Is it Opening Day yet? The team that Alex Anthopoulos has assembled has me chompin’ at the bit for the season to get underway. In order to kill some time before they take the field, I thought I’d reflect on Blue Jay history a little. After 5,707 games, two titles, two pennants, and five playoff appearances, it’s high time.
The Jays don’t have the historical pedigree of most teams in MLB. There’s no Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams in their hallowed past. There’s no Cy Young or Christy Mathewson. There are only a handful of individuals who have won major awards and there are but two World Series Championships in the 36 seasons since their inception. On the other hand, the Phillies didn’t win their first title until 1980, and they’d been around for more than a century. Still, I wondered, what would it look like if I put on my GM’s hat and assembled an all star team from Blue Jays history?
There’s been plenty of talent in Toronto: very few great players, but lots of very good ones. Sometimes, however, mediocre (or worse) players have great seasons. So, what parameters should we observe in assembling this team? Let’s set out some guidelines:
- Everyone’s eligible—career trajectory doesn’t matter;
- Keep it simple: fWAR, defense, and base running should do it;
- No player makes the team twice, even if his two best seasons outstrip other players;
- Assemble a 25 man roster.
Alright, as the old saying goes, ‘Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!’
Catcher: Ernie Whitt (1983)
Names like Rick Cerone, Buck (or Sandy) Martinez, and Darrin Fletcher suggest that there aren’t many challengers for the best season by a catcher: it’s never been a position of particular strength for the Jays. Ernie Whitt (3.8) is one of only two catchers to put together a 3+ fWAR season, the other being Pat Borders (3.6). The thing is, Ernie did it six times.
First Base: John Olerud (1993)
This is one of the toughest calls of the bunch because Toronto’s had some damn fine first basemen through the years. John Olerud, Fred McGriff and Carlos Delgado head a list that also includes Willie Upshaw and bopper Cecil Fielder. While McGriff was a better fielder than Delgado, and Delgado had more power than any other Blue Jay in team history, there’s no doubt that John Olerud’s (8.4) ’93 season is head and shoulders above the rest.
Second Base: Roberto Alomar (1992)
The question wasn’t ‘which second baseman had the most productive season?’ Our apologies to Damaso Garcia, but the real question was ‘which Roberto Alomar season was the best?’ The answer to that question was that in 1992, Roberto Alomar (6.6) was just about as good and productive as anyone could expect from a middle infielder.
Third Base: Kelly Gruber (1988)
I bent rule #2 here: the platoon of Rance Mulliniks (3.7) and Garth Iorg (2.2) was better in ’85 than Gruber (5.8) was in ’88. They were also the hot corner tandem for Toronto’s first playoff team. That said, Gruber was a terrific defender with good power and speed. Mulliniks and Iorg both had experience playing other infield positions, making them valuable elsewhere.
Shortstop: Tony Fernandez (1987)
There really isn’t any serious competition for who was the best shortstop; as with Alomar at 2B, it was a matter of which Fernandez season was the best. Bill Madlock’s *cough* slide *cough* into second base will long be remembered by diehard Blue Jays’ fans. At the time, it ended Tony Fernandez’s best season and seriously jeopardized Toronto’s playoff hopes. The slick-fielding, good-hitting Fernandez (5.1) anchored the middle infield for a team that contended for the division until the final game of the season.
The Outfield: Lloyd Moseby (1984); Jose Bautista (2011); Jesse Barfield (1986)
Because there are three positions involved this is, at the same time, the toughest and easiest call to make. Center field, the most important of the three spots, is where the greatest questions arise. Blue Jays’ fans have enjoyed watching terrific center fielders. The best of these have been Lloyd Moseby, Devon White, and Vernon Wells. Defensively, Shaker and Devo were outstanding, and VDub was excellent offensively. All three possessed well-above-average speed but Shaker’s peak was unparalleled. Lloyd Moseby’s (7.5) 1984 season for the suddenly-relevant and surging Blue Jays is far-and-away the best season by a center fielder in Toronto Blue Jays history.
Jose Bautista (8.3) made the transition from utility bit-player to MVP contender in 2+ seasons. By the end of 2011, he was a part of the conversation about who was the best player in baseball. Offensively, he was a force (54 HR) and this made up for some shortcomings defensively and on the basepaths. His utility player experience and these (mild) shortcomings mean Bautista is the left fielder on the all-time Jays squad.
Jesse Barfield (7.9) is probably the best defensive outfielder in team history. So when his offense peaked in 1986, his value soared. He was a constant threat to throw out a base runner, had good range, and very good speed, making him an outstanding right fielder. Throw in a franchise-first 40 home runs, and Jesse became the best all-round player in the Blue Jays’ first decade.
Pat Borders (1990)
Pat Borders (3.6) peaked early as a player. It began in 1990 and lasted for three years, culminating with his being named World Series MVP in 1992. Borders was a solid catcher for a number of years with Toronto, then for several other teams over his long career. Coming off the bench would give the team considerable strength behind the plate.
Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg (1985)
As suggested above, this is a case of comparative advantage. Iorg and Mulliniks were both good defenders who made solid contributions offensively, peaking in ’85 as Bobby Cox’s platoon at third. They also had experience playing other positions in their careers. This combined with the platoon situation means they were ideally suited for a bench role.
George Bell (1987)
Who the heck thinks of the American League MVP as a fourth outfielder? Well, I do, for one. He was never a very good defensive outfielder and by this time, his base running had stagnated. The truth is that he wasn’t even a particularly good choice for MVP (see Trammell, Alan) but when Triple Crown stats ruled the day, George Bell had them. His 5.6 fWAR season in ’87 was a pretty low figure for an MVP, and doesn’t even make the top 10 seasons in Blue Jays history. But he sure makes a good, productive fourth outfielder.
What, no Joe Carter (5.1, ’91) or Shawn Green (6.0, ’99)? Carter’s a World Series hero, and he doesn’t even make the all-time team? Nope. I’ll take Jose Bautista over Joe Carter every time. Dave Winfield (4.3) and Paul Molitor (5.2, ’93) are remembered fondly because, like Carter, they’re connected directly to the Jays’ World Series glory. George Bell as a fourth outfielder? What gives? Well, these are the kinds of tough calls that every GM needs to make. Just wait ’til you get a load of the pitching staff…