Coming off their most successful season in more than 20 years, the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays had lots of expectations to live up to. A year prior, they had outhit every team in baseball by an incredible margin. Yet the 2016 Blue Jays were different. They could still hit with the better teams, but that was becoming less of their identity. Instead, the Jays had transformed into a team that was anchored by its starting rotation. In the end, it was their lack of hitting that kept them from advancing past the ALCS for the second year in a row.
The 2015 Off-Season
Note: Although we are looking at the 2016 calendar year, the real groundwork was laid in the final months of 2015. As such, here is a quick summary to help frame the 2016 season.
The Jays’ off-season got off to a bumpy start in 2015. There were rumours that incoming president Mark Shapiro did not agree with General Manager Alex Anthopoulos’ approach at the 2015 trade deadline. Mere days after the Jays were eliminated from the postseason, Anthopoulos announced that he was leaving the team. That came as a shock to Jays fans, who immediately felt as though the new management group had betrayed them. Shapiro hired Ross Atkins as the new General Manager, which appeared to be a patronage appointment. To say that the pair were not warmly received would be an understatement.
Shapiro and Atkins made matters worse for themselves when they failed to sign David Price. Price was a key member of the Jays’ team in 2015, so to see him sign with the Red Sox only led to more frustration. In an effort to replace Price, the Jays re-signed Marco Estrada, and brought back J.A. Happ. Nobody expected that they would go on to have such great seasons.
The team finished the off-season with a number of smaller moves. They traded for Jesse Chavez, selected Joe Biagini in the Rule 5 draft, re-signed Darwin Barney, and signed Gavin Floyd. The biggest move made after November was a trade with the Nationals, in which the Jays swapped leadoff man Ben Revere for reliever Drew Storen. With the pitching staff re-jigged, and the offence still in tact, the Jays were ready for 2016.
Tom Szczerbowski – Getty Images
2016 Season At A Glance
There was a very real concern among seasoned fans that, if the team got off to a slow start, then they would lose the broader support. By the end of April, the Jays were 11-14, and were within half a game of last place in the AL East. The bats were cold, and the pitching wasn’t helping. The real trouble was the bullpen. Eight of those early losses came at the hands of the relief corps, with five attributed to the normally dependable Brett Cecil. It was also frustrating that six of those losses came in one-run games. The bullpen woes and one-run losses would continue throughout the first half of the season.
The Jays took a trip to Arlington in early May. While there, they won three of four games against the Rangers. Don’t let those results fool you, though. The Rangers were the real winners, because Rougned Odor landed a punch on Jose Bautista. Score one for Texas.
The Jays finished May with a small trade that ultimately re-shaped the bullpen. The team acquired Jason Grilli from the Braves. The veteran was in the midst of a horrible year with Atlanta, posting an ERA of 5.29. Grilli’s season took a big turn after his arrival in Toronto. He ended up playing a vital role in settling down the bullpen, as he provided a calming (yet still energetic) presence in the 8th inning.
The Jays made it to the All-Star Break with a record of 51-40, 2.0 games behind the Orioles for first in the division. The team sent five players to the All-Star Game, including Aaron Sanchez, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Saunders, and Estrada.
There was no way the Jays could ever match their trade deadline from 2015. Even so, they did acquire some help. They made a couple of moves before the deadline proper. This included convincing the Padres to pay for most of Melvin Upton Jr.’s contract, and sending Storen to the Mariners in exchange for Joaquin Benoit. At the deadline, the Jays sent Chavez to the Dodgers for Mike Bolsinger, a prospect (Guadalupe Chavez) to the Astros for Scott Feldman, and Drew Hutchison to the Pirates for Francisco Liriano, Reese McGuire, and Harold Ramirez.
Upton was expected to provide a means to keep Jose Bautista out of the outfield and in the DH spot. However, Upton’s bat was cold as ice, and he ended up being less than serviceable. The same was true for Feldman, who may as well have not shown up to work for the last two months. Bolsinger never made an appearance, and instead provided AAA starting depth. Meanwhile, Benoit followed Grilli’s footsteps, and completely turned his season around. He went on to become the team’s 7th inning man before getting injured in a senseless brawl with the Yankees. Finally, Liriano also regained his form, and created an interesting dilemma for the front office.
The Jays went 17-11 in August and finished the month 2.0 games clear of the Red Sox atop the division. Although they were winning on the field, all of the attention was focused on what was happening in the clubhouse. Before 2016, Sanchez had never pitched more than 133.1 innings in a single season, and had only pitched 92.1 in 2015. The plan always seemed to be to let him pitch as a starter until halfway through the season, and then move him back to the bullpen. The problem was that he was just too good to move. His talent seemed like a valid reason to keep pushing back his bullpen date.
