Why The Blue Jays Can Be Optimistic

The Toronto Blue Jays haven't made the playoffs since 1993. It's an underrated stretch of pain. The Cubs are the Cubs, and they get the biggest slice of sympathy pie for a century-plus of pain. The Pirates haven't reached .500 since Barry Bonds left, and if it weren't for the fluky magic of Aaron Guiel and Darrell May in 2003, the Royals would have an almost-identical mark of sub-.500 awfulness.

Yet you never hear about the Jays' stretch of playoff misses, mostly because they've finished with 80 wins or more ten times since they last made the playoffs. They haven't been futile enough to pity. Their steady competence is almost something to admire.

They've had a season where almost every pitcher who touched the ball was better than the average American League pitcher. They've had a season with 257 home runs. They've spent big money on free agents; they've spent big money to lock up their own young players. But they haven't scored that one 90+ win, take-the-division season. They haven't even stumbled into a Wild Card berth.

I studied this issue for a government think tank, and while that 673-page report remains classified, I can hint at the conclusion: turns out the Blue Jays play in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox, and that screws everything up. The Rays aren't helping things. The Orioles are cool.

Things are looking up, though. Alex Anthopoulos is the It GM. He's so hot right now.  He can live out the dreams of every Canadian if he wants to -- get his face on a set of O-Pee-Chee cards, date former You Can't Do That on Television stars, you name it. He's the toast of Canada. Or at least he will be, when he finally gets the Blue Jays to the playoffs. Which he might never do. But in the short-term, at least he's become the GM that you're scared will call your favorite team's GM. It's a heckuva start.

Anthopoulos has already made some bold moves -- remember when people were actually debating if the Jose Bautista extension was a good deal or not? -- and he has a majority of Jays fans thinking good thoughts. In just over a year, he's replaced a third of his lineup through trades, picking up Yunel Escobar, Colby Rasmus, and Brett Lawrie in bold deals. If the Blue Jays make the playoffs in the near future, most of the reason will be Anthopoulos.

But Anthopoulos can't get all the credit. Here's a list of the worst hitters in baseball this season:

Rk Player OPS+
1 Alexis Rios 56
2 Aaron Hill 58
3 Adam Dunn 61
4 Mark Ellis 62
5 Alex Gonzalez 65
6 Orlando Cabrera 66
7 Chris Getz 68
8 Ian Desmond 68
9 Vernon Wells 69
10 Alcides Escobar 70
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/24/2011.

Those are the ten lowest OPS+ in baseball among qualified hitters. Four of them are ex-Blue Jays. Now, Anthopoulos gets credit for shipping three of them out (Rios went in 2009). Absolutely, he does. But he has to share the credit with  Kenny Williams and Tony Reagins, and possibly with the invention of fortified wine. If the Blue Jays had kept those players -- rather, if they were forced to keep them, because no other team would touch them -- they would have spent approximately $140 million extra from 2009 through 2014. That's a staggering, unbelievable amount of money.

In a five-year stretch, that's the kind of money that will make teams avoid free agents, handle their drafts differently, and avoid locking up their young stars. Yet there were GMs out there who said, "Saaaaaay, that player with that contract is a good long-term investment!" when it was absolutely insane to think that about Rios and Wells. 

The Blue Jays' future is looking bright, mostly because of their impressive front office and the moves they've already made. But don't overlook the insanity of others. That might be the silver bullet that takes down the Red Sox and/or Yankees after all.

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