HAVE YOU EVER REVISITED writings from the past and felt so naive and stupid for what you believed in, and yet you’re not entirely upset because you totally understand why you would have felt that way?
I went through that this week when I was indexing all my writing and read all the Toronto Blue Jays pieces I wrote before this season started. You know, like when we won the off-season, or when acquiring R.A. Dickey meant we had nabbed the final piece to a championship puzzle, or all the excitement before this season started.
Those feelings were real, but equally real is the fact that as I’m writing this, the Jays are 50-60, so far out of contention with so little time left that the last two months of the season have become an exercise in player evaluation for next year’s roster. Put that 11-game win streak aside[i], the Jays have found no consistency at all, evident by the fact that outside of that two-week stretch, they’ve had just one winning streak longer than three games all year, and have failed to win more than two in a row since June 23rd.
There’s been bright spots, sure — the bullpen, Edwin Encarnacion, encouraging signs from Colby Rasmus, Munenori Kawasaki’s joy — but it has been overshadowed by that which is not right with this team.
Even taking into account the baggage of following this team the previous two decades, somehow this season turned out to be the most frustrating of them all. That’s saying a lot.
Now, we all know that the Jays are in this three-year window of contending, and in a division where every other team appears to be trending upwards in terms of talent and performance[ii], things aren’t going to get easier. Put aside all the worst-case scenario seasons and bad luck from 2013, and you still have to be honest that this team has a lot more holes than the rosy assessment of this squad in Spring Training.
But with a farm system that has not much left, and few guys on the big league roster that can bring back much value after you remove all the people you shouldn’t trade because you’re trying to contend, the more I think about 2014, it seems the only way for the Jays to improve the roster is to spend even more money, which doesn’t seem realistic given that ownership will be hesitant to commit more money to a product for which they’re already investing well over $100 million[iii].
And so, aside from counting on Alex Anthopoulos to bring in more outside help, the focus will likely be on words of dread for anyone who has watched the team this year: internal improvement.
The starting rotation looms as the biggest question mark; an assembly line full of them really. Josh Johnson has been comically bad coming out of the All-Star break (his ERA is 14.06 in his last three starts), Dickey has been the worst starting pitcher at home in all of the majors this season, Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero[iv]have gone from core pieces to not so much. Mark Buehrle has been the most consistent starter since May, although that comes with a caveat in that he is owed $39M the next two seasons. Esmil Rogers, J.A. Happ, Drew Hutchinson, and Kyle Drabek are all internal options, and you could even throw in Brett Cecil and Dustin McGowan if the Jays decide to explore those options.
As trade pieces, there isn’t much value to extract a return that could upgrade their starting pitching. Most likely, the rotation next season will feature much of the same cast, assuming that Johnson returns on a one-year qualifying offer — provided the Jays even offer one at this point, which I still think they should. You have to think Johnson, Dickey, Buehrle, and if he’s healthy, Morrow, will be part of the rotation come next spring.
And here’s the thing, there should be internal improvement, when you look at Johnson’s peripherals for this year, they’re very much in line with season’s past, although this post from Andrew Stoeten shows that he’s been terrible pitching from the stretch. Even as he sits with just one win all season and an ERA approaching seven, I still rather have him come back than to see him go somewhere and get back to his career norms — assuming a team out there is willing to give him a better option than the qualifying offer.
Dickey’s shown flashes and battled injury that led to a decline in the velocity of the knuckleball earlier this season, and even if he doesn’t regain the Cy Young form of 2012, you have to figure we’ve seen the worst.
As terrible as things have been this season, I still somehow think that there’s a chance the pitching can improve internally. In the bullpen, there’s more than enough options considering the quantity of starting pitching candidates who could easily shift into a relief role, and given the performance of some of the guys this year — Steve Delabar, Cecil, Aaron Loup, to name a few —a few pieces will be moved this off-season to try and holes in the starting line-up. Although if you subscribe to the notion that the performance of relievers is the most variable thing from year to year in baseball, it would totally make sense for the starters to bounce back next season only to have the bullpen regress.
Now, fixing the line-up, or determining how much to fix this line-up, is another tricky proposition for Anthopoulos. This team is actually sixth in the league in runs scored and with Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista, Encarnacion, and the possibility of an improving Rasmus and a healthy year from Brett Lawrie, that’s a core I’m comfortable moving forward with.
But the question marks in left field, designated hitter (if Lind’s $7M option isn’t picked up), second base, and catcher loom large, not just from an offensive perspective, but the fact that the team’s defense has been absolutely shit this year.
In fact, I’m not sure much concerned about the offense so much so as the starting pitching and defense, which often times work in tandem and have failed the time over and over again this season.
Without an increase in payroll, or trades to open up some flexibility, I’m not really sure how the team can make the changes necessary to improve that. But one thing’s for sure, this team is well below average when it comes to the fundamentals of the game, and whether that’s just the ability of the individuals, or something related to the coaching, that has to be addressed in the off-season and for spring training.
When you put it all together, there’s certainly a lot of questions, but it’s the same around the league even with teams that contend year in and year out. The gap between contending with this core and where we’re at now doesn’t feel as far away as the gloom of this season would suggest.
But yet, here we are, in the start of August and once again there’s no meaningful baseball in Toronto.
The thing about having expectations to contend is that you can’t really extract much in terms of moral victories when a season goes sideways, the future is always the present, and the present right now provides very little optimism for what’s to come.
It might be hard to fans to accept that much of what will make next season better will come internally. But it looks like that’s where we’ll stand with the 2014 team.
And really, why spend all this time thinking and writing about this team when it can be all summed up in one GIF:
[i] When we look back on this season years from now, will we be more surprised at how terrible the team’s performed or the fact that this terrible team managed to somehow win 11 in a row?
[ii] I’m including the Yankees because once they decide to hell with staying below the luxury tax threshold, they will have the cash to spend. Whether that money ends up bringing in reasonable upgrades to an aging team remains to be seen. But they’re the Yankees, I’m never counting them out.
[iii] A few days after I drafted this, Alex Anthopoulos had a lengthy Q&A with the media and mentioned that money will not be a problem, as ownership was aware last off-season that the commitments they made for 2013 would mean a potential increase in spending for the next two seasons. But as always, this comes with a caveat, taking into account player options and arbitration eligible players, the team as currently constructed will be at well over $120 million for 2014.
[iv] I get waiting for Ricky Romero to dominate in Triple A before bringing him back up, but the playoffs no longer a possibility, and the fact that we got a fill-in like Todd Redmond in the rotation, I think it’s time to bring Romero up, get him some starts in August and September and find out whether he can be part of your core going forward. It’s a question you have to get an answer to now, instead of waiting for next spring training.