Blue Jays fans have read this article before. They’ll read it for the next couple months, too, which is unfortunate. The headline isn’t exaggerated, either. The Cubs will be young and excellent next year. The Indians should have their best players back and be even stronger. The Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox, Rangers, Nationals, and Mets have a foundation of under-30 players in place. Maybe the Orioles are a team to be skeptical about, but they also have the soft pillow of lower expectations underneath them.
Not the Blue Jays. For the previous 20 years, they were a test pattern, a mid-carder that was three fights away from the main event. Then 15 months ago, they morphed into electrified baseball, one of the best shows in town. Last year’s version was more terrifying, at least in the blunt punishment division, but this version was still entertaining. Blue Jays fans were into it. Really into it. Still so into it. Wondering where the baseball is right now, in fact, and willing to cut you for it.
But Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are free agents. Imagine this team without either of them, and it’s like you’re looking at a shadow of the Blue Jays on a piece of cardboard, like an eclipse, so you don’t burn your retinas. Except the point here is that you want the opposing pitchers to burn their retinas. You want them to cower in fear at the Birderer’s Row (™Grant Brisbee, used only with permission) that’s impossible to pitch around. Without Encarnacion and Bautista, what is this team?
The question seems to be if the Blue Jays should sign one, both, or neither.
After writing that sentence, I wrote about 15 more that were boring as all heck. It started like this ...
The Blue Jays had roughly a $170 million payroll last season. They have about $108 million guaranteed to nine players, which means they’ll need to fill 16 roster spots for $60 to $80 million. Some players, like Marcus Stroman and Roberto Osuna, will be delightfully inexpensive and help them with this goal.
... and devolved into more roster wonkiness. You don’t need that right now. It’s possible for the Blue Jays to sign both Encarnacion and Bautista. It’s possible for them to sign Yoenis Cespedes to complement them in the lineup. It’s not likely for them to do all of that, but we probably shouldn’t assume that the plan is to let everyone go and then do absolutely nothing.
More than that: It might work. "It" being whatever the plan is, or whatever plan they’re forced into. There wasn’t a single person in the front office or season ticket pool who would have preferred J.A. Happ over David Price last year, but that plan sure worked. The doom and gloom is just as premature this year, except there are different players swapped into the "What will the Blue Jays do without Price?" headline.
Never assume that a team will be hopeless without the players you’re used to. The Dodgers were fine without Zack Greinke. The Cardinals were just fine without Jason Heyward. The Nationals were just fine without Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond. And the Blue Jays made the ALCS again, this time without Price. They’re probably more than a little pleased they don’t have to navigate this offseason with his contract, even if he’s still great. Josh Donaldson makes up for a lot of roster sins, you know.
So don’t take this as a eulogy for the contending Blue Jays where we all hug and whisper "we’ll miss u" through the sobs. That’s horribly premature.
This is a eulogy for the Blue Jays that we got used to, though. And, damn, were they fun.
It’s a eulogy because even if they sign Bautista and Encarnacion to long deals, even if they keep this group together, they won’t be the same team. They already weren’t, and it was painfully obvious for most of the season. Bautista turned 36 Wednesday, and his bat looked a year older than 34 this season. He was someone who could be pitched to. Encarnacion will be 34, and while he seems like someone who could be David Ortiz-like for the next five years, that doesn’t mean that’s the likeliest scenario. Russell Martin will be a 34-year-old catcher, which is almost like a 41-year-old first baseman. And while Troy Tulowitzki’s defense is still great enough to keep him valuable, we might have seen the last of his Silver Slugger days.
Man, it was fun to watch all of them together in the same lineup last year. It was like Black Sabbath approaching the end of the ‘70s — powerful, peaking, thunderous, transformative. And while you know that it all isn’t going to turn into Ozzy shuffling around the stage overnight, you know the decade is ending. New stuff, possibly great stuff, is coming. But you aren’t going to have the same thing again, and you know it.
In this analogy, Encarnacion leaves and has a Diary of a Madman season with someone else, I guess? It’s a work in progress.
The Blue Jays were never going to have the same blueprint, the same DNA, and we knew it. We knew it last year when they were flipping bats and we knew it this year when they were popping off. Baseball needed this kind of parrot-toting, bat-flipping, mullet-flapping collection of monster bats, and for a while, we had them. Contrast them with the Cubs’ collection of monster bats.
EVERY CUBS HITTER: My favorite cheese? Probably American. I like the way it melts, I guess, but I haven’t thought about it much.
They’re so boring. And that’s fine. It works for them. But for the general interest of baseball, we probably just watched the last of the Blue Jays we were just getting used to, even if I’m not sure those guys were the ones that actually played in the ALCS. It might have just been us hoping those Blue Jays were going to show up.
They’re probably not showing up next year, even if the same players do. The Blue Jays might be back in the ALCS next season, but this memorable collection of talent will be in a different place, either physically or temporally.
We were just getting used to them, dang it.