By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (July 28) — In the end, there really was no choice.
While ferrying the longest playoff drought (21 seasons) of any team in the four major North American sports — and with more than two months remaining in a spotty yet tantalizing season — the Toronto Blue Jays had to go for it. General manager Alex Anthopoulos looked at his club’s breathtaking attack and noticed, doubtlessly, that 34 games were left on the home schedule at Rogers Centre. How could Anthopoulos or the ownership of Rogers Communications justify more patience — even if it may have proven beneficial down the line? Everything has been “down the line” with the Blue Jays for 21 years, nine months and five days — since Joe Carter “touched ’em all” against Philadelphia to win the 1993 World Series. Oct. 23 of that year sticks in the craw of Toronto baseball zealots the way May 2 (1967) does with our city’s hockey followers.
It was — and is — time to stay bold; to potentially sacrifice more of the future for a chance to play deep into October. Not only this year. But, in the couple or three to follow. With Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Bautista, Devon Travis, Kevin Pillar and Russell Martin, the Jays will have a solid nucleus through the end of at least next season. The club has to exercise its $14 million option on Bautista for 2016 and there’s every reason to do so. Though hitting an anemic .234 right now, Joey Bats is still clobbering the ball with 21 home runs and 66 RBI — the latter figure two shy of American League leaders Donaldson, and Kendrys Morales of Kansas City. Once he rehabs his throwing shoulder in the winter, Bautista should return at full strength.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS GM ALEX ANTHOPOULOS ADDRESSES THE MEDIA AFTER 1 P.M. TODAY.
Though Anthopoulos needs at least one more established pitcher for his team to legitimately contend this autumn — he promised nothing at a news conference today, but why would he? — the Jays are a decent bet to play meaningful games in September for the first time in a generation. And, that’s rather essential for their supporters, any of whom must be in their mid–to–late 30’s to have first–hand recollection of the ’93 World Series. Sitting idly at the non–waiver trade deadline this week would have discouraged those that follow — and play for — the ball club. Acquiring arguably the best shortstop in the Major Leagues, as Anthopoulos did early today in Tulowitzki, from Colorado, should energize the clubhouse and ensure robust ticket sales for the remainder of the home schedule. A first playoff appearance in 22 years will almost certainly add to the season–ticket base for next year. As such, this is simply good business by the Blue Jays, no matter how it unfolds.
Times sure have changed in baseball. When Pat Gillick pulled the trigger on over–the–top deals to add David Cone and Rickey Henderson (in 1992 and 1993), the Jays were playing in the neighborhood of 25 games over 500. Both acquisitions came a month later than today — toward the waiver deadline at the end of August. At the time, however, it was substantially more difficult to make the playoffs. There were two divisions in each league — the National and American East and West — and only the division winners qualified to meet in the League Championship Series. The survivors played in the World Series. Today, there are four tiers of playoffs (Wild Card, League Division, League Championship and World Series) with five teams participating in each of the N.L. and A.L. That’s why it is feasible to pull off a trade like Anthopoulos did overnight on behalf of a club wavering at .500 (50–50).
Two decades ago, a .500 team would miss the playoffs by 15 games.
LAST PLAYOFF MOMENT: JOE CARTER’S BOTTOM–OF–THE–NINTH HOME RUN OFF MITCH WILLIAMS OF PHILADELPHIA — OCT. 23, 1993 — THAT ALLOWED THE BLUE JAYS TO REPEAT AS WORLD SERIES CHAMPION. JAYS HAVE SINCE BEEN A PLAYOFF SPECTATOR.
While making blockbuster trades with Miami, the New York Mets, Oakland and Colorado since November 2012, Anthopoulos has relinquished pitching prospects Henderson Alvarez, Justin Nicolino, Noah Syndergaard, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin, Miguel Castro and Jeff Hoffman. “We weren’t too thrilled about trading some of our better prospects, as we did in this deal, for rentals,” said the GM, who acquired the remaining five–plus seasons of Tulowitzki’s contract from Colorado. “That’s not to say we’re out of the rental market [but] it’s a rare opportunity to get better.” Double–A sent Castro, Hoffman and veteran Jose Reyes to Denver early this morning for Tulowitzki, who had 12 home runs and 53 RBI for the Rockies while batting .300. The 30–year–old native of Santa Clara, Calif. is a five–time National League All–Star.
Anthopoulos will explore the “rental” market before Friday’s deadline with respect to at least three front–of–the–rotation starters: Jeff Samardzija of the Chicago White Sox, David Price of Detroit and Ian Kennedy of San Diego — all of whom can become free agents this winter. The abysmal Philadelphia Phillies are here in Toronto for a two–game mini–series with right–hander Cole Hamels available fresh off hurling a no–hitter against the Chicago Cubs. But, Hamels is signed through 2018, so the price for the Blue Jays would be steep — likely Marcus Stroman or Aaron Sanchez. One way or another, Anthopoulos has to add an established arm before Sep. 1.
What a couple of months it has been for Toronto sport.
The Maple Leafs sign Mike Babcock as coach; make their earliest draft pick (Mitch Marner) in 26 years; trade Phil Kessell to Pittsburgh and summon Lou Lamoriello from New Jersey to be general manager. The Pan American Games are held here in town. Now, the Blue Jays pick up another All–Star bat and glove. This city and its preponderance of disgruntled fans deserves excitement. And, it seems to be arriving here on a weekly basis. Stay tuned for more — possibly before Friday.
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