Friday, April 28, 2017

Blue Jay Way ... or, why this ain't one of those snappy Beatles tunes

The title is not quite fair: Blue Jay Way is one of the few Beatles tunes that has not held up well. It has its fans but a fair number of critics as well. It is a song about boredom and, I guess, the current incarnation of the Toronto Blue Jays are not boring. Most fans, I think, would use terms like "frustrating," "upsetting," "down right rotten," "62 Mets" ... or terms like that. (If you don't get the Mets reference don't worry about it. It has nothing to do with what follows.) What I am trying to get at is two things:


  1. Why do the Jays suck?
  2. What is the organizational philosophy that guides the Jays in terms of team development?

The answers to these two questions are inter-related, at least that is what I think. Before getting to that, however, we often hear about organizational philosophies. The Cardinals, for instance, are a team that supposedly has a "way" -- a way of doing things, of developing players, of playing that game, of competing in their league and division. One of the things that frustrates Jays fans is that the Jays don't really seem to have that "way" or ... well ... if they do, it is problematic. If the Jays have a way it might be this: focus on power for offence and try to accumulate good players on the margins. Find that deal or steal that others have missed. It is great when this happens: J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada,  Bautista in his prime, Josh Donaldson ... a player whose value to his home organization has been under valued or even to the league as a whole.  Over the last few years, the Jays have not done a great deal of player development outside of three pitchers (Sanchez, Stroman, Osuna) and role players (Goins, Pillar -- who are good role players, in my view, but more on this later).

And, this is what the Jays did this year. Their goal was to find deals on the free agent market (Morales, Pearce, Smith and Howell in the bullpen)  that gave them enough capacity to go forward and compete if they could get another year out of Bautista and Martin and enough offence from Donaldson, Tulo, and Travis. This would, ideally, cover over the manifest holes in their team (depth in relief pitching, the lack of a bona fide lead off player, Bautista's declining defence, the lack of a backup catcher). 

Right now, what we are seeing is the manifest failure of this plan. This has happened because of injuries, to be sure, and perhaps because of slow starts, but also because, in my view, the talent really wasn't there in the first place. Bautista may "turn it on" but is anyone really surprised that a 36 year old ballplayer is struggling? With a few rare exceptions, there are very few 36 year old outfielders in the game who play regularly. 36 is simply past prime and considerably past prime, for the vast majority of players. Bautista's exercise regime may have helped him put off the day of reckoning, as it were, but it cannot put off father time forever. Likewise, Morales will turn 34 this summer. What this means is that there is a greater chance that his decline in production is a real decline and not a bad streak. He'll have good streaks, to be sure, but all the talk about him breaking out by playing in Rogers Centre as opposed to Kaufmann ... well ... that was misplaced. It might have been true for someone in their mid-20s or even late 20s. But, it is not true forever. Likewise, Pearce ... who just turned 34 and Howell (also 34) and Grilli (39?). 

I want to be clear, this does not mean that these players have no value. It means instead that we should not be surprised by a decline in abilities. In effect, for the Jays to make the playoffs this year they had to gamble two things:

1. All these older players could fight off father time for another year at a sufficient level to cover over other weaknesses. Thus, they had not just to fight off father time, but they had to do so in a way that disguised other manifest weaknesses that harmed the Jays chances. (The point: it is one thing to be an older player on a good team where you are in a support role. It is another thing to be an older player on a team that is counting on you to meet your historical standards of production.) 

2. That the team suffered no significant injuries (outside perhaps of middle infield) because there was not a lot of depth in the system.  That is, there was no one waiting on the bench or in AAA who was a game-changer just waiting for their chance. 

What has gone on so far is that both of these gambles have lost. 

Is this a failure for the Blue Jay Way? Perhaps but I actually think something else is going on here as well. I am not sold on the Jays upper level management.  I know that there were not a lot of options, but I've actually seen little evidence that there is something going on that provides a light at the end of the tunnel. Some of these problems have been known for some time (bullpen depth, the defensive abilities of aging outfielders, the lack of a leadoff player) and ... well ... I know it is more difficult to solve a problem than to identify it but, organizationally, one would like to see some movement to addressing those well known problems in something other than a stop-gap, can we get enough to get through the year, way. Even if Grilli were pitching better, he is not the future of the Jays pen (I like him, btw), likewise Pearce in LF, Bautista in RF ... Pillar as leadoff. 

So what is the organizational plan. I don't think the Jays front office planned to fail, but I do think that they are smart enough to know that this was a definite possibility. The current situation may be worse than imagined but I think that Shapiro and Atkins are *not* idiots and they knew that there was a very real possibility that the Jays would be out of it by, say, before the All-Star break. 

In that case, what were they planning. Let me acknowledge that I have no evidence of this, but I think they were planning a fire sale. If the Jays were out of it, I think they were going to look to trade players, in effect doing a White Sox: trading their best players to accumulate prospects. 

Who is on the block? Who knows for sure, but I would guess Donaldson would be attractive, Martin (if he does not have a no trade clause), Tulo (which might require eating some salary), perhaps even Morales, and Bautista (though ... if Bautista does not come around, no one will want him), Grilli (same proviso), Estrada, Liriano, Happ if he's off the DL,  ... or perhaps even a big of a bigger and surprising name like Osuna or Stroman (I doubt Sanchez, but a friend of mine who is more than a bit knowledgable about the game thinks he will be on the block because ultimately the Jays don't want to deal with his agent). 

There are always difficult decisions. If you were to ask White Sox management if they would *prefer* to have Chris Sale ... I think they would laugh and say "duh." But, they would then also say "but we were not going to win with him because we had too many other problems with our team. He was out most valuable commodity and so the best way to retool was by trading him for a bunch of good prospects who will be game ready in a year or so." 

The Jays management will find itself in the same situation. Do they think they have gotten their money's worth from Estrada and Happ? Duh. Would they prefer to have JD playing 3B? Duh. Do they want to eat salary to move Tulo ... I sure doubt it. But -- and this is my point -- this is the only scenario that actually makes sense. I have no evidence for this interpretation of the Jays season, or rather what I am speculating about their upper management. But, as I have said, the alternative is that Shapiro and Atkins are idiots who don't have a clue what they are doing and that is difficult to believe. 
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