NEW YORK — Say goodbye to the Blue Jays. Edwin Encarnación already has. He checked his math this week, then re-checked it: Marcus Stroman … Justin Smoak … Encarnación had starred for the Blue Jays for eight years, through 2016, but now that his former team was in town to play his new one, he realized how few friends he had left in Toronto.
“It’s crazy,” he says. “I don’t know nobody!”
So rather than prance through the opposing clubhouse like a visiting dignitary, he opted to say his few hellos on the field during batting practice. In the end he greeted righthanded starter Stroman, first baseman Smoak, third-base coach Luis Rivera and equipment manager Mustafa Hassan. Other than those two players, only righty Aaron Sanchez and reliever Joe Biagini remain on the roster from Encarnación’s days.
That number will likely dwindle by at least one in the next few weeks. Stroman, the 28-year-old staff ace, has a 3.04 ERA and one more year before he hits free agency. He also plays for a team that will be lucky to win 60 games this year, and he knows what that means: He is one of the most attractive trade candidates in the sport.
“I don’t think I’m at a point where [the Jays are] going to sign me long-term,” he told reporters at Yankee Stadium. “So, I’ve kind of come to terms with it.”
Stroman insists he is not bothered by the rumors. He unfollowed most sports news accounts on Twitter. He does not watch ESPN or MLB Network. He asks his friends and family not to forward him articles about himself. Still, he was Toronto’s first-round pick in 2012. He has the city’s skyline tattooed across his abdomen. He does not enjoy watching his team dismantled.
When the door closes behind Stroman at Rogers Centre, it will close also on one of the most fun periods of success in recent history. After two decades of looking on as the Yankees and Red Sox celebrated championships, the Blue Jays stormed to a division title and then the ALCS in 2015. They lost to the Royals, who won the World Series. A year later, Toronto was back in the ALCS—only to fall to the Indians, who took the Cubs to seven games in the Fall Classic. During those seasons, the Blue Jays launched moonshots, started brawls and captured the imagination of an entire country.
Stroman says he assumed the team would be back in 2017. But Encarnación signed with the Indians, and most everyone else either struggled or was injured. The Blue Jays won 76 games and finished fourth. Last season’s iteration was even worse: 73 wins, 35 games out of first place. Every good team eventually falls apart. But this one is remarkable for how precipitous the drop was.
Of the 10 men who started Game 5 of the 2016 ALCS, Encarnación left that offseason, one (DH Melvin Upton Jr.) was released early the next season, three (rightfielder José Bautista, righty Marco Estrada, second baseman Darwin Barney) were allowed to depart as free agents after ’17, one (leftfielder Ezequiel Carrera) was released early in ’18, one (third baseman Josh Donaldson) was traded at the deadline in ’18, one (catcher Russell Martin) was traded after that season, one (shortstop Troy Tulowitzki) was released after that season and the final one (centerfielder Kevin Pillar) was traded early this season.
Toronto is in a difficult position. It shares a division with deep-pocketed New York and Boston and with creative underdog Tampa Bay. In order to make the playoffs, the Blue Jays need to develop good young players and also hit on a few low-cost lottery tickets. The problem is that they did. And then they let that team crumble.
The Blue Jays have access to 37 million potential fans. Toronto alone accounts for the fourth-largest media market in North America. Boston comes in 10th; the Red Sox carry the largest payroll in the sport, at approximately $226 million. The Blue Jays will spend $117 million this year—22nd in baseball. Especially given the way the city reacted to the Raptors’ NBA title this month, Toronto deserves a baseball team that is trying to win.
But in the meantime, Stroman understands better than most what will come next for him. He has a legion of former teammates he can ask for advice about moving out of his apartment and getting his Cane Corso, Shugo, on a plane. He only has five years in the big leagues, he points out, but he’s the longest-tenured Blue Jay.
“I’ve seen everybody come and go,” he says. “I’ve gotten very used to it.” He has already said goodbye to the Blue Jays, too.