mindset. The Raptors and Blue Jays have demonstrated strong regular seasons, playoff runs, and the ability to attract big name players.

This begs the question — does Toronto have the potential to become a serious contender in the NBA, NHL, and MLB? And if so, can the city become a desired destination for sought after free agents?

Both the Raptors and the Blue Jays were recently rebranded to consolidate the teams’ respective successes by bolstering regional pride.

The Raptors utilized the “We The North” campaign to gain fans while remaining relevant by assembling a competitive team able to surpass the Carter and Bosh eras. Two straight division championships and an inevitable third have put Toronto in the same conversation as Eastern Conference elite teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan, the Raptors showed their willingness to spend with free agent DeMarre Carroll joining the team in the 2015 offseason. Ticket purchases have been a key indicator of this expansion. The Raptors sold out season and postseason tickets in 2013–2014 and 2014–2015 and are expected to do the same during this year’s post-season. All Star Weekend was also a media boost to Toronto. Although the city embraces its ‘outside looking in’ approach to the NBA, the team has made an effort — especially this season — to be at the center of it all.

The Blue Jays also experienced a rebranding in 2012, but the team took a retrospective approach, returning to their 1992–1993 championships colours following an era of lackluster years as a fringe team. Their rebrand was met with blockbuster trades for stars like R.A. Dickey and Jose Reyes. Success after the rebrand was not immediate like the Raptors’, but last year’s trades for stars Troy Tulowitzki, David Price, and reigning MVP Josh Donaldson made significant contributions to the Jays’ first postseason appearance since 1993. The Blue Jays are title contenders and the city has taken notice through ticket and merchandise sales. The Jays’ 2015 season illustrated the dedicated fan base baseball can have in a non-American city.

The market value for the Leafs will likely never be a problem. Despite their struggles in recent seasons and a rebuild underway, the future is bright for the franchise.

The Leafs live in a hard salary cap era, but this has not stopped them from stockpiling talent. They accumulated draft picks, including potential star William Nylander, all under the watchful eye of arguably the best management in the league. GM Lou Lamoriello has won three Stanley Cups and coach Mike Babcock has won the Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals. The team has  a robust analytics department led by rising management star Kyle Dubas, which has modernized how we view hockey and player evaluations. The road to contention will be long and arduous for the Leafs, but they have the pieces in place to compete again, and the regional market to sustain them. 

The regional market has the ability to sustain the three major teams, similar to other big markets like New York and Los Angeles. While the more profitable and more popular team is rebuilding itself, their future is bright. The Raptors and Blue Jays are the contenders, and now they have the rosters and fan bases to show for it.