by Darren Clarke, September 28, 2020
After three years of passive aggressive tanking the Toronto Blue Jays have made the playoffs. It took a 60-game season and expanded playoffs to do it but they made it. How much credit do they deserve for that? Pretty much none. As far as accomplishments go it has been the non-accomplishment of all non-accomplishments.
Consider that the American League consists of 15-teams. For the abbreviated 2020 season eight teams make the playoffs. Over half the AL. Six of the remaining teams are not trying- Seattle, Baltimore, Detroit, Kansas City, Texas and Boston. The last team is the Angels who seem mainly to be laser focused upon wasting the career of the greatest player of a generation- Mike Trout.
So simply by virtue of not, not-trying, the Jays were absolutely going to make the playoffs. They were a lock. When you are being chased for a playoff spot by the likes of Baltimore, BALTIMORE, you are not being chased at all.
But here’s the thing. They could still win the AL. Heck, it wouldn’t take a miracle for them to win the World Series. Very, very, unlikely- yes, impossible- no.
What to make of this Jays team then? Well, it’s complicated. Starting with the challenge of almost opening the season without a place to play home games.
We could give the Jays credit for overcoming the adversity of all the uncertainty attached to trying to find a place to play home games to open the season after Toronto was ruled out by the Canadian Federal Government. We could. But why in the hell would anybody do that?
The players and coaches- okay, sure, yes, credit. The management team that drunkenly failed to adequately anticipate the reasonable rejection as Toronto as a place to play out of given the intensity of the Covid outbreak in the U.S. combined with MLB’s asinine plan of team’s travelling amongst the outbreak- no, no credit at all.
The Jays brass could have identified the home of their Triple-A team Buffalo as the only sensible place to play out of in the first place. They could have, they didn’t.
The current Jays management team, not famous for doing good things, have done some good things this year though, chief among them their acquisitions of starting pitchers with premier upside. Hyun Jin Ryu and deadline acquisitions Taijuan Walker, Robbie Ray and Ross Stripling.
With the playoffs defined by short series, having premier starting pitching, even simply the possibility of it, opens things up for upsets. The likelihood of upsets is increased by the current MLB competitive context defined by so many of the cool kids deciding to rebuild at the same time and so many of the other cool kids trying to match that lack of competitive effort by languidly exerting as little effort as necessary to stay modestly above them.
Consider that earlier this year the Boston Red Sox Twitter account celebrated the team getting under the luxury tax- the result of the team clearly choosing to not even try to be competitive this season as they trotted an endless line of Not-ready-for-AAA pitchers out to the mound. The Red Sox by the way have to be thankful for a season without crowds saving the management box in Boston from being deservedly pelted with hot dogs and beer cans from whichever portion of the passionate Red Sox fan base chose to come to watch their exercise in cleverly failing.
The current era of baseball could be looked at as the era where nobody was really trying to be great. The Non-Great Team Era. The lone exception to this might be the Dodgers but the Dodgers are in the National League and Dave Roberts is their manager.
In the American League if the question is- Why wouldn’t you believe the Jays couldn’t win the AL? The answer is- No reason in particular.
Tampa Bay is the class of the American League. Yes, the low-budget team that plays out of The Trop was the most successful team in the AL through 60-games. This is a very good team but it is far from a great team.
Tampa Bay’s starting pitching includes Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton. An intimidating playoff starting crew. But beyond that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Their starting lineup for instance includes six players slugging under .400. That’s two-thirds of the lineup. The other three players are- Willy Adames, Brandon Lowe and the currently injured Ji-Man Choi.
That’s the best team in the American League.
The AL sleeper would be the Yankees but they’re not allowed sleeper status because, well, they’re the Yankees- nobody is sleeping on them. They have the best starter in the AL (from a stuff standpoint) in Gerrit Cole and an offence capable (as the Jays found out recently) of racking up sixty-runs in a three game series. After Cole though the rotation gets iffy- JA Happ and Masihiro Tanaka iffy and the offence, despite some epic breakouts, has been far from consistent this year.
This is not a scary Yankees team.
Beyond those two teams the American League is filled out by a bunch of even more flawed teams.
The Jays meanwhile have the upside in the rotation they added this season plus a young corps of electric bats starting with their two top prospects- Bo Bichette and Vlad Guerrero Jr, alongside older-but-still-young standouts- Teoscar Hernandez (but please never play him in center field), Cavan Biggio and Loudes Gurriel Jr.
The crazy thing is Vladdy Guerrero Jr. has been a lightning rod for criticism in Toronto. The main reason being that the Toronto market doesn’t have much in the way of baseball savvy media. So, baseball nuance, history and anything that doesn’t correlate to the game of hockey- they do not know. But a dude being overweight? That they spot. That they get.
The end result is any kind of slump that involves Guerrero immediately becomes about his weight. But there’s a few things. First, he was mishandled by management in terms of his position. It was always obvious he couldn’t play third base. Leaving the position shift to first base until right before the season started was awful. Providing an uncomfortable defensive learning process in addition to the massive undertaking of trying to master MLB pitching at age 21 was the opposite of helping him. Second, the criticism that Guerrero has failed as a hitter to meet expectations is mostly predicated upon a complete misunderstanding of development. Vladdy is 21.I’m going to spitball some stats here but I’d say over the course of MLB history 98.5% of players aren’t in the bigs when they are 21, 1.4% of them make it to MLB for their age 20/21 seasons age and are as good or not quite as good as Vladdy, the remaining .1% are the likes of Ted Williams, Mike Trout, Joe Dimaggio, Mickey Mantle and Fernando Tatis.
Criticizing Vladdy for not clearly being one of the top five ballplayers of all time (or Fernando Tatis) right away is quite a stretch.
I’m hear to tell you- look at the career arcs of John Olerud, Carlos Delgado, George Brett, Vlad Guerrero Sr. just to name a few and you are going to see Vladdy Jr. is doing fine. The weight should be a concern to a degree but he’s always going to have that body type- he isn’t going to ever have the physique of Randal Grichuk but he should be a way better hitter than Grichuk over the course of his career.
So enjoy Vladdy Jr. and you know what? Enjoy whatever fruits of are born of the non-accomplishment of making the playoffs. The Jays bullpen makes me nervous, strategically Charlie Montoya comes off a more huggable version of Wile E. Coyote (“Supergenius”) working an Acme Pitching change kit, but if the starters lock into their best possibilities and the offence continues to show itself unfazed by adversity and circumstance the team just may have enough to surprise any team in the AL particularly in a short series.
Good but flawed teams have never had a better chance to achieve as much as teams like the Jays can this year. And they’re unlikely to ever again.
Let’s hope they get better than they deserve right here, right now. 2020 could use a little of that.
(Picture via Wiki Commons)