Three years ago, by the time fall rolled around for Leaf fans, the franchise was in bad shape. They’d just hired Mike Babcock, the highly decorated former Red Wings and Canadian national Team coach and brought in Brendan Shanahan to turn the franchise around. For all the good publicity those moves afforded the team, it’d been well over a decade since the Leafs had been contenders, and their fans had seen this movie before. Brian Burke, the sage old master, had been brought in to do the same five years earlier. The results were less than compelling.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays were in the midst of an historic season. Their GM, Alex Anthopolous, traded key parts from their farm system at the trade deadline of the 2015 season to acquire stars David Price and Troy Tulowitski. The price was heavy, but it paid off. And the Blue Jays made the playoffs for the first time in 22 years. They would replicate the feat the next year, coming within two games of the World Series.
The Leafs, as part of the plan and promised by their new coach, “there will be more pain,” were bad. Bad enough to finish dead last. For the first time in recent memory, it was easy to get a ticket to a Leafs’ game. They played hard, but didn’t have the talent.
And then, a bit of luck. They won the draft lottery. This allowed them to draft Austin Matthews, a generational player and the first elite center in the organization since the retirement of Mats Sundin. They stockpiled draft picks, trading veterans, building the farm club. They were young, but the talent in the organization was undeniable.
As for the Jays, after two compelling runs in the playoffs, the oldest team in baseball faltered. Management, unwilling to lose or abandon the fans who’d come out so faithfully the past couple of season (in numbers unseen since the heyday of their two world championships) was unwilling to commit to a rebuild, believing the team had one more year in them.
They did not.
And so instead of trading their star, Josh Donaldson, for an elite prospect (like Rookie of the Year candidate Jack Flaherty), they ran the same team back out this past season, hoping to contend for the second wild-card. Hoping for magic. It did not happen. Instead, Donaldson along with other veterans, were sold for pennies on the dollar.
Hindsight is easy, but what is also easy is to note the different approaches (granted, in two different sports) by the two Toronto management teams. The Leafs knew what they were, accepted it, and collected draft picks to build their system. The result? Their AHL team won the Calder Cup last year and with the signing of John Tavares, are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
As for the Blue Jays, despite the hiccups, Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins have built the 3rd ranked minor league system that is stacked with prospects. In all sports, it comes down to talent. And to be fair to Shapiro and Atkins, they inherited the league’s oldest team and a gutted farm system when Anthopolous left for the Dodgers.
In two years, it’s possible that the Blue Jays will be a good team. It’s possible that a team of Jannsen and Vladdy and Bo and Cavan and Foley and Borucki and Grichuk make noise. It’s not an accident that the Blue Jays’ AA affiliate, New Hampshire, won the Eastern League title this year. The even better news is that the management team has finally accepted the rebuild and committed to it. No more halfway measures.
Fans can accept a rebuild. What the Blue Jays lacked was their honesty in what they were doing, and their moves suggested as much. (signing an aging Kendrys Morales to a 3 year deal or a veteran like Steve Pearce to a two year contract) The Leafs did not hedge. Either in their judgment or their commitment. This matters. Fans can enjoy a game to watch the kids when we know where we’re going, but we need to be included. When a front office isn’t honest, fans will turn, as they have on Shapiro and Atkins and the Jays front office.
The Leafs are on the verge of being a great team. They have exceptional high end talent and a deep system. What they will be this year and the coming years, we don’t know. We only know that they’ll be good. The Jays have built a strong minor league system, and there seems to be top end talent ready to take the next step, but that is no guarantee.
What we do know is that in 2014 the Houston Astros lost 92 games. They’d committed to rebuilding, and only three years later, won the World Series.
In sports, the cycle of rebuilding and winning is a reality. Three years ago, we didn’t know what the Maple Leafs were or whether they’d taken the right path, even as we celebrated the Blue Jays and their stars and their playoff runs.
Times have changed, but it isn’t permanent. It never is. What we know is this: what goes around comes around, and for all we know, in three years it could be Jays’ fans anticipating another breathless playoff run.
Until then, enjoy the kids of summer trying to start something new for the Jays, and get ready for a new season from your powerhouse Maple Leafs. Fall is still a few days away, but rest easy, winter is coming.