By now, everybody knows the Toronto Blue Jays have the dubious distinction of owning the longest postseason drought in baseball at 21 years running. It’s a painful reminder that the Blue Jays haven’t even really been close to making the playoffs in over two decades.
A few weeks ago, Brendan Kennedy of the Toronto Star asked me what it was like to see the Kansas City Royals end their 25 year playoff drought, and I likened it to watching every other kid open their gifts on Christmas morning, while still waiting to open your present.
After that long without even a sniff of being close to October baseball, there begins to be a lot of questions; namely, why is it that every other team in MLB had made the playoffs in the last 21 years while the Toronto Blue Jays haven’t? Here’s my attempt at an explanation.
While other teams were drafting what would eventually be their franchise players, the Blue Jays struggled to develop many of their first round picks into successful everyday players.
Although their on-field product was quite poor during the early and mid-2000’s, the Washington Nationals drafted marquee players like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. The Pittsburgh Pirates picked up Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole.
The Tampa Bay Rays hoarded draft picks and would eventually parlay them into players like Evan Longoria and a steady stable of starting pitchers which included James Shields, David Price and now, Chris Archer, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson.
Meanwhile, the best position player the Toronto Blue Jays could muster during the same time period that’s still on their roster is none other than Adam Lind.
Now, I will give them credit; there were some rather stellar Blue Jay draft picks in recent memory that included Roy Halladay, Vernon Wells and Chris Carpenter. However, the list of successful drafts from 1994 onwards is very short.
|1994||Kevin Witt||28||2001||Gabe Gross||15|
|1995||Roy Halladay||17||2002||Russ Adams||14|
|1996||Billy Koch||4||2003||Aaron Hill||13|
|1996||Joe Lawrence||16||2004||David Purcey||16|
|1996||Pete Tucci||31||2004||Zach Jackson||32|
|1997||Vernon Wells||5||2005||Ricky Romero||6|
|1998||Felipe López||8||2006||Travis Snider||14|
|1999||Alex Ríos||19||2007||Kevin Ahrens||16|
|2000||Miguel Negrón||18||2007||J.P. Arencibia||21|
|2000||Dustin McGowan||33||2007||Brett Cecil||38|
The fact is the organization jettisoned many of their high picks from the mid 2000’s, whether it was via trade or releasing those players. From 2004-2010, the Blue Jays either traded, released or non-tendered 12 of their 15 first round picks.
Not every first round pick is guaranteed to achieve big league success, but very few of the position players drafted by the Blue Jays in the 2000’s enjoyed sustained success at the Major League level.
One area which the Blue Jays should be praised for as of late has been their ability to stock up on arms through the draft. Clearly, Alex Anthopoulos noticed a farm system which was mostly devoid of any young stud pitchers and bulked up in that department.
But while their draft focus may have shifted to pitchers, the Blue Jays also failed to draft and develop any true star position players within the past 10 years.
As we all know, baseball is a game of luck; not just on a game-by-game basis, but over the course of a 162 game season as well. The prime example here can be correlated to two very good Blue Jays teams which did not make the playoffs; the 1998 and 2008 squads.
In 1998, the Blue Jays posted the best record they’ve had in nearly 21 years; 88-74. In the era of the second Wild Card, that would’ve easily been enough to get the Blue Jays into the playoffs. But there were a few extenuating circumstances.
Had it not been for an utterly dominant New York Yankees team in 1998, the Blue Jays may have had a legitimate chance at the playoffs. However, the Yankees were a staggering 66 games over .500 with a 114-48 record in 1998.
Alas, the Blue Jays finished 26 games out of first place and 4 games out of the sole Wild Card, a position held by the 92-70 Boston Red Sox.
2008 is another instance where another very good Toronto Blue Jays team failed to punch their ticket to the postseason. Although they ultimately finished just 10 games over .500 at 86-76, their 93-69 Pythagorean record suggested they were a much better team.
That was due in large part to their record in one-run games and games in extra innings; the 2008 Blue Jays posted a 24-32 record in one-run games and were 6-9 in extra innings. If a few of those games swung the other way, perhaps that could’ve tipped the scales.
But even still, if the 2008 Blue Jays did muster up 93 or 94 wins, that still wouldn’t have been enough to secure a spot in the playoffs. Which was an indication of the calibre of teams playing in the American League East at the time.
Bad Timing on Bumps in Payroll
Since 1993, there have been two phases of major bumps in payroll; the 2005 offseason and the 2012 offseason. Both instances saw the Blue Jays post significant increases in payroll year over year in hopes of equating to improved on-field results.
From 2005 to 2006, the Blue Jays payroll increased from $45.719 million to $71.915 million (an increase of 57%) and eventually peaking at $97.793 in 2009.
In 2012, the Blue Jays ran a fairly lean payroll at $83.739 million, but after the trades with the Marlins, the Dickey deal and the Melky Cabrera and Maicer Izturis signings, the payroll bumped up to $119.277 in 2013 (an increase of 42%).
Typically, a bump in payroll of 42% or more year over year would amount to some increased success, but in many instances it actually led to the Blue Jays taking a step backwards rather than forward.
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Also, not to mention the fact that these payrolls included many bloated contacts, which invariably hampered their ability to spend on other players just a few years down the road.
J.P. Ricciardi had to deal with this during his tenure in the form of the Vernon Wells, Alex Rios, B.J. Ryan and Aaron Hill contracts, and Alex Anthopoulos is also dealing with the repercussions of fat contracts as well.
Not many criticized the trades at the time, but the Marlins fire sale was a unique opportunity for one-stop shopping for the Blue Jays to fill holes in their roster.
In retrospect, perhaps the Blue Jays were still a few years away from making moves of that magnitude. After some sober second thoughts, one wonders whether the Blue Jays’ judgment may have been clouded at the time.
Even Paul Beeston acknowledged last week that they “may have fast started” with those moves and it “was to give back to the fans” (which is even more worrisome), and in reality the Blue Jays were still very far from assembling a winning team … even after those blockbuster trades.
Toronto simply didn’t have the depth on their roster in the form of young, controllable players to supplement the high-priced acquisitions of Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson.
Not Quite Good Enough, Not Quiet Bad Enough Either
This one is kind of an amalgamation between the bad drafting and the bad timing, but the sad truth is the Blue Jays have been a mediocre team since 1993.
The side effects of meddling in the standings for the past 21 years run far beyond just not being good enough to make the playoffs.
Because the Blue Jays haven’t really tanked during that stretch, it hasn’t allowed them to snag very many top 10 draft picks. During several of the past 21 years, the Blue Jays have just tread water in the standings; not quite good enough, but not quite bad enough either.
Again, the Rays, Nationals, Pirates and even the Royals have experienced growing pains the past ten years, but now they all have a solid base of young and controllable “face of the franchise” type players. And they’ve also made the postseason since 1993.
Image courtesy of Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images