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So… quite the season so far, huh?
We’re heading deep into the dog days of August, and though the Jays are mathematically still hanging around the playoff conversation, and it continues to feel like a betrayal to suggest that it’s impossible they’ll close the gap and make it interesting in September, the frustration among the fan base is growing thick as a slice of Pat Tabler’s insufferable analysis.
Negative things have compounded, become distorted in scale, and have even sucked into the pile what may in other years have been perfectly reasonable cases of the club employing good process to bad effect.
Let’s go back to where it all began: how this year’s roster came together– or, in many ways, didn’t– and how we viewed it at the time.
In case you’ve forgotten, the inability to trade for front-line pitching last winter, for example, was entirely excusable given the required cost– y’known, unless you were super keen on offering up Brett Lawrie to get a deal done.
Even the decision not to add rotation depth that would block the opportunities for the group of young pitchers behind the club’s big two seemed reasonable enough– a calculated gamble with the expectation of making a mid-summer addition via trade, if needed, and of better performance (looking at you Brett Cecil, Joel Carreno, Chad Jenkins, and Deck McGuire), and better health (amiright, Dustin McGowan, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison?) among the internnal options.
The bullpen, we believed, would be a strength. Even with the red flags on Francisco Cordero– and the unnerving reverence for what he used to be– there was the one big arm the club did acquire: Sergio Santos. There was the ageless Darren Oliver. The dependable returnees Janssen, Frasor, and Villanueva. There was Luis Perez and Joel Carreno, who both looked capable in their stints at the end of 2011. And, potentially, there would have been an arm or two to slide into the ‘pen among those who didn’t make the rotation, like Aaron Laffey.
The bench at the big league level was a concern, but there were key position players in the minors like d’Arnaud, Hechavarria, Snider and Gose who were ready, or close to it, for Major League duty, and would be able to provide help midway through the season at the latest.
From what I recall, the biggest question marks as the club headed into camp– apart from which pitchers, of the many available, would step up to fill the void at the back of the rotation, and how the club would eventually handle those with innings limits– were in left field, at first base, DH, and centre. And the last two of those positions appear to have been solidified emphatically over the course of the year.
That’s obviously not a terribly rosy picture, even if you do agree with my assessment of the rotation and bullpen– and, of course, many won’t, entirely fairly believing all along that it was a mistake not to block their young starters with at least some veteran help.
Indeed, there were a number of mid-cost options that have worked out reasonably well for the clubs who pursued them: multi-year deals for Bruce Chen ($9M), Aaron Harang ($12M), Chris Capuano ($10M), Wei-Yin Chen ($12M), and one year fliers at less than $5-million on Erik Bedard, Bartolo Colon or Paul Maholm.
But the thing is, it would be a tad too revisionist to merely look at the shattered pieces of the Jays’ rotation, then at the relative success those guys have had, and to lament too hard the club’s unwillingness to throw money after them last winter (seriously, look at those names again), or to act like even the best of the bunch– Colon, and his 2.3 fWAR through two-thirds of the season– would definitely have turned the club’s fortunes around dramatically this year.
Yes, an arm like that would have helped ease the rotation troubles, kept at least one better pitcher available in the bullpen or the minors, and maybe even changed the club’s approach at the trade deadline. But so much has gone so wrong– particularly injury-wise– that it would require some serious mental gymnastics to convince oneself that all of the best possible outcomes of having one of those pitchers were destined to have happened, and would have led to the club being in a much better position than it is now.
The realists among us knew from the start that, even in good health, the club would be hard pressed to truly compete, and the actions of the front office– though maybe not their spin– pointed in that exact direction as well. And that was OK.
The club, as constructed, was believable enough as a dark horse, yet far enough away that spending on the types of pitchers mentioned wasn’t likely to move the needle enough to justify the cost– especially when you think in terms of future flexibility (because while obviously Rogers has enough money to outspend anyone, or to take the hit on contracts that are hardly close to crippling in the baseball economy, to expect the kind of massive investment in the club required to kickstart a new golden age is hopelessly naive of not only the layers of corporate murk required to push through in order to make such a thing happen, but of how Alex Anthopoulos almost certainly sold his vision in order to get the job, as well.).
I suggested at the start of the season that this year’s version of the Jays may not have a better record than last’s, but that they’d be better. This incensed the types of fans who, all along, were going to refuse to take the long view– those who, in their unwillingness to search for more than the most narrow, petty answers to their frustrations, are served, and rooted on by far too many cynical mouthpieces in the local media– but I stand by it.
And I think that, given what they’ve learned about themselves this year, the additional core pieces more firmly in place, the additional year of prospect growth in the minors, and the budget flexibility Anthopoulos continues to work to preserve for himself, there’s a very good chance that in 2013 they’ll be better still– and with better health, it’s even more likely to be reflected in their record.
Coming into the year with those kinds of stated goals wouldn’t have exactly hit a home run with the marketing department, and they belied slightly the realistic chances that the Jays had of catching the kind of bottled lightning that the Baltimore Orioles seem to have blindly stumbled upon. But all things considered, completely unsatisfying as they are (especially since they’re essentially unchanged from the goals of the last few seasons), they’re fine accomplishments.
Edwin Encarnacion is now here for the long-term. We feel far better than we did a year ago about Brandon Morrow, Colby Rasmus and Casey Janssen. Unsexy as it is, they’ve added quality relief arms, some depth in that regard, and some potentially excellent late inning guys in Brad Lincoln and Sergio Santos (and Marcus Stroman, as well). It shouldn’t be lost, either, that the club appears finally setup to give up the ghosts of the last several years and find a real left fielder and first baseman (or DH– same difference).
Granted, these are small consolations for what’s been a thoroughly dispiriting year, but they’re accomplishments nonetheless. As sickening as it is for some fans to have to bear the thought of waiting until next year– as badly as they want to be petty crybabies and insist that this next pushing back of the goal posts is exactly the same and exactly as futile as all the other ones– a simple step back would bring it into clear view that the club continues, albeit not as quickly as anyone would like, to make small but meaningful strides towards excellence, and that the picture above should in no way be the main takeaway from this season.