Blue Jays' struggles puts spotlight on lingering roster issues

Jeff Simmons

The Toronto Blue Jays might have a real problem on their hands.

No, it’s not the 1-9 record. Sure, that’s bad, but it’s only the second week of a six-month season.

However, the Blue Jays’ pitiful start has instead re-emphasized lingering issues with the club’s roster composition.

In simple terms, the Blue Jays, from a position player standpoint, look old and slow.

The production has been obviously troubling. Entering Friday, the Blue Jays rank last in all of Major League Baseball in runs scored, total bases, on-base percentage, and OPS. They’ve compiled just five home runs in 10 games and became the last team in MLB to record a stolen base when Russell Martin swiped one during Friday’s seventh straight loss.

Yes, it’s just an nine-game sample, but the roster issues are very real.

The Blue Jays are reliant on a veteran core of position players. They are one of the oldest offensive teams in the league and the issue is compounded by a lack of homegrown young position players ready to contribute – an organizational problem that stemmed long before president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins arrived.

Read more: Blue Jays showing they can’t handle the heat early

Of Toronto’s nine everyday starting position players, seven are older than 30 and including the bench hitters, only centre fielder Kevin Pillar, utility infielder Ryan Goins, second baseman Devon Travis are still in their 20s.

Jose Bautista is 36. Troy Tulowitzki is 32. Russell Martin is 34. And even Josh Donaldson, who plays with so much flare and energy is 31.

It’s hard enough for any team to remain relatively healthy throughout an 162-game season, but especially for one as old as the Blue Jays, who so often play on the tricky Rogers Centre turf.

All of which made the Blue Jays’ offseason moves and roster construction heading into the 2017 season a little bit curious.

Both Atkins and manager John Gibbons acknowledged the club’s need to get younger, faster, and more athletic, following the ALCS loss Cleveland last October, but instead brought back an aging Bautista after missing out on primary free agent targets Dexter Fowler and Josh Reddick, and replaced parting slugger Edwin Encarnacion with a slow Kendrys Morales, and Steve Pearce, who’s had issues staying healthy throughout his career.

Quality major-league hitters, to be sure, but not exactly speed demons or an influx of youth. To be fair, it’s next to impossible to get significantly younger using free agency, and speed and athleticism costs a hefty premium, so we’ll give the Blue Jays the benefit of the doubt. But given the obvious durability concerns, the fact the front office left the team razor thin in multiple spots only compounds the problem.

The struggling Toronto Blue Jays can ill afford to lose Josh Donaldson for an extended period of time. (Canadian Press)

The roster is undoubtedly talented and full of quality core players, it’s just not very deep. Even if you ignore the obvious weaknesses in left field and first base for a second, there are some glaring issues in multiple spots.

There’s a lack of left-handed relievers available. Veteran addition J.P. Howell is already banged up and dealing with shoulder issues, leaving Aaron Loup as the only available southpaw out of the bullpen. The pitching rotation, which is the clear strength of the Blue Jays, has no real depth options beyond their starting five. If one of the starters gets hurt, who becomes the fill-in starter? Casey Lawrence? Mat Latos? Joe Biagini? There’s a clear organizational gap.

And the roster depth concerns have impacted the offence, as well. When Donaldson sat out the home opener on Tuesday, the bottom half of the Blue Jays lineup, which included Justin Smoak, Pearce, Pillar, and Goins had the offensive flare of a bottom feeder.

If one injury has that kind of domino effect on a lineup, that’s a real concern. And one that could quickly worsen if Donaldson, who was put on the disabled list Friday, is out for an extended period of time.

The positive, however, is depth tends to be fixable in season. Relievers can be cheap to acquire, as the Blue Jays saw last year with Jason Grilli and Joaquin Benoit, and the club does have speedy outfielder Dalton Pompey and intriguing first base prospect Rowdy Tellez potentially waiting in the system.

But in the meantime, the Blue Jays’ struggles aren’t all that surprising. A lot of the veterans were banged up in the spring, which partially explains the offensive ineptitude. Certainly no one expected 1-9 after 10 games, but the club left themselves with a razor thin margin for error.

None of this is to say the Blue Jays are going to be a bad team. Even with the slow start, they should still contend for a playoff spot. The club has a top-level starting rotation and high-level talent at the top of the order. Realistically, the offence should fix itself over time.

Yet, a step back wouldn’t be all that surprising. And it has little to do with losing Encarnacion.
The Blue Jays aren’t on the verge of becoming the Ryan Howard-Jimmy Rollins-Chase Utley Philadelphia Phillies, which fell off a cliff once their veteran players together got a bit too old, but they are trending a bit in that direction.

Just like in life, father time generally wins. Especially for an aging baseball club that can’t run.