The Toronto Blue Jays are now headed back to the ALCS for the second straight season after sweeping the Texas Rangers in the ALDS. For Toronto, this second shot at the pennant is well deserved. Texas had the best record in the league in 2016 and, though the Blue Jays did not win the AL East, Toronto mustered 89 wins and drew more than 3 million fans for the first time since 1993. They once again proved themselves as a team to be reckoned with.
Unlike most teams, the Blue Jays are a pretty easy team to characterize. They have one of baseball’s most potent offenses, its most fearsome middle of the order, its most power, and an average pitching rotation. Toronto is going to try and out slug you and they don’t care if you know it. This isn’t a new strategy for Toronto, but it has worked better over the last couple of seasons than between 2011 and 2014, when the Jays were pretty good but seemed more like pretenders to the crown than real contenders.
Toronto turned into legit contenders when they come into some pretty good pitching. The out-hit-you strategy definitely works better when you lower the bar for your offense by doing at least a little to limit the other team. Marco Estrada has been very good, while RA Dickey has been at least serviceable. The real jewels of the rotation are the younger guys. JA Happ has pitched like one of the best guys in the AL and young guns Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman have started to come into their own.
Second, and most importantly the Jays have taken a few key steps to bring their potent offense to the next level by lengthening the lineup and turning this into a team that keeps pitchers awake at night. Those steps have obviously included the key acquisitions of shortstop Troy Tulowitski and reigning MVP third basement Josh Donaldson, both of which we covered at Off The Bench (Tulo trade from August 2015, and Donaldson trade from 2014).
Adding Donaldson and Tulo to Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista gave Toronto 4 legit sluggers. They’ve done well to build out the other 5 guys in the order but those 4 are the impetus for the success at the end of 2015 and into this year.
The trades that brought in Troy and Josh are well known and highly scrutinized. It’s clear that Toronto won those deals by giving away much less value than those players brought to Canada with them. However, I think the biggest transactional victory of all happened way back in 2008.
The Jays rise to prominence started when they picked up crappy journeyman Jose Bautista, a career .240 hitter with 31 home runs. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take a lot to get the future Joey Bats from the Pirates in 2008: the Jays sent just one player, Robinzon Diaz, to Pittsburgh in the deal.
Over his career, Diaz hit .281 with 1 home run in 44 games, most of which took place in 2009, his last year in pro baseball. Diaz was a catcher who posted .5 WAR in his career.
Bautista, on the other hand, went through a much publicized and examined career reinvention. He flourished after accepting his new identity as a dead pull, power hitter and has posted a .261 average, 265 home runs, and 6 All Star appearances as member of the Blue Jays. He’s a one-dimensional player whose dimension is really good and his 37.8 WAR in Toronto only emphasizes how much the Jays won this trade.
This, of course, is essentially dumb luck. The Jays can say that they saw something in Bautista when they targeted him back in the summer of ’08, but there’s no way they saw this. The late career rise of the guy who follows more than 60 thousand people on twitter is one of the most improbable things we’ve seen in baseball over the last two decades. Bautista was destined to wash out of baseball with a -2.9 WAR and less than $3 million in career earnings in 2008. Even in 2009, his first year in Toronto, he essentially sucked, batting .235 with 13 homers, but he had the first positive WAR of his career.
In 2010, though, he led the league with 54 home runs and had the first of two consecutive top 5 MVP finishes.
He has morphed from a bad utility player into a superstar, and the Blue Jays gave up essentially nothing to get him. The Blue Jays have built a possible World Series winner by winning big trades in recent years, but don’t forget that the groundwork for this team and organization was laid back in the summer of ’08.