How the Blue Jays’ 2003 draft influenced their 2015 playoff run

 

It’s interesting how the Blue Jays 2003 draft ended up impacting the fortunes of the magical 2015 playoff run

 

 

 

 

In this time when Spring Training and the 2020 regular season has been put on hold, it’s easy for the mind to wander in this baseball-less limbo we find ourselves in. One particular morning (at 3am while rocking my 9 month old back to sleep) I thought upon the sequence of events which brought Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays.

 

What were you doing in 2003? Myself, I was almost a teenager, and I don’t really remember 2003 for anything in particular I did – such as in school or daily life. I mostly remember that year for the films which occupied my time and attention. “Bruce Almighty” came to the big screen (*meh), “The Pirates of the Caribbean” saga began with “The Curse of the Black Pearl” (*hmm ok), but most importantly “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy came to a dramatic conclusion in December with “The Return of the King” (***Now we’re talking).

 

What were our Toronto Blue Jays doing in 2003? Our super stars – Vernon Wells, Carlos Delgado, and Roy Halladay – they were doing super star things, combining for a 16.1 fWAR. The team finished the year with a very respectable 86-76, which unfortunately was only good for 3rd in the AL East that year. This was, of course, the era of Red Sox and Yankee dominance in the AL East. However, it’s what the Jays (in this case, the front office) did in June of 2003 which had the most lasting impact – or the most direct connection to returning to the postseason.

 

With the 80th overall pick, in the 3rd round of the 2003 MLB June amateur draft, the Blue Jays selected right handed pitcher Shaun Marcum. While 1st round selection Aaron Hill had much more attention surrounding him, both prior to and after his MLB debut, Shaun Marcum had more of a direct connection to the Blue Jays ending their 20+ year playoff drought.

 

Making his debut in 2005, Shaun Marcum really wasn’t a factor in the Jays rotation until 2007 and 2008 (where he pitched 159 & 151 innings to a 4.13 & 3.39 ERA, respectively).  In September of 2008, Marcum left a start with elbow pain – only to eventually have the dreaded news of Tommy John Surgery being required. He missed the remainder of 2008, and all of the 2009 season. As is the case with all who have Tommy John surgery, there were questions to how effective he would be upon his return. However, prior to the 2010 season, he was named the opening day starter – and on opening day he went 7 strong innings against the Texas Rangers (while not actually allowing a hit until the 7th). Marcum never looked back after opening day, setting new personal milestones in many statistical categories and had a career year (see below). As well, 2010 would end up being his most productive season from an fWAR perspective in his career.

 

Then came the offseason, where saying ‘the Blue Jays sold high’ was an understatement. Shaun Marcum was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers – for a Canadian infield prospect named Brett Lawrie. Although we don’t know which team initiated the trade, we can assume the Jays front office was likely quite eager in moving a pitcher with only two seasons of control. Lawrie’s younger age and contractual control aligned more with the competitive window the Jays were cultivating towards with their young cornerstone players – such as J.P. Arencibia, Travis Snider, and Rickey Romero.

 

Acquiring a position player prospect for two seasons of Shaun Marcum seemed to be a shrewd move – when at the time in 2010, Lawrie was the 26th overall prospect on MLB’s top 50 prospects list. In other words, a highly touted prospect in exchange for two seasons of a pitcher with only one great season, a checkered past of health and performance, and still fresh off Tommy John Surgery. I’m not trying to be one of those fans who continually voices the praise of the now departed Alex Anthopoulos – but this trade held up from day one. You have to make this trade 10 times out of 10.

 

Objectively, we can compare what each acquisition brought to their new team. From an fWAR standpoint (helped by being in Toronto more than 2 seasons), Lawrie was the more productive of the two. However, Marcum was respectable, not as good as his 2010 break out – but a solid anchor to the Brewers rotation. His stability was part of the reason the Brewers would win the central (96-66) and make it to the NLCS in 2011. So from the Brewers perspective, they were likely happy with the move as it helped them achieve what they set out to.

 

Another comparison, less analytical and more just interesting, was made possible by Marcum  moving to the pitcher-hitting NL. Both teams fared equally in having their new player hit their first career grand slam. Almost within a month of each other (*to my own delight at the time) Marcum and Lawrie hit their respective first career grand slams. Marcum on July 4th 2011 off Daniel Hudson, and Lawrie on August 10th 2011 off the Oakland Athletics (*Spoiler alert,  I’m going to mention another grand slam the Jays hit off the Athletics…)

 

Now comes the part of the Lawrie acquisition which is less easily measurable, and is the connection to the main thread of my article. Lawrie’s involvement in the November 2014 acquisition of Josh Donaldson from the Oakland Athletics (the 2nd grand slam…). Although he was only a quarter of the package sent to the Athletics (Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin, and Franklin Barreto), it was clearly reported at the time that Oakland wouldn’t make the trade without the young 3B Lawrie being included. As we all know, Donaldson’s MVP season, his 8.7 fWAR, his clubhouse presence, and his “get it done league” comments all significantly contributed to the incredible 2015 playoff return (in addition to Martin, Price, Tulo, etc.). Without Donaldson, the 2015 Blue Jays look much different.

 

Could an alternative package have been agreed upon for the Donaldson trade – it’s hard to say. It was reported at the time that Oakland, in addition to the young players it was receiving, wanted a major-league-ready replacement for Donaldson. With that in mind, an alternative trade seems hard to imagine.

 

Going back to the 2003 draft with some retrospective knowledge, we can see an interesting chain of events which culminate and contribute to 2015’s success. Following it through: 1) With no drafted Shaun Marcum – there is no Brett Lawrie. 2) With no Brett Lawrie – there is no Josh Donaldson. 3) With no Josh Donaldson – the Jays likely aren’t in a close enough position to go ‘all in’ with their trades of July 2015. If alternatives occurred in any of those circumstances, we might not have the fond 2015 playoff memories to hold on to.

 

 

 

 

*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.

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Pete McCombie

Pete is an avid baseball fan - primarily focusing on the Toronto Blue Jays. Once a timid fan in his adolescence, a 54 home run season won his heart over. He could be heard screaming triumphantly one October evening after an infamous bat flip. Approximately 12 months later, he reacted similarly to the Donaldson Dash. He eagerly awaits the next chapter of October jubilation for his team.