TORONTO — To fully appreciate just how quickly the Toronto Blue Jays emerged from their rebuild, a useful reference point is provided by the trajectory of the Baltimore Orioles.
Remember that back in 2016, the clubs finished with identical 89-73 records before meeting in an epic wild-card game won by Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off homer in the 11th inning. For both clubs it turned out to be the last hurrah as decline set in immediately afterward, star-studded rosters were stripped down and the wait for new cores to emerge ensued.
By 2019, the Blue Jays already had the cornerstones of the next contender in place, led by the dynamic duo of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette. During the pandemic season of 2020, they reached the playoffs in an expanded field, last year missed out on the post-season by one game and now have grander ambitions.
The Orioles, meanwhile, remain at the front end of integrating talent accumulated during their extended bottoming out, with outfielder Kyle Stowers joining catcher Adley Rutschman and righty Kyle Bradish as the third top-10 prospect to debut in the past month and a half.
Still, much tunnel remains before they near any hint of light.
To that end, the Blue Jays’ 11-1 victory over the Orioles on Monday night was driven by players either acquired during that 2016 season or picked up since that wild-card clash, underlining why the trend lines for both teams have taken such divergent paths.
Start with Alek Manoah — selected 11th overall in 2019, 10 spots after Rutschman went No. 1. The right-hander, a force of nature since his promotion last year, allowed one hit over six shutout innings to become only the seventh modern-era pitcher to reach 17 wins in his first 20 decisions as a starter, per Stats Perform.
His consistency is staggering, as he’s delivered 11 quality starts in 12 outings so far, throwing less than six innings just once (five innings against Cleveland on May 8) while allowing more than two runs just one time (three versus the White Sox on June 2). Opponents have managed only five hits in 50 plate appearances with runners in scoring position all season.
“That’s not easy to do,” marvelled manager Charlie Montoyo. “He gets tougher when he has to, makes big pitches when he has to and that’s why right now he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball, he limits the damage. Think about that for a minute — 12 starts and only five hits with men in scoring position. That’s pretty amazing.”
Manoah even bails out his teammates when they muck things up, as happened with a pair of errors in the third. This time, he got some help from a clever Alejandro Kirk back-pick on Cedric Mullins at third base leading to a rundown tag of Jorge Mateo.
“At first I was like, ‘What are you jumping up for? We need that strike,’” quipped Manoah. “Then he threw it over and I saw and I was like, oh yeah, there we go. So, great defensive play. Those guys have been playing insanely good all year, (making) my job a lot easier. Just got to go out there, throw strikes and let them do their job.”
Then there’s the offence developed and put in place prior to Manoah’s arrival.
Cavan Biggio opened a seven-run fifth with a walk and capped the rally with a run-scoring triple, while Bo Bichette had two hits and scored a run. Both were drafted in 2016 — the Blue Jays’ first year under GM Ross Atkins. Kirk ripped an RBI single to open the scoring and scored a run in the sixth while Lourdes Gurriel Jr., a fellow 2016 international free agent signee, added three hits and a run scored.
Teoscar Hernandez, acquired from Houston for Francisco Liriano at the 2017 trade deadline, had three hits and an RBI while Santiago Espinal, lifted from Boston for Steve Pearce in 2018, had two hits and three RBIs.
Guerrero, signed as an international free agent in 2015 by former GM Alex Anthopoulos to headline the next wave, homered in the eighth and delivered RBI singles in the third and fifth against Bradish, acquired by the Orioles as part of the 2019 deal that sent Dylan Bundy to the Angels.
Every Blue Jays starter had at least one hit and one run.
“The lineup stretches out. I love that,” said Montoyo. “That’s what we expected at the beginning, and we’re doing that right now.”
It was the core’s successful acclimation to the big-leagues in recent years that led Atkins to begin aggressively augmenting the club via free agency, beginning with the signing of Hyun Jin Ryu before the 2020 season and followed by the free-agent additions George Springer and Kevin Gausman, among others.
The base for that is the 21.6 WAR, as calculated by Baseball Reference, the Blue Jays have already produced out of the 2016-20 drafts, compared to 6.1 for the Orioles, who haven’t supplemented around Trey Mancini (2013 draft), Cedric Mullins and Ryan Mountcastle (both 2015 picks) nearly as well. Rutschman, Stowers and highly touted righty Grayson Rodriguez (who may miss the remainder of the season with a lat injury) might eventually eat into that deficit, but that gap is only the beginning of the separation.
The Blue Jays have also smartly created value with their draft capital, using ’16 pick Kirby Snead and ’17 selections Kevin Smith and Zach Logue to help acquire Matt Chapman. Austin Martin, the 2020 first-rounder, was the key piece of a package to acquire Jose Berrios from the Twins last summer, a deal that led to the ace right-hander’s long-term extension.
Ross Stripling was acquired from the Dodgers in the summer of 2020 for first baseman Ryan Noda, a ’17 selection, and righty Kendall Williams, a 2018 pick. Reliever Josh Winckowski was part of the package sent to the Mets for Steven Matz, while fellow 2016 selection J.B. Woodman was sent to the Cardinals for Aledmys Diaz, who eventually led to Trent Thornton. Griffin Conine, an ’18 selection, was sent off for deadline rental Jonathan Villar in 2020.
And, as shown by the promotion of Gabriel Moreno, also signed in 2016, the Blue Jays still have a productive farm system, too.
In that way, all the collective gains, big and small, layered atop the developed talent helped propel their rebuild into a promising window of opportunity, while the Orioles became stuck in talent acquisition mode, way, way back of everyone else in the American League East.