Thursday, July 15, 2010

Will "next year" ever arrive in Toronto?

Two very different messages were sent out yesterday after the Atlanta Braves/Toronto Blue Jays trade.... For Jays fans, the message from GM Alex Anthopoulos was look to the future; for Atlanta fans the message had a more favourable tone - we can win it all now.

Leaving a Toronto team that is sinking in the AL East for the wide-open NL East, Alex Gonzalez is now in Atlanta, and the 33-year-old shortstop could help propel his new squad back into the MLB playoffs. Wait until next year is a refrain Toronto fans have heard before and one cannot help but wonder, when will “next year” finally arrive? Which direction is this franchise headed - playoff contenders or the annual fourth place finishers in their division?

As the Jays entered a self-described “rebuilding mode” in 2010, Toronto said goodbye to shortstop Marco Scutaro after he had a career year last season. After hitting .282 with 12 home runs and 60 RBI’s, the 33-year-old was deemed “too old” to re-sign on a multi-year contract and he left for Boston via free agency. This year, Scutaro is hitting .283 with 4 home runs and 28 RBI. Certainly, his power numbers are down, but he has continued to reach base on a consistent basis.

Perhaps this is where some of the confusion arises amongst Jays fans... To replace Scutaro, Toronto signed the 33-year-old Gonzalez, Boston’s backup shortstop last season. Against all odds, Gonzalez flourished as an everyday player and began knocking the ball over the fences, on his way to having a career year himself; only to be traded away for a younger shortstop (27-year-old Yunel Escobar), that has struggled at the plate this season. Toronto is at the top of the MLB in home runs and near the bottom in batting average, trading Gonzalez will certainly cost the Jays a few victories in August and September. The Jays hope that Escobar regains his form and is a solid player until their prospect at the shortstop position (Adeiny Hechavarria), is ready for the majors. One cannot blame Jays fans for thinking that the organization’s plan to rebuild is more of a perpetual motion machine; they constantly hear about the good things to come. They are expected to pay for tickets, to watch and wait for the team of the future to arrive.

Since the early nineties, the Toronto and Atlanta franchises have travelled a very different path. Once considered amongst the elite teams in the MLB, the Blue Jays have struggled since their last post-season appearance, while the Braves appear to be in the hunt for the NL East title every year. The Jays are competing with the money of the Yankees and Red Sox, teams considered to buy their championships by spending ridiculous amounts of money, which is not entirely untrue. However, the third highest payroll in the MLB belongs to the Chicago Cubs - proving that big money does not always guarantee victories. The Braves have consistently worked new players into their lineup without missing a beat, so for Atlanta to give up on Escobar in acquiring Gonzalez makes one wonder if Escobar is more like Edwin Encarnacion (a gamble that did not pay off), then Jose Bautista (one that certainly has).

After four sub-par seasons, which saw the Braves miss the playoffs for the first time since 1994, Atlanta is in the hunt for a division crown once again; a crown that they held for 14 of 15 seasons between 1991 and 2005 (they finished 2nd in the lockout shortened 1994 season), a streak that included a World Series in 1995. The Jays reached the playoffs from 1991-1993, winning their two World Series championships (’92 against Atlanta and ’93 against Philadelphia), but they are still searching for that elusive playoff spot. The Jays came close in 2000, finishing just 4.5 games back of the division leader, but for the most part, they have been slotted into third place behind the Yankees and the Red Sox on a regular basis. Now that the Tampa Rays are on the scene as legitimate contenders in the AL East, the Jays can expect to be fourth in the division. Except for the 2000 season, the Jays have finished anywhere from 10 games back (2006) to a whopping 33.5 games behind the division leader in 2004.

Don’t get me wrong, Anthopoulos has made some very wise decisions along the way in his first year as General Manager and he will continue to impress as one of the young rising stars in the GM ranks. He deserves the opportunity to continue tweaking the roster in search of the perfect winning formula. The Jays have a solid reputation as a “classy” organization in the league and despite his young age, Anthopoulos is very respected in the MLB. If they could become competitive on a regular basis, free agents would be lined up to sign in Toronto. Keep in mind though, the strength of the Jays moving forward is the pitching staff; a staff assembled by JP Ricciardi - and disgruntled fans ran him out of town.

Season ticket holders in Toronto hear that the team is looking ahead to 2011, 2012 or 2013, but the comment I hear repeated time and again from Blue Jays fans here at TVOS is, “Will we be there to watch?”

At or near the bottom of the standings, with promises for future success and complaints about the atmosphere in the Rogers Centre, as a long-time Expos fan, I have read this script before - you will not like the ending. To spend money, sports franchises need to make money, through ticket and merchandise sales. One cannot help but wonder, when it comes time to re-sign the Hill's, Lind's and other future stars on the Jays, will the money be there? When the Toronto Maple Leafs become competitive in the NHL again (and they will very soon), the Jays will sink further into obscurity in the MLB and their own city if “next year” continues to elude them.

I would like to hear from Blue Jays fans: Do you have faith in the franchise? Are you tired of waiting for next year? Will you be there to watch in 2012 or 2013?

Send me your thoughts on twitter...

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