How the Blue Jays have set themselves up for long-term success
Toronto has a population of 2.8 million people. Only Mexico City, New York, and Los Angeles have more among North American cities.
Yet the Blue Jays putter along like a small-market team. They have made the playoffs just twice in the last 25 seasons and have one American League East title in that time.
They are among the clubs who slashed payroll this season in the hopes of rebuilding through the draft. They also play in an antiquated ballpark, Rogers Centre, that won’t be replaced any time soon.
But the Blue Jays are positioned to be a long-term threat in the AL.
“There’s a real sense of optimism here,” outfielder Randal Grichuk said.
It will take some time for it to all come together, but the Jays have set the foundation.
Toronto’s major league payroll is about $70 million. That’s almost as much as the $63.9 million they ate to release Troy Tulowitzki and trade Russell Martin (Dodgers) and Kendrys Morales (Athletics).
The payroll could drop even more. Shortstop Freddy Galvis, closer Ken Giles, righthander Clay Buchholz, first baseman Justin Smoak, and even righthander Marcus Stroman are all midseason trade candidates.
Toronto could shave another $10 million or so depending how much money it picks up to facilitate trades.
The only players Toronto has under contract beyond this season are Grichuk (through 2023 at $52 million) and infielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (through 2023 at $22 million).
So there’s a lot of payroll room to make additions. The Jays also have an enviable collection of prospects.
Baseball America lists Toronto third in its talent rankings. Third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the top prospect in the game, with shortstop Bo Bichette, catcher Danny Jansen, righthander Nate Pearson, righthander Eric Pardinho, third baseman Jordan Groshans, and shortstop Kevin Smith among the top 100.
The Jays also have second baseman Cavan Biggio, a fringe top-100 player.
Guerrero, 20, played his first Triple A game of this season on Thursday and was 2 for 4 with a home run and four RBIs.
Team president Mark Shapiro has said Guerrero will have an “accelerated” path to the majors once he shows he is fully recovered from an oblique strain that cut short his spring training.
Bichette, Biggio, and Guerrero are sons of former big leaguers. Toronto also has outfielder Griffin Conine, the son of former Marlins star Jeff Conine.
Griffin Conine was a second-round pick last June but is now serving a 50-game suspension for using a banned stimulant.
Jansen is on the major league roster. Bichette, Biggio, and Guerrero are in Triple A. Guerrero should be in the majors soon, with Bichette and Biggio to follow.
“My goal from the beginning was to get better in the second half,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “That’s usually how prospects go. They start low and get better. That’s our goal here.”
Montoyo, at 53, is a rookie manager in the majors. But he spent 18 seasons managing in the Tampa system.
He managed Single A Princeton in 1997, a year before the Rays had their first major league team. That’s how far back he goes.
Montoyo knows how to develop players and that makes him a good fit for the Blue Jays.
Red Sox lefthander David Price played for Montoyo in 2008 when he was with Triple A Durham. He believes the Jays made a smart hire.
“Great guy. He has the respect of his players and a good communicator,” Price said. “He’s been through a lot in his career. I feel like all his players had so much love for him. Good guy to be around.
“For a young team, he’s a great choice. He was in Durham forever. I was thinking he would get an opportunity to be Tampa’s manager. I was surprised he didn’t get that job, honestly.”
Montoyo is treating the Jays in much the same way he did his minor league teams.
“That’s what we’re doing here right now, teaching the game,” he said. “From spring training on we’ve been teaching the game every day. You’ve got to be patient.”
As the Jays get younger, there will be bumps. The players will have to adjust to the amount of scouting information in the majors and how that will be used against them.
Some will thrive; others will fall off. The Jays could well have a losing record this season but still make long-term progress.
“It is a grind and it bothers me to lose games more than anything. But I’m still going to stay positive with the guys,” Montoyo said. “They want to go to the plate and get hits. They don’t want to strike out. The pitching in the big leagues is tough. You have to be patient.
“It’s tough, the more you go 0 for 3 or 0 for 4, the more you dig that hole. That’s when experience on the coaching staff helps you stay positive. We’re going to stay positive and keep working.”
