Where Are We Now?

I am a little. That’s one of those “True Believer” kinds of statements. To most it sounds like I’m being self deprecating, or trite, but in reality, I’m simply identifying myself as someone who listens to a certain, orange, bald radio pundit; a professional yodeller as it were.  This particular pundit does a local, well, local to him, radio show in Washington, DC. Naturally during the NFL season, he spends a significant portion of his show discussing the local Washington Football team. And the first question he asks, every week is, “where are we now?”

As a Jays fan, I’ve thought a lot about that question. It seems that over the last year, it’s been a significantly pertinent one. As we’ve roller-coastered through cautious optimism at the start of the 2012 season, to disappointment, to apoplectic excitement, to promise, and more disappointment it feels like a question that perpetually yields a different answer.

Where are we now?

If I’d written this after the 2012 season, I might have written about a campaign that saw many of the team’s young talents take steps backwards (Lawrie, Rasmus), or have their arms fall off (Hutchinson, Drabek). It was also a season that saw regression from solid veterans (Johnson, Escobar) and the folding of established stars (Romero). Even as a new star emerged (Encarnacion), an old one was hobbled (Bautista). It wasn’t a good season by any means; the 73-89 record belying a year that answered most preseason questions about the team in the negative, or at best punted those questions to 2013.

But then, there was the offseason…

If I’d written this after the Marlins trade, I’d have been over the moon ecstatic. Hindsight should not blind us to how fantastic that trade was: sure, Buerhle’s contract was (is!) about to balloon to match the GNP of a small oil rich nation, but he was an innings eater for a team that had used 12 starting pitchers in 2012. The Jays needed stars, but they also needed someone like Buerhle, someone to take the mound every five days and throw 6-7 innings. And, of course, the pitbull papa was hardly the key to the deal (neither was John Buck, or, despite what some would have had you believe, Emilio Bonifacio). The real prizes of the Marlins trade were Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson. Two absolute blue chip stars.

Of course, for an absolute blue chip star to be available, they probably need a couple warts: Reyes might be the second best shortstop in baseball, but he has been known to be brittle, and like Buerhle, his contract was about to balloon (10 million this year, 16 next, and 22 for the final 3 guaranteed years). Ten scintillating games into his first season in Toronto, the injury bug bit, hard. Hitting a robust .395, .465, .526 at the time, Reyes slid hard into 2nd base, twisting his ankle and going bye bye for 66 games. It wasn’t as though anyone expected him to hit .395 all season, but through the Jays slow start (they were 4-6 at the time), Reyes had been the best thing on the field. And then he was gone. He’s been great since he returned, but by then the writing for the season was on the wall. Admittedly, it could be worse, it could be Josh Johnson.

Johnson, lest we forget, was a 19.9 win pitcher over the past four seasons. Like Reyes, Johnson’s biggest problem was an inability to pitch a full season, having thrown 200 innings only once in his 8 years. Johnson made only 4 starts in 2007, 14 in 2008, and 9 in 2011, but the other years? He was a stud. In 2009 he threw 209 innings with a 3.23 ERA and 191Ks, he was worth 6.6 wins; in 2010 he led the league in ERA, had 9.1 K/9, and was third in all of baseball with 7.2 WAR. His 2012 season had signs that maybe the injuries were catching up to him, with Johnson’s walks up and his Ks down, but the big righty still threw 191 innings and was worth 3.3 wins. If he’d just given the Jays a repeat of that performance, that would have been enough. He didn’t.

Thus, it’s easy to lambast the Marlins trade, but, well, the Jays didn’t give much up (it’s still early, but the Marlins coup returned 2.9 WAR this year – and 3.2 of that is from Yunel Escobar, who the Marlins flipped to Tampa), they brought in two superstars and another highly useful pitcher. It was a great trade, but sometimes good process yields bad results. So, if you’d asked me after the Marlins trade, where are we now, I’d have been ecstatic about the future of the franchise. And from there the offseason only got better.

The signing of Melky was savvy, sure he was a massive regression candidate. Perhaps you think he was going to regress because of the steroid scandal, or perhaps because last season he had a .379 BABIP, either way, I wasn’t expecting the Melky who hit .346/.390./516 for the Giants last year. But, in the free agent market, eight million simply isn’t a lot of money. And, the two year commitment was hardly prohibitive. Melky only had to have a 2-2.5 WAR for the contract to be a win. Instead, he’s been worth -1.3 wins and he’s a disaster.

