The Front Office In Hibernation?

Jon "MLB Insider" Nava

Dec 14th 2016

After a second successful season that culminated in a return trip to the American League Championship Series, the Toronto Blue Jays headed into the 2016 offseason with a few key personnel decisions.  Those decisions would go a long way into deciding whether or not the team makes the postseason in 2017.

The first would be the re-signing of first baseman / designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion, who during his time in Toronto has flourished in a Blue Jays uniform.  Encarnacion has expressed a desire to stay in Toronto, given the fact the club gave him a chance to show off his offensive skills after a stunted start to his MLB career in Cincinnati.  The 2016 season was truly a year for Encarnacion to show off those skills, especially to cash in on his free agent status.  Edwin registered single-season career highs in runs, hits, runs batted in, walks, total bases and tied a season-best mark in home runs with 42 - a count that finished third in the American League home run standings.  All this set Encarnacion up for possibly the biggest contract of his career - and quite possibly the biggest blunder by his management team.  The club offered a four-year deal with average monies that fell well short of the money and five-year contract Encarnacion's side requested. As of this writing, Encarnacion still remains unsigned as teams seem to be scared of the term he is looking for; while his hitting seems not to be slacking, teams fear the possible regression of signing the 33-year old to a long-term contract.

The refusal of the club's offer to Encarnacion meant General Manager Russ Atkins looked elsewhere immediately to fill the void in Encarnacion's spots at DH and first base.  The first domino fell when Atkins signed Kansas City Royals DH Kendrys Morales to a three-year deal on November 18. Morales, a switch-hitter, provides a left-handed bat in an already dominant right-handed hitting Blue Jays lineup.  The next one fell with the acquisition of 1B-DH-OF Steve Pearce, the ex-Baltimore Oriole who has been steeled for battle in the competitive American League East.  Pearce also has a career .852 OBP (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) versus left-handed pitching, a stat becomes more valuable in light of the Boston Red Sox acquiring perennial All-Star lefty Chris Sale in a trade on December 6th.  While the two signings to provide some flexibility on the roster and the payroll, the inevitable loss of fan favourite Encarnacion and his 30+ home runs a season may have a damaging effect on the team's successes in the following years.

The second decision concerns quite possibly the Blue Jays best player since Roberto Alomar in the 90's - right fielder Jose Bautista.  Bautista etched his name in Blue Jays lore with his home-run flair for the dramatic in the 2015 postseason, in addition to setting a single-season club record in home runs in 2010.  Bautista's free-agent walk year was quite the opposite of his countryman Encarnacion - interrupted by injury and inconsistency, Bautista struggled to his lowest home run total and OPS since 2009, his first full season in Toronto.  In light of his contract demands made during 2016 Spring Training - no hometown discounts - his bargaining power became diminished as the season came to a close. He, like Encarnacion, remains unsigned as of this writing.  Talks between the club and Bautista still remain ongoing, possibly on a shorter deal to continue his time in Toronto.

The Blue Jays have already suffered other defections during this winter, as pitchers Joaquin Benoit, Brett Cecil and R.A. Dickey have left for National League pastures.  Benoit, part of the bullpen bridge to closer Roberto Osuna, signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.  The much-maligned Dickey, a hurler who should have been remembered for eating innings in Toronto instead of being the significant piece in a deal that swapped prospect (and now possible ace hurler) Noah Syndegaard to the New York Mets, joined the Atlanta Braves.  But the most personal departure is left-handed hurler Brett Cecil, a Blue Jays draft pick who came up through the farm system and became an average starting pitcher and an even better reliever in the back half of his tenure in Toronto.  Cecil was the second-longest tenured Blue Jay (behind Bautista) and knew the highs and lows of playing in Toronto.  Cecil now plys his trade for the St. Louis Cardinals on a four-year deal.

The team still grades incomplete for this offseason. The club needs a corner outfielder and back-up catcher - both preferred left-handed hitters to provide balance to the right-handed hitting lineup.  Since desirables like Josh Reddick and Adam Eaton have been signed or traded for, secondary targets like Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon might be considered in a trade.  Relievers to replace the slack of Benoit and Cecil's work and provide the necessary bridge to Osuna are key.  All in all, a bit of a stumble to the Blue Jays offseason as they work to build on consecutive playoff appearances and sustain the momentum and maintain the fan base's faith and increased interest in the team.