The obstacle for Toronto could be starting pitching. Its best prospects are in the low minors and the major league rotation is patchwork beyond Stroman.
The Jays have prospect redundancy at third base and shortstop, which should enhance their ability to make trades once they’re ready to contend. They also have the financial flexibility to enhance the rotation in free agency.
Price played for Toronto in 2015, going to the Blue Jays at the trade deadline. He was 9-1 with a 2.30 earned run average in 11 starts and the Jays won the division.
Toronto was eliminated in the ALCS against the Kansas City Royals, who went on to win the World Series.
Price saw what was possible in Toronto.
“It was insanity [at Rogers Centre], especially when the roof was open. They pack it in and they’re into it, for sure,” Price said. “It was loud there and definitely a super-charged atmosphere.”
Price, because of that experience, feels it’s a strong baseball market.
“When they go to the West Coast, there are a lot of fans from the western part of Canada who follow them,” he said. “They have fans. They have a lot of fans. They’re waiting for it.”
WHAT’S ON MOOKIE’S MIND?
Lapses by Betts make you wonder
Mookie Betts already has had a few mix-ups in the outfield and a mistake on the basepaths this season. He’s also jogged out a few ground balls instead of running to first base.
It’s been noticeably uncharacteristic of a player who almost always does the right thing on the field.
You can’t help but wonder how much of that is related to his contract status, even though he can’t become a free agent until after the 2020 season.
Betts dismissed that idea. But he attended the news conferences when the Red Sox announced lucrative extensions for Chris Sale ($145 million) and Xander Bogaerts ($120 million) and applauded with his teammates.
Betts also has watched star players from other teams, particularly Mike Trout, extend their deals.
Players are fleeing free agency like it’s a sinking ship thanks to how the collective bargaining agreement was structured. But Betts is hanging in there. He is determined to get what he feels his value is.
That’s his right and he should be applauded for exercising it. The easy thing to do would be to cave in.
But as other players make deals, Betts has to be contemplating if he’s taking the right approach. A $300 million extension would enable Betts to play out the bulk of his career without pressure and with the knowledge that he can take care of his immediate family deep into the future.
The 2021 free agent class is growing less impressive by the day. Outside of Betts, the top players are Trevor Bauer, Andrelton Simmons, J.T. Realmuto, and George Springer, unless Giancarlo Stanton opts out of his deal.
From that standpoint, maybe Betts will profit from the decisions of others.
The Red Sox have tabled discussions with Betts for this season but still hope a deal can be reached before free agency hits.
Other observations on the Red Sox:
■ Dustin Pedroia still has his defensive chops. He showed very quick hands turning two double plays on Thursday night against Toronto.
The contact rate is there, too. Going back to the start of spring training, and counting three games in the minors, Pedroia had struck out only four times in 32 at-bats. That’s impressive for somebody who didn’t see live pitching for nine months.
■ Mitch Moreland and Steve Pearce have something in common beyond sharing first base. Moreland has a son named Crue and Pearce has a son named Crew.
Crue Moreland is 6 and Crew Pearce is 1.
“My wife picked it out,” said Moreland, who also has a 4-year-old daughter named Swayze and a 1-year-old son named Ledger. “She was in charge of names.”
Crew Pearce was his dad’s idea.
“I thought it was kind of a cool name,” said Pearce, who has a daughter named Jensen. “When I started talking to Mitch I couldn’t believe we had sons with almost the same name. It’s fun.”
■ Jake Peavy, 37, is retired after not finding any takers for his comeback attempt last season. Peavy played for four teams in his 15-year career, most notably the Padres and White Sox.
But he’s maintaining his connection to the Red Sox.
Peavy is scheduled to join Manny Delcarmen and Lenny DiNardo at an RBI Baseball youth clinic at Peters Park in the South End on Sunday morning.
Cuban players appear stranded
The Trump administration’s decision to cancel Major League Baseball’s agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation to have an orderly and safe transfer of players could serve only to endanger lives and enrich criminals.
MLB’s deal allowed Cuban players to keep their signing bonus with the signing team paying 25 percent of the bonus to the Cuban federation.
