As the end of the Blue Jays season came to a close on Sunday, the Toronto sports headlines were predictable. “When will William Nylander sign?” “How good will Kawhi be?” “The Leafs power play looks lethal!” If you were looking for something about the Blue Jays, all you could find were words about John Gibbons, their long-time manager serving his final year with the team. And as much as we all love Gibby, that certainly wasn’t what fans expected when the year started.
There’s no doubt that it was a bad summer for the Toronto Blue Jays. Injuries to their starting pitchers and key players like Donaldson, who at the end of last year looked like himself again, played a huge role in their disappointing season. It’s impossible to win in this league if you are forced to use over twenty different starting pitchers and if your stars and most highly paid players are either injured (Donaldson, Tulowitski) or underperform in historic ways. (Martin) Especially in the American League East, a division that features two teams with a lot of money, gleaming farm systems and a ton of talent. As a prosecutor would say, those are the facts.
And yet, it’s not the entire picture, is it? Sure, the Blue Jays suffered significant injuries, and there will always be those kinds of years for a club. But it was also the oldest team in the league, and suggesting that they would only need eight starting pitchers, as they did in 2016, was based on wishful thinking, not reaity. A reality emboldened by a few years of league high attendance and ratings and a desire not to lose any of those revenue streams even as team president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins had to know they were at the end of a cycle.
As I wrote in my last blog, sports are cyclical. They are designed that way, granting higher draft picks and fresh talent to teams that underperform in the hope of creating parity. This is most clearly seen in the NFL. In the other major sports, whether it’s hockey or basketball or baseball, it’s a longer process. And judging from the reports of the scouts rating the Blue Jays’ farm system, there is no doubt that Shapiro and Atkins have done an admirable job restocking the shelves.
The Blue jays now boast a top five farm system. That isn’t small. When the former Cleveland management duo arrived here, the farm was nothing more than a few bruised sheep and a homeless cow. The work at the lower levels has been done, and by all accounts, been done well.
The question, and there really is only one question, is why did it take so long for the front office to acknowledge that their elderly team could not compete? Why did it take so long for them to publicly admit that they’d made a mistake in not getting a real return for a former MVP like Donaldson in the offseason? (they haven’t directly commented on this). Why didn’t they start the rebuild this past offseason? Instead, they used Minnesota’s unexpected run at the Second Wild Card as their team goal. Minnesota plays in the weakest division in baseball with an unbalanced schedule. It was a ludicrous comparison.
As a long time fan, it was deeply insulting. Even a casual observer can look at the lineups that the Red Sox and Yankees roll out and know we don’t have a chance. It’s not a capped league, which means two of the richest teams in baseball can spend whatever they want. And oh, and have I mentioned (I have, but it’s worth repeating) that both teams have drafted very well the past several years and have a great deal of young talent.
I’m fine with rebuilding. Most fans are. Every franchise has to do it at some point. But because of the way they handled it, the Jays’ management has had to deal with a public relations hit. Rightfully so. It’s not that Shapiro and Atkins can’t build a farm system, they did it in Cleveland and they seem to be doing it here, it’s whether they can manage the storms of a big market that wants to know what’s going on without listening to drivel disguised as contempt.
Fortunately, the Leafs are very good. So are the Raptors. Both are championship contenders. And both provide cover. Because of that, the end of the Blue Jays’ season has been one of good humour and memories, marked by a manager (#gibbythebest) who is loved and respected, despite his few detractors.
And so what happened during this frustrating summer of baseball is over. Toronto sports fans will talk about Gibby and talk about the kids, but mostly we’ll talk about the Leafs and the Raptors. I remember a time when it was the Blue Jays who provided that same cover for those organizations, so maybe they deserve this. Maybe they deserve a free spin. Maybe they deserve a shot to make things right, even if they have bungled things the past two years.
But you only get cover once. Once you’re exposed, people get suspicious. Fall is here, and our attention has been turned. But once spring comes, when the NBA and NHL playoffs are done, we’ll be looking at the Jays again. Six months is a long season, but summer is what summer is, and in this case, it’s a summer of reckoning.
Yeah, we know it’s the kids. We know there might be some pain. But you lied to us once. And this time, when the sun comes out and the weather warms up, when the Leafs and Raptors are playing golf, when the only thing left is our beloved Jays, there won’t be room for excuses.
Your cover is gone.