Despite the highs and lows, a playoff berth wasn't for certain until the last weekend of the regular season in Boston.  Needing to win the series versus the Red Sox in order to at least clinch a wild card berth, the club did so despite a trying September that saw them cede the division title to Boston.  A last-day effort that saw Sanchez throw a no-hitter through five-plus innings, along with a Travis home run and a tie-breaking Tulowitzki RBI single, saw the team win its first-ever AL Wild Card berth.

I didn't have the chance to attend the wild card game versus the Baltimore Orioles.  In my sheer optimism for the team, before their September swoon, I scoffed at the notion they'd need such an avenue to get to the postseason, and thus didn't order tickets for said game.  Turns out my hubris was incorrect, and the team played in its first wild card game two days after the regular season ended.  It turned out to be one of the greatest games I've ever seen - living and dying on each pitch, each out, each run scored - and made much sweeter when Encarnacion hit that ball into the open-domed reaches of the second deck in left-centrefield.  I also didn't have the chance to see Game 3 of the ALDS, as I had tickets for a possible Game 4. I didn't think the Blue Jays would sweep the series, and in the most excitable fashion.  The series-ending winning run will be forever known to me as the Donaldson Dash, as Josh scored from second base on an errant throw by (who else?) the Rangers' Odor, a karmic punishment for clocking (and crowing about it) Bautista earlier in the regular season.

Toronto became loud during these playoffs.  In another piece I've written on this site, I talked about the phenomenon of #TorontoLoud and what it meant for me as a fan.  I became part of #TorontoLoud when I attended Games 3, 4 and 5 of the ALCS, hoping to help will the boys out of a 2-game defecit to Cleveland.  Unfortunately, our faithful and vocal exuberance was only on display during the Game 4 Toronto triumph, as each team who scored first in the ALCS never gave up the lead.  Cleveland scored in the first inning of Games 3 & 5 to nullify the noise component.  The Blue Jays couldn't do much offensively (only eight Blue Jays runs scored the whole series), as they found the same fate as their division rivals from Boston.

I didn't believe it was the end during Game 5, even as Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada gave up three runs in the first four innings versus Cleveland.  I didn't believe it was over even when eventual ALCS Most Valuable Player, left-handed reliever Andrew Miller, came in the bottom of the sixth inning and eventually got eight outs.  I didn't believe it was over even when Cleveland closer Cody Allen struck out both Donaldson and Encarnacion after a lead-off Bautista double.  It was only when the Tulowitzki foul ball nestled into Santana's first base mitt I knew then it was the end.  Was it the end for this Blue Jays team as a playoff contender?  I wouldn't know the answer until next season.  It was a strong possibility that some of these players would be ex-Blue Jays come 2017, like Bautista, Encarnacion and Saunders.  But that was the furthest thing from my mind as the Toronto crowd silently filtered out to the exits and the big screen congratulated Cleveland on winning its first AL title since 1997.  To me, all it meant is that out of the seven postseason games I've seen at Rogers Centre, only twice I've seen the Blue Jays come out the victor.  I even exclaimed on social media a possible vow never to return for a home playoff game, lest the team's luck would change.  But inside I knew I could never keep that promise, because I would miss that dizzying high of possible victory, a warmth that would sustain me - until the next loss, unfortunately.

I lingered in the stands as long as I could after Game 5, choosing not to see the celebration that I thought would happen to my team this year.  My other baseball blood brother, Matt, did not want to dwell or linger on the mistakes made that led to this second straight ALCS loss.  We agreed to give Cleveland their due - their relief pitching and timely offence carried them to this year's World Series.  At the same time, I thought lessons had been learned from 2015, that losing last year would result in winning this year.  And I remembered the Blue Jays playoff contending teams of years past, who lost in heartbreaking fashion late in season (1987, 1990) or in the playoffs (1985, 1989 and 1991) before summitting that peak in 1992.  Despite the possible offseason defections, and finishing one game less in this year's ALCS, this team knows how to win.  There is a good core in place, from the likes of Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Martin, Sanchez, Osuna, Happ, Estrada and starting pitcher Marcus Stroman.  Only a true pessismist would think that this playoff experience would not bolster future October appearances. Cold comfort to be sure, but I hope this playoff experience emboldens the bunch that remain for next season and beyond.



Toronto Blue Jays: The Eulogy For 2016

Jon "Is it Spring Training Yet?" Nava

Oct. 24th 2016

As Cleveland first baseman Carlos Santana settled under Toronto shortstop Troy Tulowitzki's foul popup, I turned away from the impending celebration by the visiting team.  Not as a sign of disrespect, but I just didn't want this 2016 season to end in the American League Championship Series.

