The Toronto Blue Jays have been one of the biggest enigmas in Major League Baseball in recent memory. After appearing in the American League Championship Series in 2015 and 2016, they’ve missed the postseason in back-to-back seasons and done little to nothing to improve their roster in that time span. Over the last year they’ve been in MLB purgatory given how they don’t have a surplus of young talent, or enough talent, in general, to contend.
But over the last few weeks the Blue Jays have executed trades that indicate they’re embracing reality, that being that they’re in need of a full-fledged rebuild — and it’s a good first step.
Since the eve of opening day the Blue Jays have traded away two significant everyday players from first-year manager Charlie Montoyo‘s lineup in first baseman/designated hitter Kendrys Morales and outfielder Kevin Pillar. They sent Morales to the Oakland Athletics for third baseman Jesus Lopez and future considerations and sent Pillar to the San Francisco Giants for second baseman Alen Hanson and right-handers Derek Law and Juan De Paula.
Morales was a steady source of power in the middle of the Blue Jays order from 2017-18, totaling a combined 49 home runs, as well as 21-plus home runs a season since 2015. He has a good eye and is one of the best designated hitters in MLB, but his skill set at 35 is more effective on a playoff-caliber team. The same goes for Pillar.
While under contract through 2020, Pillar has never held more trade value than he does right now, and the Blue Jays capitalized by acquiring three prospects for him. The 30-year-old doesn’t hit for a high average, nor is he a perennial All-Star, but Pillar is one of the best defensive outfielders in the sport, a contact hitter, and doesn’t strikeout often; he gives the Giants a much-needed spark in their outfield.
Now, will any of the players the Blue Jays got for Morales and Pillar grow into building blocks? In all likelihood, they won’t, but Toronto couldn’t afford to treat either player’s upcoming free agency like they did former All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson‘s. After back-to-back Most Valuable Player Award-caliber seasons at the plate and in the field, Donaldson hit .270 while totaling 33 home runs and 78 RBIs in 2017. The Blue Jays had a choice to make after that season with the third baseman hitting free agency in a year: try to contend, or begin a teardown.
Toronto chose to stick with their guns and compete, but they did close to nothing to put themselves in the AL pennant race and missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season in 2018. Meanwhile, Donaldson was hampered by injuries throughout the regular season and traded to the Cleveland Indians in mid-August for a player to be named later. Imagine moving on from your franchise player for one prospect who isn’t even expected to wreak havoc at the big-league level.
Morales and Pillar, at their best, didn’t produce at Donaldson’s level, but they were still vital pieces to the Blue Jays depth chart. So, what comes next? Could their ace, Marcus Stroman, be dealt? The right-hander supposedly has a dicey relationship with the organization via tweets from Stroman about their arbitration hearings, is a free agent after 2020, and coming off a horrific season where he recorded a 5.54 ERA and 1.48 WHIP in 19 starts. At the same time, when he has his command, Stroman is one of the best right-handed pitchers in baseball.
First baseman Justin Smoak, who is the Blue Jays most prominent everyday player, and shortstop Freddy Galvis are potentially free agents after this season. If they have productive seasons, does Toronto look to continue the fire sale? They’ll likely be more inclined to keep Smoak to save face, but if the right offer comes around for the first baseman and/or Galvis, they shouldn’t hang up the phone.
The Blue Jays aren’t a team devoid of talent. Outside of Smoak and Galvis, they have outfielders Randal Grichuk and Teoscar Hernandez, who each had encouraging seasons at the plate in 2018, as well as second baseman Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Toronto is also waiting for the much-anticipated MLB debut of third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
On the hill they have Stroman, Aaron Sanchez (who recorded a 3.00 ERA in his first full season starting in the big leagues in 2016) and Matt Shoemaker who, when healthy, can be a reliable starter every fifth day and is yet to surrender a run in 2019.
But, at the end of the day, the Blue Jays are, realistically, the fourth-best team in the AL East; the Boston Red Sox are the defending World Series champions, have a deep lineup, and a proven starting rotation; the New York Yankees, when healthy, are arguably the most well-rounded team in MLB given their reliable starting rotation, deep lineup, and high-profile bullpen; the Tampa Bay Rays won 90 games last season and have one of the youngest rosters in the sport, headlined by a deep pitching staff. Heck, the Baltimore Orioles won two out of three games on the road against the Blue Jays last week.
When a team makes the ALCS in back-to-back seasons, they’re going to feel that they have the chance to get back there as long as their core remains intact. Well, that core has been blown up since 2016, as Donaldson, Pillar, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki, J.A. Happ, and Marco Estrada are no longer playing in Canada. This is a young team that needs an overhaul of depth in its minor-league system. It can’t be Guerrero or bust for the Blue Jays; you won’t win as a one-man show in MLB.
The hardest part of rebuilding is deciding when it’s time to embark on doing as such. While the organization may say they’re retooling to keep their fan base engaged, the transactions the Blue Jays have made over the last year indicate that they’re in the midst of a rebuild.
The Blue Jays weren’t going anywhere with the team they had in spring training. Taking a step back is the only way for Toronto to turn things around and get back in the playoff mix in the coming years.