Saturday September 26th, 2015

The longest playoff drought in the four major North American sports leagues no longer belongs to the Toronto Blue Jays. Via a fluke of the schedule, the Blue Jays actually clinched a playoff berth Friday night, but they made it official Saturday afternoon with a 10–8 win over the Rays. As a result, the Jays are headed to the playoffs for the first time since Joe Carter’s home run off the Phillies' Mitch Williams ended the 1993 World Series in Toronto’s favor.

Though the Jays have yet to clinch the American League East title (their magic number for that significant additional step is five​), snapping their playoff drought is a major accomplishment. Prior to Friday, the Blue Jays were the only one of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams not to have reached the playoffs since the strike that wiped out the 1994 postseason. In fact, they were the only MLB team not to have made the playoffs this century. Perhaps most amazingly, the Blue Jays’ playoff berth this season is their first of the wild-card era. Not even the expansion of the AL playoff field from two teams in 1993 to four in 1994 1995 and five in 2012 was enough to help Toronto gain entry to October prior to this year.

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Whether you list it as 21 years or 20 (due to there having been no postseason in 1994), the Jays’ playoff drought was a year longer than the one the Pittsburgh Pirates snapped in 2013. However, unlike the Pirates, who had a losing record for every one of their 20 (or 19) fruitless seasons, the Blue Jays were rarely a bad team during their two decades in baseball’s wilderness, losing 90 games just once, in 2004 (though they would have done so in 1995 as well had the season not been abbreviated).

Toronto did have two last place finishes in the four years that followed its back-to-back championships in 1992 and 1993, but it won 88 games in 1998, a total that would have been enough to gain entry to the postseason for the eventual World Champions in 2000, 2006 and 2014 and the AL pennant winners in 1997 and 2012. The Jays also finished second in their division with 87 wins in 2006, the year an 83-win Cardinals team won the World Series. However, in the AL, they fell eight games shy of the wild card that year. They were four games shy in ’98, which was the closest they would come to the playoffs in first twenty seasons following the 1994 strike.

Part of the challenge for the Blue Jays was that during the bulk of their drought they were stuck in a division with baseball’s two dominant superpowers, the Yankees and Red Sox. The Yankees snapped their own 13-year playoff drought by clinching the first-ever AL Wild Card in Toronto in 1995, then went on to reach the postseason 17 times over 18 seasons from ’95 to 2012. The Red Sox made the postseason nine times over the same span, adding a 10th in 2013 and finished first or second in the division 11 times in 12 years from 1998 to 2009.

The Blue Jays were literally stuck behind New York and Boston. Six years in a row, from 1998 to 2003, the order of finish in the American League East was the same: Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, Devil Rays. Eight times in a 10-year span from ’98 to 2007, the Jays finished in third place in the East behind only the Yankees and Red Sox. The Jays finished with a winning record eight times in 13 seasons from 1998 to 2010, but finished above third place just once in that span, besting a down-year Red Sox team by one game in 2006, a year in which it took 95 games to win the wild card in the AL.

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Still, that doesn’t excuse the Blue Jays for their mediocrity. The Blue Jays generated plenty of talent over the last two decades. In 1994, they had a 26-year-old Roberto Alomar at second base, a 25-year-old Jon Olerud at first, and a 28-year-old Al Leiter breaking into the rotation. Their Opening Day leftfielder was a 22-year-old Carlos Delgado, and a 21-year-old Shawn Green would be called up for a mid-season cup of coffee. However, the combination of the strike and the team’s downturn on the field gutted Toronto’s formerly major league-leading attendance. Alomar and Leiter, whose best years were all ahead of him, would both depart as free agents after the 1995 season. With Delgado not proving viable in the outfield, Olerud was traded in anticipation of his walk year after the 1996 season. Meanwhile, 1996 Cy Young award winner Pat Hentgen was never the same after throwing a major league-leading 529 2/3 innings in 1996 and ’97 combined.

Around that time, the team boasted two of the best pitching prospects in the game in Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay, its top picks in the 1993 and 1995 drafts, respectively, but injuries slowed their development. Carpenter was ultimately released after the 2002 season following a labrum tear in his pitching shoulder and went on to have his best seasons for the Cardinals. That same season, Halladay emerged as an All-Star, but despite the progressive hire of former Billy Beane deputy J.P. Ricciardi as general manager in November 2001 and an influx of talent brought into the organization under Ricciardi’s predecessor, Gord Ash—including Halladay, outfielders Vernon Wells and Alex Rios and infielders Orlando Hudson and Aaron Hill—the Blue Jays were never able to build a playoff team around the future Hall of Famer.

