In the first part of a six-part series, Rob Longley explains what lies ahead for the Blue Jays after a disappointing 2023
A season that ends with clear underperformance will always be marked by disappointment, disillusionment and frustration.
It’s the nature of professional sports, enduring fandom and the challenge facing any championship-focused front office.
But to parrot the team’s lofty marketing slogan, the up-and-coming 2023 Toronto Blue Jays took those feelings to the next level in a tumultuous season that once again ended in a spectacular playoff loss.
Despite predictions and betting odds calling them World Series contenders, the Jays have been dead for three weeks now, with the Fall Classic scheduled to begin this weekend.
The early and humble exit gave much food for thought to a team that won three fewer games than in 2022 and two fewer than in 2021, was less dynamic offensively and punctuated the failures with a series of self-inflicted PR disasters.
And it set the stage for a critical offseason for an embattled front office, a process that will quickly gain momentum after the conclusion of the World Series.
The fallout after losing to the Minnesota Twins in a best-of-three AL wild-card debacle was as bombastic as we’ve seen from this team in the eight-year reigns of president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins.
And the whodunnit element of the how and why of starter Jose Berrios’ early exit from the deciding play of Game 2 defined so much of what infuriated fans about this team.
The pain of the loss boiled over into a blame game, with manager John Schneider suggesting after the game that his hands were tied, Atkins throwing him under the bus three days later and Shapiro suggesting that maybe it was time to ignore everything.
That could take a while for a team that has become less likeable the deeper the season has slipped into the morass, a frustration greater than it has been since 2019.
In no particular order, the Jays’ hyper-dedicated fan base was fed up with the team’s offensive struggles, insane inability to start a winning streak, and a front office that at least seemed to evade the truth and avoid any transparency.
So there was turmoil in the team – and not just externally.
The players were publicly and unofficially critical of the Berrios conspiracy in the Twin Cities. In fact, many were outraged at how it turned out.
“There was definitely confusion among the players about what was going on,” Whit Merrifield told the Foul territory Podcast. “I don’t know what happens behind those doors, behind the coach’s doors. I only know what we were told. I know the analytics department is pretty involved.”
To be fair, the Jays are far from unique with this strategy, as we’ve seen at various points this postseason. But the communications blackout that masked the events in Minny was not good.
And now, with a number of free agents potentially leaving, the baseball operations industry faces the daunting challenge of preventing a team that showed so much promise from further regression.
Along the way, they must regain the trust of a disgruntled fan base and repair the rift between the front office and clubhouse.
The situation is rarely as bad as it seems in the face of an impending defeat, but the course and end of the turbulent season has left its mark.
“This season has been a tough time,” Shapiro said in his end-of-season press conference, a presidential address that was part State of the Union, part damage control after Atkins’ combative remarks against him a few days earlier.
“It wasn’t easy. It was extremely frustrating and challenging. We still won 89 games… but I’ve been in the game for 32 years and I can’t remember a season where I felt like it was a greater effort been.”
Tell that to the fan base that flocked to Rogers Center in a crowd of three million in 2023, expecting more than just the boozy buzz from the new outfield drinking establishments.
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The old baseball rallying point of playing “meaningful September baseball” rings hollow for a team that got swept up in wild-card appearances in 2020, 2022 and 2023. It would be even worse for a team that had sworn improved defense and attention to detail as the ticket to doing damage in the playoffs was ill-equipped to do so.
Designed to withstand the rigors of a 162-game season and qualify for the saturated MLB postseason? Secure. Built for championship baseball where the power play and clutch scoring are paramount? Not yet, it seems.
“The goal is to play into October,” Shapiro said. “I think at some point playing meaningful games in September was probably enough. That’s no longer enough.”
No, it’s definitely not that. And with all key players secure in their jobs, what comes next could go a long way in assessing the Shapiro-Atkins legacy and how long it lasts.