With the acquisition of Liriano, the Jays had six starters, so it seemed like the best time to move Sanchez. Instead, there was an emergency meeting in Houston, and Sanchez convinced Atkins to roll with a six-man rotation for the rest of the season. That allowed the team to keep his innings in check, to an extent (though he ultimately would pass the 200.0 plateau in the playoffs).
As promising as August was, September was a disaster. Remember the 2.0 game lead and the hot offence that the team was built around? Both evaporated. The team went 11-16 for the month, and slipped to 6.0 games back of Boston. As a team, they hit .236/.334/.358 with a wRC+ of 89 over the final month. It really looked like they were going to let the season slip away. Fortunately, they won the last two games of the season, on the road at Fenway, and claimed home field for the Wild Card game.
Tom Szczerbowski – Getty Images
The Jays opened the playoffs with the Wild Card game at home, against the Orioles. That game has to rank among the top games played this season. There was great pitching from both sides, as Marcus Stroman got the nod over Liriano (despite the fact that Liriano had carved up the O’s only a week prior). The game eventually went to extras, and Liriano made an appearance in relief, as he took over for an injured Roberto Osuna. In the bottom of the 11th, the Jays had two aboard, with Ubaldo Jimenez on the mound. Rather than go to the best closer in baseball, Buck Showalter stuck with Ubaldo. Then Encarnacion hit a no-doubter to walk it off. Thanks, Buck, but we’ll stick with Gibbons.
The team was off to Arlington for an ALDS rematch with the Rangers. The script was flipped this year, as the Jays rocked Texas 10-1 in the opener, and then won the second 5-3. That sent the series back to the Rogers Centre with the Jays in a commanding position. Once again, they found themselves in extras. Donaldson made the difference in Game 3, as he scored on what has become known as the “Donaldson Dash.” Another crushing loss for the Rangers. It’s alright, though, because they still have lots to celebrate.
The Jays’ season finally came to an end in the ALCS. Although Cleveland had an injured rotation that consisted of Corey Kluber and… others, the Jays just couldn’t score. That point was made resoundingly clear when Trevor Bauer’s finger blew up, and yet Cleveland’s bullpen still shut things down. For all of the attention that the Jays’ bats received over the past two seasons, it was a lack of offence that ultimately did them in.
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon – YouTube
As discussed above, Sanchez had a terrific season for the Jays. He finished the year with a 3.00 ERA, which was the best in the American League. The biggest difference this season was Sanchez’s ability to limit walks, which was attributable to better control over his secondary pitches. Whether the Jays’ experiment with his innings will pay off in the long run remains to be seen. For now, he should be considered among the better pitchers in the AL.
While the team’s offence couldn’t sort itself out in the fall, their biggest bats remained reliable. That was especially true for Encarnacion. The slugger posted a line of .263/.357/.529 with 42 home runs. Those numbers put him in line for a big pay day in free agency. Unfortunately, it seems as though everyone made mistakes in reading his market. As a result, Encarnacion now calls Cleveland home.
Lost in the discussion of the 2015 off-season was the fact that Munenori Kawasaki left for the Cubs. His departure raised questions as to who would be the new media darling. Enter Biagini. The Rule 5 pick was a pivotal piece in the bullpen, as he had a terrific debut season. Biagini’s personality received more attention than his performance, though. Here’s a taste. Biagini’s dry sense of humour eventually landed him a spot on The Tonight Show.
The 2016 Off-Season
The Jays entered this off-season with a number of free agent departures. Chief among them were Encarnacion, Bautista, Cecil, and R.A. Dickey. That left a ton of holes to fill. The team started this winter with a Plan A, replaced that with a Plan B, and have most recently shifted to Plan C.
Plan A was to re-sign Encarnacion. The Jays reportedly offered him a 4-year/$80M offer. That offer was rejected, even though it was the largest that Encarnacion would receive. When the team failed to sign Edwin, they shifted focus, and signed Kendrys Morales to a 3-year/$33M contract. Thus began Plan B.
Plan B was centred around one player – Dexter Fowler. The plan was to use Morales as a replacement for Encarnacion, and then bring in Fowler as a leadoff man. The team also needed a platoon partner for Justin Smoak at 1st base, so they signed utility man Steve Pearce to a 2-year/$12.5M contract. Unfortunately, they ended up missing out on Fowler, who decided to sign with the Cardinals. It should be noted that Cecil also went to the Cardinals, so St. Louis isn’t very popular with Toronto right now.
That leaves the Jays with Plan C. What is Plan C? We aren’t sure yet. It supposedly involves names like Saunders, Brandon Moss, Curtis Granderson, and Jay Bruce. They are a far-cry from Encarnacion and Fowler. On the bright side, there have recently been rumblings that the Jays are interested in Andrew McCutchen.
At this point in the off-season, most Jays fans are feeling fairly frustrated with ownership, as they believe that Rogers could invest more in the team. At the moment, they are expected to have a payroll in the $165M range. It will be interesting to see what players are brought in to try to keep the competitive window open while the next group of prospects develops.