I did have reservations about the Dickey deal. He was a Cy Young winner, but he was also a 38 year old journeyman. Despite what some thought, he was more than a one hit wonder, he’d had a nice little 3 year run, but he was a knuckleballer. Of course, being a knuckleballer kind of negated the fact that he was 38. Plus, again, the financial commitment wasn’t abhorrent. 5 million this year is basically fifth starter money, and 3 year-36 million is paltry for a CY Young winner; of the last five Cy Young winners in either league, only Clayton Kershaw and David Price, who are both arbitration eligible and on the verge of signing 200 million contracts, have earned less than 17 million in a season. So, 12 didn’t seem so bad. Besides, in for a penny, in for a pound. It was pretty easy, especially as I kept annoying my wife by repeating “Dickey D’Best” ad-nauseum, to get on board with this move as well.

March was a heady time to be a Jays fan. Sure the “Las Vegas World Series favourites” was a bit rich, but there were plenty of reasons to think they were the best team in the AL East. There was also every reason to think that the division would be a tight, highly contested contest, which it kind of has been… Just not for the Jays.

If I’d written this on August 24th, after a season of gut punches and purple nurples, when the Jays were trending downward, had the 6th worst record and were three games from the 3rd worst, I’d have seen the possibility of a top 5 pick as a glass half full outlook on the lost season. And yet, since that point the Jays have gone 7-3 to put themselves firmly back in the middle of the mediocre pack.

In the 20 seasons since their World Series win, only 3 teams have failed to go to the postseason. One of those, obviously, is about to break that streak of mediocrity, but Jays are different than the Royals or the Pirates. They’ve been bad over that span (1541-1611, .489), but rarely terrible (only twice has their winning percentage been below .450). Since 1993 the Royals have picked in the top 5 ten times, including three consecutive top two picks. The Pirates have picked in the top 5 eight times, and they’ve had the number 1 pick three times, with two other number two picks. The Jays on the other hand have only picked in the top 5 twice, and not since 1997. Over the 20 year span, they’ve never picked higher than 4th and they’ve only picked in the top 10 four times (14 times for the Pirates, 15 for the Royals). They’ve been bad, but rarely terrible. This season has been terrible, but once again, the Jays themselves are merely bad.

In their most recent Future Power Rankings, ESPN ranks the Jays 24th, which is bad in and of itself, but their decline from 13th marks the largest drop of any franchise (Washington dropped 10 spots, and the Giants 9). While the rankings are hardly scientific, or comprehensive, they do represent the final nipple tweak on what’s been a frustrating campaign. The Jays should have been good, they should have been competitive and playing meaningful baseball for the first time in two decades. Instead it was an abhorrent year of crappy fielding, journeyman pitchers and black-holes in the lineup.

Last year was so depressing in part because the Jays used 12 starting pitchers to get through the season, this year they will use 13. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In March you could have argued that the Jays had one of the top five rotations in the AL. The term ACE is loaded, but look at the guys the Jays had: Dickey was coming off a CY Young campaign; Johnson was a pitcher who’d won an ERA title; and perhaps the most promising of the lot was Brandon Morrow, who the year before had put together a 2.96 ERA in 124 innings before getting shut down. On top of those three potential aces was Buerhle, who, again, was good for 200 innings and 4ish ERA (he has a 3.88 ERA with 185 innings and four odd starts left), and Ricky Romero, who had been the Jays opening day starter only one year earlier.

Romero couldn’t even make it out of spring training and was blown up in his 2 starts this year (12.46 ERA); Morrow was shut down in May after posting a 5.63 ERA; and, while he’s been better of late, Dickey was hardly the best: 4.30 ERA, with upticks in HR rate (1.4) and BBs (3.0, and a sizeable drop in Ks (230 to 149). Then there’s Johnson… I said above that if he’d only been the 2012 version of himself, the Jays would have been happy. He wasn’t. He wasn’t even the 2008 version, who couldn’t stay healthy, but was dynamite when he pitched. Nope, he was scorched earth bad. He was on the DL, off the DL bad. He was 6.20 ERA bad. He was negative 1.5 WAR bad. He was, “you know maybe we should give some starts to Chien-Ming Wang,” bad. He was Dave Chapelle in Hartford bad.

It’s not all fire and brimstone; there is still talent. The lineup could potentially have five 5 win players next year (Bautista, Reyes, EE, Rasmus, and Lawrie), and some of the Jays’ holes are at positions abundant with cheap fixes (ie 2B and even DH), but then the team also needs at least three arms in the rotation. At least three, but given how many arms they’ve gone through the last two years, that might be more like ten.

So, where are we now?

Exactly where we’ve always been. Stuck in the middle, not bad enough to rebuild with  top draft picks, but not good enough to compete. There might be a path to contention in 2014, but right now it’s hard to see how it materializes. After a long, bleak summer, we are looking at a long, bleak winter. A winter that at best will bring us to another season of middling baseball, because, that’s just where we always seem to be; treading water and going nowhere, for twenty years now.

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