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Since the Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins regime took over the Toronto Blue Jays, there’s been a consistent question about how that brain trust values future wins and present wins.
When Alex Anthopoulos left town, it was reported that Shapiro had expressed concern about the prospects the former GM gave up to help the team make a push in 2015. In 2016, the team made only modest midseason upgrades to their playoff-bound roster.
After three years out of the playoff race, the first indication that the club was in a hurry to compete came in the form of the Hyun-Jin Ryu signing, which vaulted them into contention in 2020. When the team signed George Springer to a $150-million deal this offseason it became clear the Blue Jays saw 2021 as part of their competitive window.
Even so, with a front office that preaches the gospel of sustainable contention, the question of when they’d be willing to sacrifice possible future value for present success has always loomed.
Over the course of just a few weeks, it’s looking like they’re answering it ahead of schedule.
The first hint was the inclusion of 22-year-old catcher Alejandro Kirk on the opening day roster. Kirk, whose only experience above the High-A level prior to 2021 was a nine-game MLB cameo in 2020, likely would’ve been best served from a developmental standpoint from getting full-time at-bats at the alternate site, and then Triple-A, as opposed to playing part-time in the majors. The Blue Jays decided that with valid concerns about Danny Jansen’s offensive production, they needed Kirk’s bat at the MLB level — even if it hampered his ability to accumulate experience.
In recent weeks, there have been a flurry of moves hinting at an increased urgency around the ball club. Tanner Roark was pulled from the starting rotation after one start, despite his $12-million salary and the club’s dearth of viable starters. It only took two more relief outings for him to be released. As a comparable, last season Chase Anderson was on a one-year deal and was brutally ineffective for a Blue Jays team heading for the playoffs. He produced seven starts of 5.81 ERA ball before he was removed from the rotation. Anderson made three more largely disastrous relief outings before the team stopped using him.
The most salient example of the Blue Jays’ increased emphasis on the here and now is their treatment of Springer. Despite the outfielder’s status as their prized offseason acquisition, it’s clear they are — at least to some extent—hurrying him back into the lineup. The 31-year-old made his Blue Jays debut last Wednesday, but has yet to play the outfield, was pulled out of Sunday’s game due to “tired legs,” and finds himself in day-to-day limbo.
It’s entirely possible the Blue Jays are striking the precise balance between keeping their star healthy and extracting the most possible value from him, but the fact they’re shooting for that balance at all is telling. Even last season it’s extremely unlikely that they would’ve brought a player back who wasn’t ready to field his position. The most probable scenario is that we would’ve heard statements about how they’re excited about having Springer over the long term and that the team was exercising an abundance of caution.
Even more subtle moves have taken on a win-now quality. When starting pitching prospect Alek Manoah looked outstanding in the spring it made sense to temper expectations slightly considering he had all of 17 pro innings under his belt (at Single-A). Sure, you could dream on his powerful fastball serving the Blue Jays out of the bullpen late in the season a la Aaron Sanchez in 2014 and 2015, but that seemed like the most bullish reasonable projection. Then, last Thursday the Blue Jays announced that he’d start the season in the Triple-A rotation, an aggressive assignment that seems to indicate they see him helping the team this year, possibly even as a starter.
All of these decisions hint at a change in this team’s thought process. Patience no longer rules the day. Wins in 2021 are clearly of great importance, even if it means pushing prospects aggressively, bringing players back from injury as quickly as possible, and swiftly admitting to past mistakes.
The next threshold for the Blue Jays to cross is sacrificing real prospects for players who can help them in the near term. Although even the best teams tend to hoard their young talent covetously, there is a time and a place for splurging. This front office has picked up a few rentals, it has never shipped one of its brightest gems — someone who it’d really hurt to lose — out of town. Considering the holes on this team now, particularly in the starting rotation, they may need to do just that if they want to capitalize on this group’s top-notch lineup and surprisingly strong bullpen.
While it’s hard to imagine the Blue Jays doing that based on what we’ve seen from them in recent years, it was awfully tough to picture them shelling out $150 on a free agent a few short months ago. It’s clear the Blue Jays’ priorities have changed. Sometime between now and the July 31 trade deadline, we’ll find out the magnitude of that shift.
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