Ash would later admit that his administration had “no plan.” Yet, despite his Moneyball bonafides, the hot-headed Ricciardi seemed no more capable of laying out a clear course for the team. When ownership agreed to add payroll heading into the 2006 season, Ricciardi spent poorly, signing fragile free agent pitchers A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan and trading for infielders Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay. Over the next two years, he signed Wells and Rios to a pair of extensions that would help end his tenure in Toronto, though he did manage to unload Rios’ contract when the White Sox claimed him on waivers in August 2009.

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When Ricciardi was finally fired in October 2009, his assistant, Alex Anthopoulos, inherited a stagnating organization burdened by Ricciardi’s bad contracts. With no hope of re-signing the franchise player for the all the money wasted elsewhere, Anthopolous made trading Halladay his first order of business, acquiring Travis d’Arnaud, Kyle Drabek and Michael Taylor, the last of whom he has since turned into Devon Travis via a series of one-for-one trades. Just as importantly, he managed to wiggle out of the Wells contract thanks to the blundering of Angels GM Tony Reagins, who sealed his doom in Anaheim by trading for Wells ​​and the $86 million left on his contract​ prior to the 2011 season.

In the meantime, two acquisitions Ricciardi made in his final year on the job began to pay significant dividends. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion emerged as two of the best power hitters in baseball in 2011 and 2012, respectively. After the latter season, in which Boston finished last and the Orioles snapped their own 14-year playoff drought, Anthopolous, anticipating the end of the Yankees’ dominance, made his first serious attempt to push the Blue Jays over the top in the division.

That November, Anthopolous shocked baseball with an 11-player trade that brought shortstop Jose Reyes, pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson and two others from the Marlins in exchange for a seven-player package that included youngsters Henderson Alvarez, Adieny Hechavarria, Anthony DeSclafani, Jake Marisnick and Justin Nicolino. He then traded d’Arnaud, pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard and two others to the Mets for NL Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey and signed outfielder Melky Cabrera two a two-year deal.

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None of those moves worked out for the Blue Jays, who won exactly one more game in 2013 than in 2012, those two seasons standing as their two worst of the last decade. However, after a nine-game improvement in 2014 and the emergence of a new crop of pitching prospects led by the undersized Marcus Stroman, Anthopolous went big again after the 2014 season. In November, he handed out the biggest free agent contract in team history, signing catcher Russell Martin to a five-year, $82 million contract heading into his age-32 season. Later that month, he sent Brett Lawrie and a trio of prospects to the A’s for third baseman and perennial MVP candidate Josh Donaldson.

He supported those two monster moves with smaller swaps for Travis, swing man Marco Estrada, outfielder Michael Saunders and righty Liam Hendriks, and added first basemen Justin Smoak and Chris Colabello via waivers. This time, with the lone exception of Saunders, who missed all but nine games due to injury, it all worked.

That’s not to say everything went according to plan for the Blue Jays this season. They opened the season with six rookies in prominent roles—Travis at second base, Dalton Pompey in center, Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris in the rotation and Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro in the high-leverage relief—only one of whom, Osuna, proved able to stay in that role all season. Stroman, Travis and Saunders all missed the majority of the season due to injury, and the team didn’t get over .500 to stay until July 30.

It was then that Anthopolous went big yet again, trading Reyes, Castro and two other pitching prospects for the nine-figure contract of fragile shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins. He then flipped Norris and two others to the Tigers for ace David Price, and again filled in the roster with smaller deals for outfielder Ben Revere and reliever Mark Lowe. Since Tulowitzki’s first day in the lineup on July 29, the Jays have gone 39–14 (.736), sailing by the Yankees for first place in the AL East and rivaling the Royals for the best record in the American League (they moved a half-game behind Kansas City with their win on Saturday).

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It remains to be seen how far the Jays can go. Tulowitzki has been out since Sept. 12 with a fractured scapula. Travis and Saunders’ seasons are over, and the rebuilt bullpen headed by Osuna, Sanchez, Hawkins and Lowe has struggled of late. However, Stroman has returned to the rotation in fine form, and the offense, led by Donaldson, Bautista and Encarnacion, is by far the most dangerous in baseball. Given how much young talent Anthopolous has sacrificed to get the Blue Jays to this point, that question may be more relevant than for a team snapping a long playoff drought via a more conventional rebuild. The Blue Jays are not built around a core of young homegrown players, and their ability to repeat their success in subsequent seasons remains in doubt. Still, they will enter the playoffs as the favorite in the American League, and for their fans, the first six words of this sentence are still the most important.

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