Jonah Keri's spring training tour: Blue Jays fighting war to compete on two fronts

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- In winning their first World Series in 108 years last fall, the Chicago Cubs made themselves the darlings of baseball. But it’s their deep stable of young, elite talent that makes them the envy of baseball. By building a team geared toward lasting success, the Cubs are living the dream that 29 other franchises are desperate to reach.

Of those 29 other teams, few face a tougher balancing act than the Toronto Blue Jays . When Mark Shapiro became president of the Jays in August 2015 (and Ross Atkins became the team’s GM at the end of that season), they inherited the oldest team in baseball. In 2016, their first full year on the job, the Jays were even older: With the team’s veteran core remaining intact, Toronto’s average pitcher clocked in at 29.8 years old last season, their average position player right at 30.

Storming to the ALCS two years in a row with a team that old? Doable. Building a lasting contender with a team that old? Damn near impossible.

Now, the Jays brass is trying to thread the needle. With fans flocking to Rogers Centre every night and baseball more popular in Toronto than it’s been in a quarter-century, the Jays want to keep the good times rolling. But they’re also acutely aware of the dangers of leaning too hard on an aging team, and plowing too much money into old players. The deep playoff runs of today could quickly turn into the Ruben Amaro Jr.-era Phillies tomorrow.

“Regardless of your starting point, whether expectations are different, farm systems are robust, major league teams are young or old, or versatile or not, what you’re describing is exceptionally difficult regardless,” said Atkins, referencing the challenge of building a team that can win at the major league level and keep developing talent at the same time. “You can look at [another team], OK, they were very active in free agency. But that’s not how we want to operate. We don’t want to every year have to sign five key free agents to fill big holes. We would prefer to be in the situation where it’s our farm system that is filling those holes, then we can be more opportunistic in free agency.”

The parity-building nature of the amateur draft already puts the Jays at a disadvantage, since the blue-chip prospects at the top of the board are long gone when you’re drafting in the late-20s. That, combined with trying to ride the current wave of winning a bit longer, has forced the front office into more subtle methods when it comes to fostering a productive farm system.

When Edwin Encarnacion and his agent balked at Toronto’s bizarre take-it-or-leave-it offer at the start of Hot Stove season, the Jays moved quickly to sign Kendrys Morales instead. Morales isn’t Encarnacion, or anything close: Set aside the superficially impressive total of 30 homers last season and you have a player who batted a decent-but-not-great .263/.327/.468 (a modest 10 percent better than league average after adjusting for Kauffman Stadium’s pitcher-friendly dimensions), played an actual position other than DH just 12 times all season, and ranked as one of the worst baserunners in the league. By Wins Above Replacement, Morales’ 2016 performance was right in line with future Hall of Famers Adonis Garcia and Adeiny Hechavarria.

The Jays remain optimistic. They view the three-year, $33 million deal given to Morales as a moderate price to pay for a switch-hitting DH with power. Manager John Gibbons said he anticipates Morales playing some first base, during interleague games and maybe a few other times too. Morales brings a hidden source of value too. By not having to forfeit a draft pick in signing him, the Jays stand to benefit down the road. While plenty of MLB draft picks flame out, and those that occur after the top 10 picks become even less predictable, the aggregate value of late first-round picks still comes out to millions of dollars.

The Blue Jays are looking for more October fun in 2017, but they have their sight set well beyond that.  USATSI

By opting for mid-market pitchers like J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada over big-name options like Zack Greinke or David Price after the 2015 season, the Jays landed excellent arms who cost tens of millions less in dollars, and also also didn’t cost anything in draft-pick compensation. The hope is that the Morales signing proves similarly beneficial in multiple ways, even if his numbers don’t stack up to Encarnacion’s in Cleveland.

Another way to safeguard your best young assets: Don’t trade them away. Taking over the team president job a month after the Jays pulled off blockbuster deadline deals for Price and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki , Shapiro expressed frustration that then-GM Alex Anthopoulos would give up so many top prospects to make those deals. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that kind of all-in deal under the new regime.

“We’re trying to win, but what we don’t want to do is win at the expense of a massive gap, an unnecessary cliff,” said Atkins. “We want to get younger, more athletic. Part of that is we didn’t trade away prospects.”

Part of the process involves making unconventional moves too. In sports like basketball that are heavily governed by a salary cap, you’ll sometimes see teams give up valuable players as part of a deal that allows them to dump cumbersome contracts. MLB teams rarely pull off those kinds of deals...but the Jays did just that last summer.

“We’re trying to win, but what we don’t want to do is win at the expense of a massive gap, an unnecessary cliff,” said Atkins. “We want to get younger, more athletic. Part of that is we didn’t trade away prospects.”  Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins

Leveraging their huge revenue stream and their financial advantage over smaller-market Pittsburgh, the Jays flipped fringe right-hander Drew Hutchison to the Pittsburgh Pirates at last year’s deadline. In return, Toronto absorbed the hefty contract of Francisco Liriano (for about one-third of his remaining $13 million salary last year, plus another $13 million this year). In doing so, the Jays bolstered their stable of prospects, reeling in Double-A catcher Reese McGuire (who struggled to hit last year but comes with a first-round pedigree) and Double-A outfielder Harold Ramirez (named a top-100 prospect by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus last year). As Atkins noted, of the eight teams to make it to the Division Series round last season, the Jays were the only one that augmented its farm system at the deadline.

Not everything the Jays do is that subtle. When 23-year-old infielder Lourdes Gurriel hit the open market as a Cuban defector last fall, the Jays quickly scooped him up, signing him to a seven-year, $22 million contract in the hopes that he’ll blaze through the minors and make the Show in the next year or two. The addition of Gurriel upgraded a minor league system that boasted five players in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list this year, led by terrifyingly precocious teenage slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

The question now becomes, will all of this work? Can the Jays’ careful nurturing of their future still allow them to field a playoff team in the present?

If it’s going to happen,the bargain-bin guys might make the difference. That includes players considerably less expensive than Happ, Estrada, and Morales, themselves lower-cost alternatives to the free-agent market’s biggest fish. That includes superutility man Steve Pearce , signed to a two-year deal and likely to see tons of playing time, with both Atkins and manager John Gibbons supporting Pearce as a lineup option against both left- and right-handed pitching. There’s hope for Dalton Pompey , the speedy vacuum cleaner of an outfield prospect who could be an upgrade over the potentially terrible Ezequiel Carrera/Melvin Upton Jr. prospect that Gibbons seems to prefer for...reasons unknown.

One potential difference maker? The bullpen. Roberto Osuna has emerged as one of the best young closers in the game, 2016 impact rookie Joe Biagini could see work as a multi-inning option, and the low-cost free-agent tandem of Joe Smith and J.P. Howell (owed a combined $6 million on twins one-year deals) could become high-leverage options in the middle innings, when Jays starters put runners on base and need double-play generators to clean up their mess.

“We had that in mind,” said Gibbons, referencing the soft-tossing Smith and Howell as groundball specialist complements to the hard-throwing trio of Osuna, Biagini, and Jason Grilli . “They’re two seasoned veterans, they’ve been through it all. And yeah I like the different deliveries, the different speeds. Totally a different look by a bunch of guys out there. So yeah, those guys can be very very valuable to us.”

All of that probably won’t add up to 2016 Cubs-level success. But if the Blue Jays get younger and better positioned for the long haul, the brass believes that trade-off might end up being worth it.

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