In that sense, it was much like the posting fee teams pay for Japanese players.
The Cuban players would retain their citizenship and pay income tax in Cuba, much like other international players do in their countries. It also would have led to Cuban stars such as Jose Abreu playing for their homeland in the World Baseball Classic.
United States law prohibits payments to the Cuban government and the Trump administration determined the baseball federation was an arm of the state. MLB disputed that.
Tearing up MLB’s deal will now encourage players to defect from Cuba and establish citizenship in another nation to play in the majors.
For some players, including Yasiel Puig, that often involved the use of smugglers or gangsters masquerading as agents.
A 2014 trial revealed Puig was subject to death threats after he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Other players have crossed the ocean on small boats to pursue their dreams.
MLB’s deal with Cuba wasn’t perfect. But at least the players didn’t have to face physical danger to play in the majors.
“We stand by the goal of the agreement, which is to end the human trafficking of baseball players from Cuba,” MLB said in a statement.
MLB teams were looking forward to establishing a presence in Cuba. Breaking down baseball barriers would have helped bring the two nations together and ultimately improve relations. Now that’s all in limbo.
Hall question dogs A-Rod, Manny
Alex Rodriguez, forever trying to polish his brand, did a Q&A with the New York Times Magazine and twice refused to say whether he took performance-enhancing drugs.
“I’ve taken the position of just owning everything. At some point, and maybe it’s in the future, I feel like this is an answer I would like to give on camera because I think people have to see my sincerity,” Rodriguez said.
Sincerity has long been a moving target with Rodriguez, but whatever answer he concocts won’t open the gates of Cooperstown. Hall of Fame voters won’t forget that Rodriguez was suspended in 2013 for PED use when he lands on the ballot in December of 2022.
Many voters, myself included, have drawn a line on players who were suspended after MLB started its drug-testing program in 2006.
The same is true for Manny Ramirez, who made a rare visit to Fenway Park for the home opener and said he is hopeful of being voted into the Hall.
Ramirez received 22.8 percent in the most recent Hall of Fame balloting, matching his high point over three seasons. He has seven years remaining on the ballot and it’s unlikely he ever climbs beyond 30 percent.
If you haven’t been to the Hall of Fame yet, you should consider Red Sox Weekend on July 6-7. The Hall will have the 2018 World Series trophy on display and you can see the “Autumn Glory” exhibit that features memorabilia from last fall. The museum also has displays of items from the 2004, ’07, and ’13 teams. The 2018 trophy will be on exhibit at the museum from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on July 6 and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on July 7. Visitors will be permitted to take pictures with it. The museum will be open from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. both days . . . There was a nice under-the-radar moment when Triple A Pawtucket played at Buffalo on Tuesday. Nick Lovullo came up in the third inning for the PawSox and singled to center to drive in a run. He finished 3 for 4 with two runs and a stolen base. It was Nick’s first game at Buffalo. His father, Torey Lovullo, played parts of three seasons in Buffalo, went on to manage the team for three seasons, and is now in the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame. Torey, of course, is now the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks . . . Happy 63rd birthday to Bobby Sprowl. In 1978, Sprowl was 22-year-old rookie with the Red Sox when Don Zimmer gave him three starts in the heat of a pennant race against the Yankees. “The kid’s got ice water in his veins,” Zimmer said. The lefty had a quality start against the Orioles and Jim Palmer but took a loss. Sprowl then couldn’t get through an inning against the Yankees before pitching well in a victory against the Tigers. He only had one other start (with the Astros in 1981) in his brief career. Sprowl has been the head coach of Shelton State Community College in Alabama for 29 years and led the team to the JUCO World Series in four of the last eight seasons. Also, Steve Avery is 49, Brad Pennington is 50, and Joe Lahoud, the pride of Danbury, Conn., is 72.
Hanley Ramirez became a United States citizen on Monday in Cleveland and celebrated with a cake . . . Allen Craig — remember him? — took a position with the front office of the Padres. He’s 34. The Red Sox paid Craig approximately $27 million for 65 games and a .432 OPS from 2014-17.