The Toronto Blue Jays 2017 season will be remembered – if it’s remembered at all – as a year where everything that could have conceivably gone wrong did.
Some of the stumbling blocks the team faced were visible in the horizon prior to the season. It didn’t take a crystal ball to see that a lack of starting pitching depth was likely to hurt the club. Expecting a completely healthy season from Devon Travis was probably overly optimistic. The Kendrys Morales contract never looked like a good idea.
Other pitfalls seemed to come out of nowhere. Aaron Sanchez’s blister issues were a nasty surprise. As was the extent of Jose Bautista’s decline, and the persistence of Josh Donaldson’s calf problems. The initial 2-11 hole was neither foreseeable nor surmountable for this team.
The end result was a 76-86 campaign, a shock to the system for a veteran team coming off two consecutive trips to the ALCS. More importantly, for a franchise just a couple of years separated from a 22-year drought, it was an enormous opportunity missed.
On Tuesday, the Minnesota Twins will play in the AL wild-card game in possession of a 85-77 record, the worst of any wild-card entrant since the new two-team format was introduced in 2012. They’re a team with a modest run differential of +27, a pitching staff with effectively a two-man rotation, and a lineup with young talent but devoid of household names. That’s the type of squad you’d expect to beat out with a win-now veteran team.
Then there’s the matter of Donaldson. Despite his injuries this year, Donaldson is still a superstar at the height of his powers. The third baseman has produced two of the top four seasons by a hitter in Blue Jays franchise history according to Wins Above Replacement. There’s a solid argument to be made that he’s the best position player to ever don the jersey, or at least is in the midst of the highest peak.
Every season a player of Donaldson’s calibre is on the roster, a club has to at least figure it has a chance to be in the wild-card mix. As a result, seeing a season go so far sideways in what’s likely a quarter of Donaldson’s tenure had to be supremely frustrating for the Blue Jays. It’s easy for talk of “windows” to turn into cliche flinging used to justify short-sighted moves, but Donaldson is such a special talent that his time on this team represents a very particular contention opportunity.
So, 2017 was a spent Donaldson year when the barrier to entry into the American League playoff picture was at its nadir. Making matters worse for the Blue Jays is the probable rise of their competitors.
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are absolutely stacked with young controllable players and aren’t going anywhere. New York is especially scary because it figures to be the biggest beneficiary of the borderline-mythical 2018 free-agent class. Yankees fans have been dreaming of Bryce Harper in pinstripes for years, and there’s not a lot standing in the way of that dream becoming a reality. Making the Yankees even more formidable is the fact they posses one of the best collections of minor-league talent in baseball – a group that ranked fourth in MLB’s midseason farm system rankings.
The Tampa Bay Rays also have the potential to be a serious thorn in the Blue Jays side in the near future. Their farm system was ranked fifth in the same list. The trio of right-hander Brent Honeywell, shortstop Willy Adames, and fascinating two-way player Brendan McKay could be the next wave to drive them back into contention.
From a wild card prospective, the Twins figure to improve around their young core and the Chicago White Sox have so much exciting youth they’ll be a threat to explode onto the scene every year for the next half decade.
Things don’t get easier for a team like the Blue Jays from here. Although they do have blue-chip prospects like Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, this team isn’t on the verge of a youthquake. They have potential for home-grown stars, but a home-grown core isn’t on the immediate horizon.
When it’s all said and done the most common words to describe the Blue Jays 2017 will be adjectives like “forgettable” and “lost.” Neither is inaccurate, but this year more than anything else was a rare opening the club was unable to capitalize on. The next one could be a ways off.