DUNEDIN, Fla. — After a winter in which the two nuclear powers, Yankees and Red Sox, did their customary tit-for-tat power buildup, it has become a foregone conclusion the AL East will once again be a two-team race.
Whether they care to admit it or not, the Yankees’ acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton and Boston’s subsequent signing of J.D. Martinez was what prompted the Tampa Bay Rays — a team a lot of baseball analysts felt had the potential for 85-plus wins — to gut their lineup of 115 homers (and some $30 million in payroll) by parting ways with Evan Longoria, Logan Morrison, Corey Dickerson and Steve Souza Jr. and reboot for next year or whenever. Rays owner Stu Sternberg, responding to the players union grievance of not appropriately spending his revenue sharing money, contended his Opening Day payroll this year will be higher than last.
No one, however, believes his team will be anywhere close to better than last year’s 80-82 team, and we do know his pockets will be well over $100 million fuller between his estimated $70 million in revenue sharing and $50 million windfall from MLB’s sale of BAMTech Media to Disney.
Which brings us to the Toronto Blue Jays, a team whose $177 million payroll was fifth highest in the majors and $100 million higher than the Rays but finished four games behind Tampa Bay, 76-86, in fourth place in the AL East last year. It would seem if ever there was a team that could be justified in dumping payroll, rebooting and giving up on the 2018 AL East, it is the Jays, and yet, as of now anyway, they are having none of that. As team president Mark Shapiro said, refreshingly, the other day at Blue Jays camp: “We can’t concern ourselves with what the Yankees and Red Sox are doing and how that might impact on the division. We owe it to our fans to try and compete, if nothing else for a wild card.”
When Shapiro says the Jays owe it to their fans, he is talking about the Toronto fans who have filled Rogers Centre over 3 million strong in each of the past two seasons. They kept on coming last year in spite of franchise-worst 1-9 and 3-12 starts from which the Jays never recovered. Not since their then-major league record 4,057,947 in 1993 had the Jays drawn over 3 million, as there was never any argument that Toronto was the worst-hit franchise from the 1994 baseball strike.
“We have a lot of good young players coming,” Shapiro said in reference, particularly, to the super prospect sons of two former major leaguers — third baseman Vlad Guerrero Jr. and middle infielder Bo Bichette — who had breakout seasons in A ball last year and are on the fast track now for 2020 delivery. “What we need and hope to do is to keep this window open for as long as we can be competitive up here until they arrive.”
Above all, Shapiro has to hope Troy Tulowitzki, to whom the Jays are committed $58 million through 2020, can stay on the field enough to be a contributing force commensurate to his bloated salary. Tulowitzki, limited to just 66 games last year because of a recurring ankle injury, has played over 130 games only once in the last eight seasons. As an insurance hedge on the untradeable Tulo (who has yet to start running this spring because of a heel injury), the Jays acquired infield handyman Yangeris Solarte from the Padres and shortstop Aledmys Diaz from the Cardinals this winter.
So, yes, instead of stripping down like the Rays and a lot of other teams, the Jays have continued adding on — if not as spectacularly as the Yankees and Red Sox — also trading two minor leaguers to the Cardinals for right fielder Randal Grichuk and signing Curtis Granderson for $5 million to platoon with Steve Pearce in left field. In their organization meetings after the season, Shapiro and his VP of Baseball Operations, Ben Cherington, concluded much of last year’s disappointing season could be attributed to injuries. Besides Tulowitzki, 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson missed six weeks with an ankle injury, second baseman Devon Travis was limited to just 50 games because of a knee injury, No. 3 starter Aaron Sanchez missed the whole season with a finger injury and catcher Russell Martin had a career-low 91 games.
Thus the decision to stay the course and steadfastly rebuff trade overtures for Donaldson, who is a free agent after this year, and No. 1 starter Marcus Stroman, who is currently shut down for a couple of weeks with shoulder tendinitis. The Jays did have contract extension negotiations with the 32-year old Donaldson this winter but couldn’t agree on the years.
“Assuming Marcus is okay, and with Sanchez back, we may have the best rotation in the division,” said Jays manager John Gibbons. “My only concern is scoring runs. We needed to beef up the offense and hopefully we have. It’ll help if our guys stay healthy but in Donaldson’s case, I’m envisioning a monster year. He’s got plenty of incentive.”
Gibbons is also envisioning a better all-around season for the loyal fans of Toronto — which is more than the fans in Tampa-St. Pete, who began the winter with visions of a winning record and competing with the Yankees and Red Sox, can now expect.
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