When the Yankees arrived at the Rogers Centre Friday night for the foreign version of a pennant race played over two weekends, they visited a team that had won 11 games in a row and trailed in two of their last 100 innings, a team mystics and statistics believed was bringing a great city into the 21st century.
But, understand, this just didn’t happen in those crazy July days when general manager Alex Anthopoulos acquired Troy Tulowitzki and David Price. The roots go all the way back to Omar Minaya and the Montreal Expos. The thought process for this team’s construction goes back at least a year to frank self-analysis. And when you see all those home runs fly around the house Pat Gillick built, a defense that ranks with the Royals and Rays in the top three team defensive efficiency, and a 20-year closer who hasn’t blown a save, you begin with this thought: Anthopoulos’ organization is so deep he was able to trade 12 legitimate prospects at the deadline for two stars, two relievers, a defensive left fielder, and still have a system that one organization claims has “four top prospects in their Gulf Coast League rotation.”
Go back to Anthopoulos’s roots, and understand that Alex Anthopoulos began his career 13 years ago under Minaya in Montreal when he was hired as a scout by Minaya’s scouting director Dana Brown, who eventually was hired by Anthopoulos to oversee the Toronto scouting, with Minaya’s international scouting director Ismael Cruz moving to Toronto after what one Mets official calls “an incredibly productive run” in New York.
The Jays organization is so deep in talent that they were able to trade a dozen good prospects to get Price, Tulowitzki, Ben Revere, LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe before the deadline. They were able to trade four others to get Josh Donaldson, another to get Travis, and, remember, two years earlier they traded Noah Syndergaard, Anthony DeSclafani, Justin Nicolino, Henderson Alvarez and Travis d’Arnaud in deals for Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes and R.A. Dickey.
Now look at some of the complimentary factors to the best offense in baseball, one that went into the Yankee series with 73 more runs than any other team in either league:
- The bullpen: Because of that farm system, they now have two rookies—Roberto Osuna and Aaron Sanchez, with Hawkins and Lowe in a pen that began the season as a weakness, now is a major strength with the 20-year-old Osuna, 10-for-10 in saves, and the 22-year-old Sanchez with a 1.09 ERA in his last 33 innings. Back in April, they didn’t know where they were headed in the pen, with suggestions they take on Jonathan Papelbon’s salary. Now they have a closer, albeit 20, and depth.
- The defense: Last season the Jays were one of the worst defensive teams in the league, but this season they’re fourth among the 30 teams in team defensive efficiency—and that’s with only 11 games with the huge upgrade of Tulowitzki in place of Jose Reyes. Russell Martin, Tulo, Donaldson and Revere are all premium defenders, and Kevin Pillar has the highest defensive WAR of any center fielder in the majors.
Defense has become more of a focus than any time in the last 20 years, and not just because the Royals—who have the best team defensive efficiency numbers of any team—are in first place.
The Blue Jays, who were in the middle of the pack in 2014 and noticeably weak on the left side of the field, trace much of their improvement to Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin and now Troy Tulowitzki and Bene Revere.
Because of baseball’s information age, people within the game know more about the quantification of defense than ever before. Some of that data results in the jump in shifting. Some shows teams how much better they are with plus defenders rather than bat first guys.
The Indians point to Francisco Lindor and Giovanny Urshela on the left side of the infield for the reason their earned run average is almost a half run lower with those two on the left side of the infield. Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington has singled out defense as his primary focus on improving his team, which is why they will give full shots at Jackie Bradley, Jr., Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo in the outfield, await the return of Christian Vazquez (whom one AL West team considers the best defensive catcher in the league) behind the plate and figure how Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval (“Pablo, meet Mark Verstegen …”) and David Ortiz fit.
The top five players in defensive WAR are Kevin Kiermaier, Andrelton Simmons, Brandon Crawford, Nick Ahmed and Pillar. Ten years ago, in another era, most of them would have been considered complimentary players. Now, all are cornerstones, and when Jason Heyward hits the free market, the slugging, home run and OPS numbers will not be the reason he’ll be a $150M player—it’ll be because of his extraordinary all-around game at age 26.
Anthopoulos laid the base to compliment the power and develop pitching with vast improvements at third, catcher, shortstop, left field and allowing Pillar to play every day. And even if Jacoby Ellsbury gets hot and the Yankees have a monster September and win the East, what the Jays will have for 2016 is the base for building on all that’s happened in 2015.