The Blue Jays’ Upcoming Quandary

It’s early. Like, early early. The Cincinnati Reds and Arizona Diamondbacks are tied for the best record in the National League. The Angels’ best hitter has been Yunel Escobar, not Mike Trout. Mike Leake has been among the most dominant starting pitchers in baseball. Because most teams have played eight or nine games, the standings and the leaderboards look weird. They’ll look more normal in the not-too-distant future.

But for all the wisdom that’s contained within calls not to overreact to early-season performance, the reality is that games in April count, too, and if a team digs a deep enough hole, it stops being early pretty quickly. The Blue Jays, who lost again last night to fall to 1-7, aren’t quite there yet, but they’ve certainly cleared a path towards a potentially very difficult set of decisions this summer.

Coming into the year, our forecasts had the Blue Jays projected for 86 wins, and had them solidly as the fourth-best team in the American League. Not a for-sure contender, but the safest bet among the Wild Card contenders. Our staff saw it similarly, with 33 of 54 writers putting them in the postseason.

A week and a half into the season, our forecasts now expect the Blue Jays to finish 81-81. Here’s how their daily playoff odds have moved since Opening Day.

From 52% to 26% in a eight games isn’t easy to pull off, but the Jays combined a lot of losses with occupying the perfect spot on the expected win curve where each additional loss moves the needle the most. We now have the Jays projected to finish the year with the seventh-best record in the AL, and only a half-game ahead of the team with the 10th-best projected record.

Even if you’re not adjusting their expected future winning percentage down in a massive way based on what has happened so far — and we’re not, as our rest-of-season projection has them playing like an 84-win team over the next 154 games — the early struggles have just made the task more difficult. If you think you have to win 90 games to grab a Wild Card spot, the Blue Jays now have to win 89 out of their remaining 154, which translates to a .578 winning percentage over the rest of the season. The Cubs and Dodgers are the only two teams we have forecast to play at that level. The Blue Jays are not the Cubs or the Dodgers.

And the problem with lousy starts for teams like the Blue Jays is that they don’t really have 154 games to make up all this ground. They really only have about 100 games to put themselves back into a strong playoff position, because come July, they’ll have to make a real buy-or-sell decision. Given this roster, holding everyone together and hoping things work out probably can’t be an option.

Jose Bautista is 36. J.A. Happ, Russell Martin, and Kendrys Morales are 34. Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano are 33. Troy Tulowitzki is 32, and Josh Donaldson is 31. There are a few good young pitchers whom the team can see as their long-term core, but mostly, this team is old. If the Blue Jays aren’t sure they can make a run at a playoff spot this year, it’s incumbent upon the front office to try and turn some of these veterans with short-term value into younger pieces who could help the team in 2018 and beyond, because if they don’t add some more young talent to the mix, they’re in for some lean years in the future.

But the team is struggling right now because those veterans aren’t performing. Bautista and Martin have one extra-base hit apiece. Tulo has four extra-base hits, but only one single and two walks. Donaldson (199) and Morales (109) are the only two hitters on the team with a wRC+ over 100, and since Morales’s personal scoring position is halfway down the third-base line, his hits don’t lead to runs as often as wRC+ would suggest. The offense, as a whole, has a 58 wRC+; for comparison, Rey Ordonez has a career 54 wRC+.

The old pitchers aren’t helping out much, either. Between them, Estrada, Happ, and Liriano have given up 19 runs in 22 innings pitched. Basically every key veteran on this team, with the exception of Donaldson, has been a disaster so far.

If the Jays are going to get back into the race, it’s going to be because the old guys start playing like we expected them to play. These are some good hitters here — or at least some not-bad hitters — who are performing horribly, and that won’t last for much longer. But unless the team turns around quickly and dramatically, the Blue Jays are likely going to be faced with a tough fork in the road this summer.

