TORONTO — It has taken three years, but the Toronto Blue Jays finally come into a season with the bad team that its management has long sought.
Various projections, whether based on mathematical algorithms or the gut feeling of oddsmakers or a combination of the two, expect the Blue Jays to win 70-something games and lose 80-something.
This is by design. When Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins arrived from Cleveland to run the team after the shocking success of the 2015 season, they said that they wanted it to remain a contender, and it did, with Toronto’s creaky lineup getting the Jays back into the post-season in 2016.
But from that point on, even as management made moves that were outwardly about keeping the roster at least vaguely competitive, it was evident that fingers were hovering over the reset button. Shapiro has since admitted that they would have started the tear down and ensuing rebuild earlier but for the fact that the team’s booming popularity off those playoff runs made such a plan unpalatable.
There is no such uncertainty in 2019. Most of the stars of those playoff teams are gone, with the organization even paying a couple of them, Troy Tulowitzki and Russ Martin, tens of millions of dollars to play elsewhere. Even as Major League Baseball went through a second straight off-season in which valuable veterans found themselves unable to attract much interest on the free-agent market, the Jays resolutely refused to jump in on any of them, preferring instead to pick up remainder-bin specials who would fill out the roster.
Most of the stars of those playoff teams are gone, with the organization even paying a couple of them, Troy Tulowitzki and Russ Martin, tens of millions of dollars to play elsewhere
The result is a team with just a handful of familiar faces, and if any of those perform particularly well — Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Justin Smoak — then they will almost certainly follow the path of Martin and Tulo, and Josh Donaldson and Marco Estrada and take your pick, really, and become former Blue Jays. As if to underline the point, on Wednesday night the Jays shipped portly DH Kendrys Morales to Oakland and agreed to pay most of his salary, while receiving infield prospect Jesus Lopez and the always-exciting international signing bonus pool space. Outside the Rogers Centre on Wednesday, Morales was one of the few Jays to have his face on one of the big vertical banners. Maybe they can put international bonus-pool space on there now. Where the last two Opening Day rosters at least had enough major-league talent to kind-of, sort-of imagine a competitive team if a bunch of things broke their way, this one will need the Earth to open up and swallow the Yankees and Red Sox whole if it hopes to win more games than it loses.
And again, this is the plan. With the team’s best prospects not yet ready for the major leagues, with the notable exception of an injured Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., the idea is to scuffle along for at least this season, and probably another, before even thinking about contention. At that point, maybe, the team will supplement its talented youngsters with experienced players who are not so much flotsam and/or jetsam.
It’s a strategy common in North American sports today — stink for a few years, and reap the benefits later — but what it is unique to the Blue Jays is that it comes right after the team became an unqualified off-field success story. Those playoff runs brought all kinds of tangible benefits, from league-leading attendance to record television ratings to so much merchandise sales that a visitor to Toronto would reasonably assume Jays caps were required to ride the subway. Rogers Communications, which gets a big cut of all of that because it both owns the team and controls its media broadcasts, made many extra millions when the team was suddenly winning, and it lost many extra millions when the Jays went into the dumpster last season. And that was with a campaign that began with management at least pretending that they hoped to be competitive.
It’s a strategy common in North American sports today — stink for a few years, and reap the benefits later
What remains to be seen in 2019 is the degree to which support for the Blue Jays in this market — and across the country — will wane, particularly when expectations are so low for them at the outset. Aside from the tangible boom of those playoff years, baseball in Toronto was cool again. “Again” might not even be the right word. Even in the glory years of the 1980s and early ‘90s, baseball was not exactly a hip Toronto thing. Crowds were old and corporate. The recent playoff teams were different: young types with their beards and their thick-framed glasses were all over the stands, and people of my generation, who were kids when the Jays were relevant in the ‘80s, brought their own children to the ballpark for probably the first time in their lives. The Rogers Centre was loud and raucous, and it was all a little bewildering after so many years of quiet crowds that were resigned to their fourth-place fate.
No one expects anything like that this season. Ticket sales for the opener on Thursday afternoon have been sluggish, after years in which it was often sold out weeks in advance. For Game 2 on Friday, there remains room for you and about 30,000 of your friends. This, too, is by design. The team could have improved in myriad ways this offseason, without ever sacrificing the long-term plan. It still could, as some of those quality free agents are still available. But, when the Jays have spent the off-season studiously avoiding acquiring anyone who might be recognizable to casual baseball fans, even as injuries piled up and the team needed more bodies, they cannot be surprised when casual baseball fans decide to give the whole thing a pass.
You wonder, as those fans wearing the Tulowitzki and Donaldson jerseys try to tell Trent Thornton from Clayton Richard from Daniel Hudson, whether Rogers might have some second thoughts about all this.
When your team is plainly not trying to win, why should you expect your customers to care?