Mourning the demise of another edition of the Toronto Blue Jays is not an unfamiliar act for Canadian baseball fans. The end of September has marked the end of the season for the Blue Jays for the last 20 years. Not since their World Series victory in 1993 have the Blue Jays played a postseason game, a drought so lengthy that the disappointment that should be felt over a failed season has long ago been replaced with feelings of resignation and apathy.
However, the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays were different. This was a team that represented hope, that actually had the potential to win games and play into October. This was a team comprised of all-stars, a collection of can’t-miss players that had been anointed by some analysts as being one of the best teams in baseball before they had played a single game.
The optimism surrounding the team exploded in November of 2012 due to a series of bold trades and signings by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, whose pocketbook had been bolstered after being given the green light to go on a spending spree by team owner Rogers Communications. On Nov. 13 the Blue Jays made a blockbuster trade, acquiring starting pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, all-star shortstop José Reyes and infielder Emilio Bonifacio in exchange for seven young players and prospects. This was followed shortly by the signing of disgraced all-star outfielder Melky Cabrera, who was coming off a 50-game suspension for testing positive for abnormally high levels of testosterone. Finally, the Jays acquired R.A. Dickey, the top pitcher in the National League from 2012, from the New York Mets in exchange for promising young catcher Travis D’Arnaud and pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard.
The result of the spending spree was a completely rebuilt team that had auctioned off a sizeable chunk of their acclaimed prospect base for current stars. The Blue Jays were tired of waiting for success and expected to field a winning team this year. Everyone else expected them to win as well. Oddsmakers in Las Vegas had set the odds for the Blue Jays to win the 2013 World Series at 15/2, the highest of any team. Hype over the team carried over into the spring, and with good reason — the lineup already featured returning stars José Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.
Yet somehow the unthinkable happened. The Blue Jays won only 10 of their first 30 games. Some games the hitters could only manage a handful of hits, while on other days the pitching staff couldn’t keep the game close. The Jays’s season went downhill quickly. A 11-game winning streak in June reinvigorated the team and fan base, but the benefits of that stretch were quickly erased by the 7–18 run that followed. As in so many previous years, the 2013 edition of the club was out of postseason contention by July.
How so many players on such a promising team could underperform so badly in a single season is almost unexplainable. Bautista failed to carry the team as he had in previous years. A cleaned-up Cabrera didn’t come close to achieving the .346 batting average that he hit in 2012. Dickey’s earned-run average soared from 2.73 in 2012 to 4.72. Perhaps most disappointing was catcher J.P. Arencibia, who has posted a shockingly bad .227 on-base percentage and 147 strikeouts. Blue Jays colour commentator and former catcher Gregg Zaun took to the radio last week to call Arencibia’s .145 batting average one of the worst in Major League Baseball history.
Injuries are not an excuse for this unmitigated disaster of a season. While Bautista, Johnson and Cabrera were all injured for extended periods of time throughout the season, none of these individuals were playing up to expectations when they were healthy. Coaching doesn’t seem to be a huge issue either, which is where the axe normally falls after terrible seasons. Anthopoulos’s announcement that manager John Gibbons will be back in the dugout in 2014 did not stir up much controversy amongst the media or fans.
Perhaps the biggest mystery is how the Blue Jays’s management is unable to assemble a good baseball team no matter strategy they use. For years the Blue Jays used the Oakland Athletics-influenced low-salary strategy that was documented in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball and the Brad Pitt-led movie of the same name, with little success. Now it seems that their New York Yankees-style big spending ways have failed just as badly.
Despite the failures of the Blue Jays, the average attendance for home games have increased by almost 5,000 spectators since last year. The sport has grown in popularity, especially amongst young people — according to the Globe and Mail, attendance in the 18–32 age group swelled from 37 per cent of the Rogers Centre crowd in 2010 to 50 per cent in 2012. The Blue Jays should feel very fortunate they have such strong support from this demographic considering that most of them can’t remember the last time the team made the playoffs.
There are few easy answers for why the Blue Jays did so poorly this season. However, it would be a mistake for management to chalk it down to an anomaly or blame injuries. While the team still looks as good on paper as it ever did, it’s hard to imagine the team ever looking good enough on the field to compete for a postseason berth unless some significant changes are made in the off-season. November 2013 should be just as busy for Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays as it was last year, but this time with the pressure of a failed season squarely on their shoulders.