The Jays’ Journey Back to Relevance

­Here at AL Eastbound, we’re all about following the Jays on their journey back to relevance and the Jays have given their fans good reason for hope for 2013. I’d like to take an opportunity to highlight some key moves over the last several years that have put them on the cusp of contending seriously for division, league, and world championships.

Alex Anthopoulos

When the Jays won the World Series in 1992 and 1993, Pat Gillick was the braintrust. His relentless pursuit of excellence meshed well with uncanny baseball acumen. When he left for other challenges (BAL; SEA; PHI), the Jays wandered in the baseball wilderness under successive general managers Gord Ash and JP Ricciardi.

Years of mediocrity (or worse) necessitated a change, and the Jays turned to Alex Anthopoulos. He was untried and unproven, and faced with the daunting task of reversing the negative momentum, hiring a competent skipper, dealing with their best player (Roy Halladay), and re-stocking a long-neglected farm system. He attacked the challenge with gusto but, alarmingly to some, their record spiraled downward.

That’s the point at which his efforts have taken on new meaning. His commitment to rebuilding the farm gave the Jays another form of ‘currency’, if you will: honest-to-goodness major league prospects. Since July 2012, he’s been using these prospects to fill spots on the major league roster and to make trades.

Some deals in the past few years have been difficult and, in some cases, the cost has been very steep. But for the first time in a few years (2007 was pretty good), the Jays are poised to make some noise. How did they get to this point? At the end of the year we generally like to reflect and reminisce, so let’s indulge ourselves.

Jose Bautista

The deal that sent catcher Robinzon Diaz to the Pittsburgh Pirates for utility player Jose Bautista may be remembered as one of the most lopsided in ML history. Apparently the Jays saw something in Bautista that made them believe he was capable of more. ‘More’ is exactly what they received.

‘More’ began in September, 2009, when Jose hit 10 home runs. The increased production resulted in more at bats, which led to more production, which led to more at bats, which led to, well you get the picture. 10 HR were followed by 54 HR in ’10. 2011 was a sight to behold, though. His ISO dropped substantially, but it had to: very few can maintain a .357 ISO. Countering this, his BABIP rose substantially, as did his BB%, OBP, wOBA, wRC+, and his K-rate, fielding, and base running all improved. This led to a jump in his fWAR from a star-level 6.8 to an MVP-calibre 8.3. He became one of the most complete players in MLB. All this for Robinzon Diaz.

An injury-riddled 2012 slowed his ascent, but his production was still at an all star level. The problem was that he’s not getting any younger, and if the Jays wanted to take advantage of his career peak, improvements would be necessary.

Free Agency? Alex Anthopoulos? Really?

It’s not his preferred method of player acquisition but, with the addition of MLB television-related revenue, the Blue Jays were flush and poised to make a move or two. Speculation abounded about top-notch FAs, such as Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, Anibal Sanchez, Edwin Jackson, Kyle Lohse, and many others. But AA didn’t go there. Instead he signed Maicer Izturis, formerly a super-sub with the Angels, as his initial move of the offseason. The move generated excitement—could anyone be less effective than Kelly Johnson had been?—but it was hardly the ‘big splash’ Toronto fans expected.

His next move on the FA market was more along the lines of what some anticipated. Melky Cabrera was suspended for using performance enhancing drugs. And he did it when he was poised to become a free agent. It’s the sort of situation that fits the Blue Jays’ modus operandi: quality players + low price = good value. This equation was used for both Colby Rasmus and Yunel Escobar as the team was built. Though their actual value is a matter for discussion, it’s undeniable that the Jays didn’t pay much to get them. Similarly, Melky’s disgrace made him available for a relatively low price.

Suddenly LF is no longer a question mark. No longer do Jays fans have to wonder whether this is the year that Travis Snider or Eric Thames breaks out, or whether Rajai Davis’ glaring defensive deficiencies could be hidden. Rajai’s on the bench as a 4th OF, where his strengths can be used most effectively.

Fishing for Marlin(s)

The much ballyhooed trade with Miami took place only a few weeks ago, but it has been thoroughly discussed, dissected, and assessed. Generally, the idea is that the Jays improved dramatically when they acquired Josh Johnson, Mark Buerhle, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, and John Buck. Suddenly, two things Alex Anthopoulos maintained all along—that he would improve the team when the time was right, and that he preferred to use the trade route—became realities.

This move improved the rotation by replacing Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek with Johnson and Buerhle. Reyes improves the IF defense and gives the Jays a bona fide lead-off hitter as well. Bonifacio and his ability to play a number of positions improved the bench, where glaring weakness were evident when the injury bug hit during the ’12 season. Buck’s acquisition, while attractive (former Jay; experienced; good power), would have shored up the Jays behind the plate, but his value was part of another surprising trade.

Let’s Go (Get Some) Mets!

It’s rare that a reigning Cy Young award winner is available, but this was one of those rare times. The Mets were looking to deal RA Dickey and the Jays were looking for another high-quality arm to augment their rotation. Throw in Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas and voila, the Jays were in business in front of the plate as well as behind it.

A rotation that was in tatters as recently as June 2012 was transformed completely by the addition of quality pitching from two teams looking to dump salaries. Two #1s (Dickey; Johnson), a #2 (Morrow), and a #3 (Buerhle), have pushed incumbent ‘ace’ Ricky Romero to the #5 spot in the rotation. His much-hoped-for return to form isn’t as crucial to their success as it might have been.

But It’s Only December…

We all know that games are won on the field, not on paper. But the team is actually better; no longer is it simply a matter of potential. The players they acquired were costly, but there’s absolutely no doubt that they’re better major league talent than the players they replaced. As a Jays’ fan I’m more excited about this team on paper than I have been about any other Jays team on paper over the last two decades. And I have good reason to be.

Five years from now may tell a different story, but the window is open NOW and NOW was the time for the journey back to relevance to be kicked into overdrive.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone. As I post this there are 99 days left until Opening Day, 2013.

Wes Kepstro

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