If the old guys don’t turn things around enough, and the Jays are clearly out of the race by July, the decision would theoretically be easy: move short-term for long-term and prioritize the future. But in this scenario, the very players the team would likely be hoping to trade for value would be the guys who hadn’t performed well enough to keep them in the race. If the Jays are clearly dead and buried by July, it’s very unlikely that Bautista is hitting bombs, Tulo and Martin have bounced back, and Estrada, Happ, and Sanchez are throwing well enough to look like someone worth starting in October.

If most or all of those things happened, the Blue Jays would likely still be contenders themselves. But even that outcome doesn’t lead to an easy call. Let’s say the Jays play like we thought they’d play before the season started over the 98 games they have left in April, May, June, and July, winning 53% of their games before they had to make buy-or-sell decisions. That would put them at 52-46 over that stretch, and would give them a July 31st record of 53-53.

How much incentive would there be for the Jays to add to a .500 roster, with the most likely good outcome placing them in another winner-take-all Wild Card game, a contest that would be a coin flip at best, just to reach the division series? If you’re sitting at .500 on July 31st, it’s difficult to justify giving up significant future value for the hope of making your team better when you’re playing to get into a single game.

And hanging over all this is the Josh Donaldson factor. Donaldson remains an elite player, one of the very best performers in baseball, but he’s a free agent after 2018. If the team sells this summer, getting him to sign a long-term extension is probably out the window, as he’s unlikely going to want to end his career on a team that may need to shift towards a rebuild as soon as next year. And if you don’t think you can keep Donaldson past next year, then perhaps they shouldn’t keep him past July.

Because if this team isn’t good enough to win this year, it’s hard to see how they’d be good enough to win next year, when Martin and Tulowitzki are a year older, and Estrada, Liriano, and Bautista (if he opts out) hit free agency. There isn’t a clear wave of young talent coming to make up for the declining veterans, and with Donaldson due a monster raise in his final arbitration year, plus the necessity of arbitration raises for Roberto Osuna and Marcus Stroman, some of the $50 million or so coming off the books will have to be spent on the guys they already have. And even if the freed-up money gave them $40 million or so to spend next winter, I don’t know how you get a right fielder, a left fielder, a first baseman, two starting pitchers, and some bullpen depth for $40 million anymore.

So, from here, the Jays look like they’ll probably travel one of three paths.

1. Win a lot of games in a hurry, making this entire discussion moot, and making it clear that they’re contenders in 2017, incentivizing the front office to upgrade this roster and try and make a run this year.

2. Continue to struggle, fall way out of the race, and make it clear that it’s time for a rebuild, at which point the team probably has to confront the reality of potentially trading Josh Donaldson, since the aging veterans who helped them collapse likely won’t have a ton of trade value.

3. Meander to a .500-ish record at the deadline, leaving the team to risk pushing in to try and upgrade an okay-but-not-great roster to make a Wild Card game, to keep some decent trade chips past the deadline and potentially let them walk with minimal compensation if they leave as free agents, or to proactively sell while they still can, which could mean alienating fans who think there one more postseason run left in this roster.

Scenario 1 is clearly the most preferable. Win and these problems go away. But they’ll need to win a lot, and soon, to make that happen. In either Scenario 2 or 3, the Jays could be looking at a step back in 2018, which then puts pressure on the organization to make a decision on Josh Donaldson. If they’re convinced he’s not going to re-sign in Toronto, keeping him past this deadline could cost them a significantly valuable piece in trade, as teams will pay a lot more to get two postseason runs with Donaldson as opposed to just one. And if you’re trading Donaldson, you’re trading every veteran you get an offer on, because this team isn’t any good without their franchise third baseman.

It’s April 13. The Blue Jays don’t have to make any of these decisions right now. They have a few months to let the players dictate the path the organization will take. But by digging an early hole, the Blue Jays have set themselves up for a potential midseason fire sale. They still have plenty of time to turn things around, but if they’re limping into July as a .500 team, they’ll have to at least consider whether their window has already closed.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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This makes me sad.

Joshua Miller
Joshua Miller

Not me.

Sincerely O’s fan.


Well played sir