With Toronto below the .500 mark and two division rivals falling short of expectations, the Jays front office needs to move up its timetable for roster additions.
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It is a scientific fact that wild blue jays are not actually blue. The pigment in a blue jay’s feathers — melanin — is brown, but we perceive it as blue because of a phenomenon called light scattering. Most people don’t care that blue jays aren’t really blue and enjoy the illusion. But as the injury list swells, the fielding errors mount, and the pitching staff continues to work overtime, it seems ironic that jay feathers are actually brown. Because without bold and decisive actions by the front office in the next few weeks the Jays may well be in deep doo doo.
The Blue Jays are taking Monday off to travel the Pinellas peninsula and prepare to take on the Washington Nationals. The 8-11, under performing Washington Nationals. The first pitcher Toronto will face is 37-year old free-agent-to-be Max Scherzer. Not only will the Jays lineup be facing a two-time Cy Young Award winner, but the front office will be laying eyes on a solution to their 2021 pitching problems. Why is this noteworthy? Because a struggling Nationals side could be sent deeper into the cellar of the NL East by strong performances by Toronto. Which could only add to the whispers of an impending Scherzer trade before the July 31st trade deadline. The Blue Jays will not get an in-person look at another rumoured trade target, lefthanded starter Patrick Corbin. But you can be sure that the specter of Corbin and his 2 remaining years of control will enter the visions of media and fans focused on a Blue Jays roster in need of the caliber of starting pitchers such as Scherzer and Corbin.
Why are we discussing this at the end of April, instead of the last days of July. Because the Toronto Blue Jays are in a position of enviable strength right now. They have the financial resources and payroll flexibility less than a handful of other MLB teams possess. Nearly as valuable as the cash, the Blue Jays posses s the prospect capital valued so highly by opposing front offices. Especially shrewd general managers like Mike Rizzo of the Nationals, who is taking inventory of his team’s present while casting an experienced eye at the future. It can safely be said that on Tuesday and Wednesday night, the Blue Jays could find themselves circling the carcass of a playoff hopeful calling for last rites.
The 2020-21 off-season presented a snapshot of the challenges Ross Atkins faced as the general manager of not only an emerging playoff contender, but a team without a home for a second straight seasons. The likes of Robbie Ray, George Springer, Marcus Semien and Kirby Yates were added to the roster, while names like LeMahieu, Realmuto, Bauer and Walker were bandied around but landed elsewhere. When the feeding frenzy ended and the Blue Jays reported to Dunedin, it was obvious, on paper and in practice, there were serious holes remaining. A veteran, reliable starting pitcher and someone who could play third base without a learning curve being of primary concern. But what was done was done (or not done).
No doubt you have heard front office executives, not just in Dunedin, float a magical figure of “40-50 games” on Zoom meetings and weekly radio shows. This random point in the early season schedule has traditionally been used as a buffer by front office and field staff to determine “what we have and what we need to address.” In theory, this gives rookies and younger players some breathing room as they transition into roles on the major league roster. It also allows players recovering from injuries or transitioning to new positions. In practice these 40-50 games serves as a quarter pole. where fast-breaking upstarts show signs they can’t make the distance. Where contenders trapped in the pack start to find their openings to pass slower competition and to move into position to take the lead. Where longshots see their dreams of glory pulling away while dirt is kicked back in their faces.
After 21 games-approximately halfway to the first ‘magic number’ of the 2021 season, the Toronto Blue Jays are 10-11. Not out of the race, but certainly not where they envisioned themselves to be. Yes, they have taken series from the Yankees (twice) and the Rays. But a closer look at the standings show an opening in spite of playing sub .500 baseball. The morning line favorite Yankees are sharing last place in the division with the Orioles at 8-13, looking up at the Jays, Rays and Red Sox instead of down at them. The Rays are one game ahead of Toronto, but it is the under-estimated Red Sox that remain atop the AL East. No one anticipated the extend of the struggles of the defending division champion nor the presumed leader. Logic now dictates that the Blue jays must view themselves as a predator, not just a competitor, for a taste of the playoff pie. The wounded Blue Jays must compensate for their weakened state not by laying in the weeds until their foes weaken or stumble. They need to swoop in; feast on the weaker teams in the league and exploit their unique positioning in the food chain.
I used the Scherzer/Corbin option as an example of the type of market advantages Atkins could exploit. The Nationals can move valuable commodities like Scherzer, add a prospect project like Carter Kieboom (who can play 3b as well as shortstop and second base, to extract the prospect capital the Blue Jays can afford to part with. But it doesn’t have to be a first-strike trade with Washington that the Jays front office explots to their immediate advantage. German Marquez is a controllable front line starter that the Rockies need to move to improve their farm system and pitching staff while pooling resources to re-sign Trevor Story. Both Billy Beane in Oakland and his protege Farhan Zaidi have pitchers (Cueto, DeSclafini, Gausman, Bassitt, Fiers) and third base options (Matt Chapman, Evan Longoria anyone) that could immediately improve the Blue Jays pitching staff and solve their emergency needs at third base.
We haven’t even discussed the Cubs situation, which is a fire sale waiting to happen (paging Kris Bryant and Kyle Hendricks). Any and all the players will be targets for what will prove to be an active Trade Deadline. But exactly why would a team like like the Blue Jays, with payroll flexibility and prospect depth, feel the need to wait until their competition is ready to also make their move. Strike now. Go for the jugular. Put your actions where your big words were all off season and take advantage of a situation that will not present itself for another decade.
A word about highly touted farm systems and prospects. Are they an integral part of any successful sustainable franchise. Of course. But unless Rob Manfred has some sort of nefarious plan to change the rules of the game more radically than already proposed, their are still only 10 players in a daily lineup and 26 men on an active roster. All of your best prospects cannot make your team; thus they cannot all help a team win a pennant. Some must be considered expendable for the greater good of the franchise as a whole. Most prospects always look better on paper, like a long-distance romance that is enflamed by flowing correspondence. Quite often when you see you pen pal fiancee up close and personal, you wish you saved a sheet of paper to send a S.O.S. to family and friends. It is not uncommon for front offices to fall in love with players they drafted and developed. But it can prove to be harmful and disappointing if you lose perspective of the ultimate goal-winning championships.
At the risk of mixing sports metaphors, the AL East is the heavyweight division of MLB. Right now, the champ may not have the punching power it once had to retain the title. The #1 contender has had a nasty cut above his eye that is affecting his vision. And the upstart just doesn’t seem to have the stamina to steal the title away. So the smart contender must find the tools to best the other fighters and not wait for his chance to win the title. By Atkins moving now to acquire a frontline starter and defensive upgrade at third base, he is putting his fighter in position to do just that. They Jays could then stand toe to toe with the Rays, taking his best shots while knowing the knockout blow cannot be delivered-so you win on points. You go right after the bleeder on the Yankees, doing enough damage in the process that they throw in the towel before the fight is over. As for the Red Sox, you just pound them to the body, dance around their power, and know you can outlast them in the last round.
The time is now for the Blue Jays to be birds of prey, exploit their opponents weaknesses on the field and with the payrolls. Make the bold move without flinching and put the team on the field in the best position to win a title. If Atkins proves to be indecisive and stubborn, all that may be left to do in September is pray that Spring Training 2022 will not seem so far away.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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