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Ugly start to season could accelerate Blue Jays’ inevitable rebuild: Cox


Good? No, not good.

You could never say the early part of this Toronto Blue Jays season has been a “good” thing. Not for the players or the management. Certainly not for John Gibbons, although a contract extension insulates him to some degree against the buffeting winds of his team’s win-loss record.

Certainly not good for the fans who, after a quarter-century of pretty much nothing, quickly got used to pennant races and October baseball again. The last two seasons, while ultimately unsuccessful in terms of capturing the World Series, have nonetheless been joyous in these parts, with fans enthusiastically returning to the club, either in person at the ballpark or on television where Rogers has reaped the benefits of boffo TV numbers.

This early season 2-10 nightmare is, finally, not good news for Rogers, which may have to return to worrying about attendance numbers and TV ratings again. The Jays, as much as anything, have done wonderful things for the company’s public image and reputation, something a non-successful club cannot do in quite the same way.

So no, this is not good.

The awful early season record is now compounded by having star third baseman Josh Donaldson on the disabled list and two of their very best pitchers, J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez, facing physical challenges. That the staff has been hit by injuries should be of no surprise to anyone. Last year, the Jays were blessed with unusually good health in their starting rotation, and the reality of rotator cuffs, elbow soreness, blisters and the like mitigated right from the start of the season against the possibility that the same could happen again.

So now you have the oldest (and slowest?) ball club in the majors being tested for its depth. You can’t replace Donaldson, and while the Jays still have three very good starters in Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano, they’re now facing question marks for the short term at least for starters No. 4 and 5.

At the same time, baseball history is telling us in rather strong terms that if this season was only about winning the World Series, which it was, than it is already lost. No team has bounced back from this type of start in baseball history to win it all. Sure, it could still happen. Sure, these could be the Miracle Jays.

But probably not.

The reality that was staring Jays management in the face at the beginning of spring training, meanwhile, was that this was also a franchise in serious need of finding youth and talent to fill its minor league system again. Much was traded away, mostly by former GM Alex Anthopoulos, to help fuel those exciting runs of the past two years, and now the bill has come due.

Fortuitously for Anthopoulos, he’s not around to have to figure how to pay that bill. That falls to Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins, who have yet to even approach the popularity that AA enjoyed, and were slammed in some corners for not re-signing Edwin Encarnacion and not doing enough during the off-season to prevent what’s happening now from happening.

Shapiro has made it clear the only way for the Jays to rebuild the system, and ultimately produce the kind of homegrown, talented team that Shapiro helped develop in Cleveland before departing just before that team became a winner again, is through trades (established talent for futures) and baseball’s amateur draft.

For the most part, the draft is a very slow, gradual process. In hockey, you can draft Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine in June, and within five months they’re starring for your NHL team. The Raps can draft Pascal Siakam and start him the following fall.

That’s very, very rare in baseball, and sometimes the players you draft are difficult to sign. The only common ground is that like other sports, the least successful MLB teams draft higher. The Jays drafted players like Kendall Graveman and Jeff Hoffman, and both would be helpful to the club now had they not been traded to fuel short-term ambitions that nobody regrets. We won’t even bring up Noah Syndergaard. Too painful.

They’ve drafted Bo Bichette and signed Vladimir Guerrero Jr., but they’ll take time. Buffalo first baseman Rowdy Tellez seems close, but he’s the only player on the verge of jumping to the big leagues and possibly making an impact that anybody seems to be talking about.

Shapiro says the system has to develop to the point where significant numbers of Double-A players are pushing for Triple-A roster spots at the same time Triple-A players are demanding time in the majors. The Jays aren’t anywhere close to that situation right now.

There is an urgent need for the Jays to get on with this process, and to some degree they have. But the playoffs of 2015 and ’16 made doing so in a more aggressive way over the off-season impossible. The demands of the fans were for more winning and more playoffs, not a rebuilding process. Nobody was suggesting trading Donaldson for top prospects.

Now, with the situation being as bleak in April as it could possibly be, the avenue may soon be open to switching more aggressively to the rebuilding process. People aren’t going to like it, there will be lots more complaining about not signing Edwin and about how the suits at Rogers don’t care, but none of that will change what needs to be done.

Sure, you could trade Tellez, Bichette, Guerrero or others to get some help now, but that would be self-destructive. The current management team just isn’t going to do that.

This season, of course, still has to play out. If the Jays start winning, say, two out of every three games, by the end of May they could be back above .500. No big decisions have to be made now, and if the ball club responds in the coming weeks, the landscape could change dramatically.

There’s still lots of time before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline for the Jays season to turn much more positive and make the summer competitively interesting. What will not change, however, is the need to stop being the oldest team in baseball sometime very soon and start being a team that churns out significant amounts of major-league talent from its minor-league system.

So no, what’s happening now isn’t good. No sir. But it’s not necessarily bad.

In fact, it may be necessary.

Damien Cox is the co-host of Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. He spent nearly 30 years covering a variety of sports for The Star. Follow him @DamoSpin. His column appears Tuesday and Saturday.

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