I didn't want to close the book on a season that had many hair-pulling twists and turns, moments exhilarating and depressing, just for it to finally close on a Wednesday, mid-October evening in Toronto.  These last two seasons have made me not just rediscover the joy of being a Blue Jays fan, but it's also made many friends, family and strangers whom I thought never had that inkling or discarded them for the last twenty-plus years to share in these jubiliant feelings.

I've attended eight Major League Baseball playoff games in my life.  The first was a game in the 2009 American League Division Series between the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Boston Red Sox.  I was visiting Orange County that October and the opportunity arose to check out a playoff game at Angels Stadium.  I had no real tie or allegiance to either squad; if pressed to cheer for either team, I would root for Canadian Jason Bay, a Red Sox outfielder (I wore his Team Canada t-shirt that night, and only a handful of fans noticed).  While watching this game, I didn't feel any spark or emotional connection to either side, not feeling any vested interest to whether who won or lost. I realized since then that while I'm a MLB fan, I'm a Toronto Blue Jays fan at heart and I could never again go to a playoff game if they weren't involved.

Fast forward six years later to Toronto's ascension to its first divsion title since 1993.  I never got the chance to see any previous playoff series set in Toronto, and I'm getting goosebumps even sitting in the stands for Game 1 of the ALDS.  Noise started from the first pitch onwards and never let up unless the Rangers or Royals scored.  I've probably attended almost 300 or so MLB games in my lifetime, but being in the playoffs felt different.  Good different.  It mattered not to me that of the four games I saw in the 2015 ALDS/ALCS, the team only won once (Game 3 of the ALCS, seen with my baseball blood brother Andrew).  The 2015 season was a great introduction to this new generation of Blue Jays fans who knew nothing of the World Series winning teams of 1992 or 1993, and a great reminder of those who remembered those back-to-back titles.

The 2016 season felt different in the way that there was some unfinished business from the 2015 ALCS.  The team felt they were better than the Kansas City Royals, and in some ways they were, but ultimately the Royals' experience from their World Series loss in 2014 served them well for 2015.  The 2016 Blue Jays were now on a mission to improve in October, having known what it took to get to that point and ultimately building on that success. 

Offseason additions like J.A. Happ, Drew Storen and Jesse Chavez were to bolster a pitching staff that was minus staff ace David Price, along with relievers Liam Hendriks and Mark Lowe.  While Storen and Chavez failed to deliver on that promise, Happ became the team's first 20-game winner since Roy Halladay's penultimate season in Toronto (2008).  Outfielder Michael Saunders, held to only 31 at-bats in 2015, was ready to claim the outfield position he lost to injury.  Saunders was an All-Star reserve for his first-half efforts, but tailed off considerably before having an excellent postseason.  Pitcher Aaron Sanchez finally settled the debate on him being used as a bridge to sophmore closer Roberto Osuna or being trotted out every fifth day as a starter.  The latter option won out, with tremendous results - Sanchez won the AL earned run average title, while having a 15-2 won-loss record.  Second baseman Devon Travis, who was having a Rookie of The Year season in 2015 before it ended that July due to injury, claimed back the job in May and was the only Blue Jay regular to hit .300 in 2016.

The mainstays were more or less their consistent selves, save for a few.  Third baseman and 2015 AL Most Valuable Player Josh Donaldson continued his outstanding play (.953 On Base Percentage plus Slugging Percentage [OPS], 7.4 Wins Above Replacement [WAR]), with his main highlight a three-home run game in late August that helped the team to their highest winning percentage all year.  First baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion tied a season-best with 42 home runs, and tied for the AL lead in runs batted in with 127 (a single-season career best).  The aforementioned Tulowitzki found his swing to almost match his Golden Glove, socking 24 homers despite missing a month of action. Catcher Russell Martin swung a hot bat in July and August en route to another 20-homer season.

The one constant in the Blue Jays lineup in years past ceased to be consistent for the whole of 2016. Outfielder Jose Bautista, the face of the franchise since his 54-home run season in 2010 and the team's most potent playoff weapon in 2015, was considerably less so in 2016.  Problems physically - a bizarre foot injury caused by entaglement with netting at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Ballpark (another argument against interleague play!) - along with inconsistency at the plate (.817 OPS and 1.0 WAR, both lows during his time in Toronto) were among the main factors in Jose's worst season in a Blue Jays uniform.  Add in his unwavering contract demands in Spring Training, along with getting punched in the jaw by Texas Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor (as retaliation for his tiebreaking, bat-flipping home run to win Game 5 of the ALDS last October) made the 2016 season a trying one for Jose and his Toronto fans.

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