The Blue Jays Should Plan for 2020

Entering play today, four American League teams have better than a 94% chance of making the playoffs. You are probably aware that those teams are the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, and Astros. The Yankees (99.9%), Red Sox (99.6%), and Astros (99.8%) are projected as locks for the postseason barring a series of catastrophes. The Astros (+138), Red Sox (+103), and Yankees (+91) also rank Nos. 1-2-3 in the majors in run differential. In 2016, only five clubs in baseball produced 100-plus run differentials. In 2015 and 2014? Only four.

The only postseason races that appear likely to provide compelling theatre later this summer are the battle for the AL East crown (the Yankees and Red Sox ought to be aggressive buyers) and the second Wild Card. But with Shohei Ohtani’s right UCL apparently hanging on by a thread, and Andrelton Simmons also on the DL, the Mariners are in a seemingly strong position to capture the second Wild Card — though their modest run differential (+27) casts some doubt over their staying power, leaving open the door open for the Twins and Angels. The Mariners, with what remains of the farm system, also ought to try and strengthen their grasp of a playoff position.

Still, the Mariners (73.5%) are the only other AL team with better than coin-flip odds of making the postseason. In fact, the Mariners and Angels are the only other two teams with double-digit odds of making the playoffs.

Heading into the season, there was much talk about a growing divide between the Have and Have Nots, about the growing canyon between Super Teams and Tanking Teams following NBA-, Astros-, Cubs-style demolitions to add financial flexible and assets (draft picks, pool space) with which to accelerate rebuilds. While Ben Lindbergh found, after the season, that what we saw in 2017 was not a departure from historical norms, the AL field, at the moment, is even more extreme than it was a year ago.

Consider that one year ago to the day, only one team — the Astros — had a 90% chance of reaching the postseason. Ten AL teams had double-digit odds or better. This season, it’s six.

Two years ago to the day, 12 teams had double-digit probability, eight had 30% or better, and all five AL East teams had at least a 13.5% mark. The Blue Jays and Orioles had coin-flip odds.

Three years ago to the day, 10 teams had a 20% playoff probability or better in the AL, and eight teams, over half the league, had a 35% or greater chance.

Four years ago, on June 14, 2014, 10 teams also had a 20% or better chance of the reaching the postseason.

While the NL field is fairly wide open, the AL field is unusually extreme.

While we cannot retrieve to-the-day playoff odds beyond 2014, this landscape feels particularly unusual. Whether this is an outlier season, or the consequences of a Super Team-and-Tanking environment, we’ll have to see. But there are plenty of incentives to be really bad, from hopes of accelerating rebuilds to making cash through revenue sharing and shared media dollars with reduced payrolls.

So what about that shrinking class of teams in the middle? The Twins were among the teams that added this offseason to seemingly build upon their greater-than-expected 2017 season and make a play for a Wild Card. While the Twins are six games under .500, they do have the benefit of playing in the AL Central with an unbalanced schedule. Perhaps it’s too early to consider selling assets. The Twins have the seventh-best postseason odds in the AL at 8.0%. Six teams have playoff odds of 0.3% or worse: the Orioles, Rangers, Rays, Royals, Tigers, and White Sox.

Another team that attempted to boost their odds of slipping into a postseason spot were the Blue Jays, with subtle offseason moves like adding Yangervis Solarte and Jaime Garcia, but they ought to sell what they can… and quickly.

The Blue Jays are eight games under .500 and 15.5 games behind the Yankees. They have 1.5% probability of qualifying for the postseason. It appears their attempt to thread the needle in 2018 has failed.

The good news is they might possess the top prospect in baseball in Vladimir Guerrero Jr.. Their Double-A infield includes two other legacy prospects in Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, other future building blocks. Sean Reid-Foley is rebuilding his prospect status on the mound with a strong season to date. Reese McGuire could be part of the future at catcher. Reid-Foley and Biggio were not even regarded as top 10 organizational prospects to begin the season. There are a lot of good things going on down on the farm, which makes the Blue Jays’ situation less dire than that of, say, the Royals and Tigers. A turnaround in Toronto shouldn’t require a decade of patience. It could happen relatively quickly, at least in terms of competing for Wild Cards. But it’s time for Toronto to shed assets that are impending free agents and/or are not going to be part of the next core or surrounding it.

And in a landscape littered with non-contending clubs, the Blue Jays might want to get out ahead of the market and sell what they have.

There should be a strong market for J.A. Happ, a free agent after the season. There is probably little market for Josh Donaldson at this precise moment because of his health, but the Blue Jays ought at least to explore what demand exists. Marcus Stroman is getting close to returning and is under club control for just two more seasons. While he could be built around and extended, conceivably, if Stroman can prove he’s healthy prior to the deadline, the Blue Jays ought to at least explore to see if someone will pay a hefty return. Kevin Pillar is under club control for two more years and could upgrade many center fields. Justin Smoak has a team option for next season. Russell Martin has an awful BABIP, but he can still frame and has shown he has positional versatility — he could have some value if the Blue Jays eat his contract. Relievers are at a premium as we witnessed last deadline and in the offseason, so most of the Blue Jays’ relief corps ought to be on the block.

The Blue Jays’ future resides at Double-A, and it’s not that far away. And perhaps rather than looking at 2018 as a failed shot at contention, it can now be looked upon as an opportunity to add to the next core. By selling short-term control assets now, the Blue Jays can shorten their downturn. Now, this might be easier said than done in a landscape of sellers, but there will be buyers. Considering that the first sellers to the market might have an advantage, now is the time to sell in Toronto.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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While I agree with your overall point, Danny Jansen should be the catcher in 2020, not Reese McGuire. The Blue Jays are allowed to use players at levels other than AA in their system for the rebuild.