In 2015, when the Blue Jays snapped a playoff drought that exceeded two decades, they did so with an ensemble of talented and experienced players acquired mainly through trade and in free agency. In his first season in Toronto, Josh Donaldson, backed by 8.7 WAR and 154 wRC+, was the American League’s MVP. Southpaw David Price, acquired a day before the trade deadline, pitched out of his mind in 11 regular season starts. Both were 29 years old.
Fan favorites Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion formed an elite, one-two punch. Russell Martin and Marco Estrada dazzled, too, both in their first years with the club. They were all 32 years old.
The Blue Jays— unlike the Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and Cleveland Indians — opted for the quick, “all in” approach, and, though they failed to win a World Series, it went quite well. General manager Alex Anthopoulos saw an opportunity and pounced, with two American League Championship Series’ to show for it. Now, with the team in an awkward, old, and injury-depleted state, the new regime, led by Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins, is looking ahead to the future.
Since leaving Cleveland, Shapiro and Atkins have slowly transformed the organization into their own. There have been a few bumps in the road, to be sure, but for the most part, the two executives have stuck to baseball’s modern-day blueprint without setting the team back. As far as prospects go, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Danny Jansen, Anthony Alford, and Sean Reid Foley somewhat eased the transition since they were already here when Shapiro and Atkins took over, but they have since drafted position players Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, along with pitchers Nate Pearson and T.J. Zeuch, in their first few drafts. Atkins and the Blue Jays have also flexed their muscle on the International market. Lourdes Gurriel was the first big name to join the Blue Jays, followed by 17-year-old Eric Pardinho — who could be something special when all is said and done — and Miguel Hiraldo, a young infielder off to a great start. Meanwhile, their most recent addition on the International market, Orelvis Martinez, could have the biggest upside of them all.
The AL’s elite have one thing in common: They draft well, are active on the International market, and do their best to maintain and preserve prospect capital. Over the years, the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, and Astros have embraced and adopted this, leading to the development of highly competitive rosters consisting primarily of cheap talent with years of control. Mookie Betts, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Aaron Judge are among the young stars of today, and all of them are eventually going to get paid. When the Blue Jays went for it, they had an older core of Bautista and Encarnacion, along with R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, already in place. Then, Anthopoulos complimented them with veterans like Martin, Estrada, Donaldson, Price and Troy Tulowitzki, among others. Under Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays built a great farm system, but saw their window to win rapidly shrink and depleted most of it quickly in order to acquire talent through trade.
Four of the AL’s best teams have utilized a different approach and strategy. Once their flurry of big-name prospects were ready, that’s when the front office dipped into the free agent and trade market, choosing to surround these elite and affordable talents with slightly older players in their prime. Shapiro and Atkins are embracing the same philosophy.
Like any sport, luck is key. It’s one thing to lose 100 games and draft someone like Bryce Harper first overall, but it’s another to scout, and sign someone like Jose Altuve and, or Jose Ramirez as an undrafted free agent. The Blue Jays are hoping Guerrero Jr., baseball’s best prospect, offers a similar reward. So far, he’s on the right track. It doesn’t start or stop there, though. For every young star should be a great supporting cast. There’s a difference between building a team with organizational depth than relying on one player like Judge or Betts, and then wasting their best years because the front office failed to surround them with talent. To compensate, front office’s often panic and overspend on free agents and trade players on the cusp of the majors for a rental. As some teams (see Baltimore) have proven, it’s not sustainable.
What Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has done over the years, is assemble the makings of a dynasty, mostly from within. Judge? OK, here’s a Gary Sanchez with a side of Luis Severino. Hey, Theo Epstein, you want Aroldis Chapman? Give up Gleyber Torres, one of baseball’s best prospects, and you have a deal. Cashman then resigned Chapman, fresh off a World Series with the Chicago Cubs, on the open market. When Judge, Sanchez and Severino, among others, were established and Cashman felt the Yankees were ready, he pounced on the opportunity to acquire Giancarlo Stanton.
In Boston, team president Dave Dombrowski has been more aggressive in his approach, but it’s worked, all the same. He spent big on Price in free agency and followed that by trading a bevy of prospects including Manuel Margot, Anderson Espinoza, Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech. But the players Dombrowski acquired (Craig Kimbrel and Chris Sale, both in their late twenties), were more than worth the cost. With these moves, and in keeping a young core consisting of Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, and more importantly, Betts, it provided the club with enough flexibility to sign J.D. Martinez. Along with the Sale acquisition, Martinez will likely be considered Dombrowski’s best.
The reigning World Series champions have had ample success in similar ways. Houston lucked out with Altuve, and drafted George Springer, Alex Bregman, Lance McCullers and Correa all in the first round. As these players gradually developed and reached the majors, it’s then the front office added external pieces such as Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran, Yuli Gurriel and Charlie Morton in free agency. The cost-effective approach allowed the Astros to capitalize on acquiring Justin Verlander, with their deep farm system paying further dividends when the team traded for Gerrit Cole.
Cleveland’s current state is important, because most of their best players were drafted or signed when Shapiro and Atkins were with the organization. What they managed to do was build an elite starting rotation and find two generational talents in the form of Lindor and Ramirez. Much like the other three beasts of the AL, the front office then decided to spend in free agency, signing Encarnacion and Yonder Alonso, both to team-friendly deals.
Considering the Blue Jays were projected to compete for a wild-card spot, it’s been a season to forget in Toronto. The currently injured Donaldson and Estrada’s trade value is diminishing with each passing day, and Roberto Osuna’s off-field issues and suspension have left the organization in a precarious spot. Not to mention Tulowitzki, who won’t play a game this year, is owed a combined $34 million in 2019 and 2020, followed by a $15 million club option in 2021. It’s unfair, and frankly unrealistic to expect the Blue Jays to dethrone the Yankees and Red Sox as early as 2019, but next year’s version of the team should look a whole lot different, at least age wise. The reason? A slew of exciting, young players have taken steps, and in some cases, leaps forward in the minors.
All of Guerrero Jr., Bichette, Jansen, Alford, Biggio, Gurriel, Reid Foley and Ryan Borucki have a good shot at making the 2019 Opening Day roster. Expectations won’t be nearly as high after the disappointment that was this season, especially without Donaldson, Estrada and J.A. Happ on the roster. Still, it’s hard not to be moderately excited about the new wave, which will be accompanied by another high selection in the 2019 draft.
The Donaldson/Price/Bautista/Encarnacion era was fun, and, in a vacuum, Anthopoulos’ assertiveness was well worth it. The Canadian-born executive managed to bring excitement and swagger to a city and fanbase itching for a postseason berth. Times have changed, though. If the Blue Jays stick with their plan and stay the course, the wait for meaningful October baseball won’t be nearly as long. After this season, a new era will already be upon us, one that has the makings of something special.