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Mike Harrington: Blue Jays look to contend while nurturing prospects

The Yankees are back to being the Yankees again and might have more bash in their lineup than any time since the days of Mantle and Maris.

The Red Sox still look like the Red Sox. The Astros are the defending World Series champions. Seriously. The Indians might win 100 games again. The Twins were a revelation last season and the Angels have too much talent to keep underachieving.

So much is going on in the American League that it's a downright scary time for the Blue Jays.

They still want to compete for the postseason but the window sure seems to be closing fast after the dramatic October runs of 2015 and 2016. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are gone and Josh Donaldson doesn't have a long-term extension in hand. He could be a huge bargaining chip at the trade deadline come July.

The Jays have serious market competition to deal with this year as well. The Maple Leafs might be on a Stanley Cup run. The Raptors could be in the NBA Finals. What if both of them are playing deep into May or maybe into June? Baseball could be an afterthought for a good chunk of time, leaving plenty of empty seats in the Rogers Centre over the first half of the season.

If the Jays aren't in contention when people finally turn their attention back to baseball, will the seats ever get filled this summer?

The Blue Jays have some great prospects in their system, something they have not been able to say for many years. But they're in a unique spot. As a big-market team – and with the eyes of an entire nation upon them – they can't just go join baseball's burgeoning group of tankers and hope to reload through the draft.

During a December appearance on The Fan 590, Toronto's all-sports radio giant, Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro admitted the team is essentially forced to middle it. Too many fans have paid too much money for the team to plunge into a rebuild. Shapiro went through a huge rebuild in Cleveland as the general manager in 2002 but the Tribe's time was up and there was not a level of support from fans that made it necessary to try to compete.

The Blue Jays have massive competition for the entertainment dollar, have high prices for their 100 and 200 level seats and a following that goes cross country. They generally can't white-flag a season given those dynamics.

"If we were just running our team without fans and it was an intellectual exercise, we probably would’ve hit a reset over a year ago,” Shapiro admitted during that interview. “I’m not denying where we are and what the strategic alternatives are, but the reality is that a very, very, very high price was paid to put a team on the field that our fans responded to in just an incredible way across an entire country.

"As we deliberate on the different strategies and the different directions to go, we feel an obligation to try to field a contending, competitive team and at such a time we feel that is not possible, we will pivot. Proactively pivoting, based upon the price paid and the way our fans have responded, that’s why we’re not doing that. That’s why we’re trying to remain competitive.”

A Donaldson trade would be a clear sign of a "pivot." For now, however, the former AL MVP is in his customary spot at third base and the Blue Jays are hoping Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ stay healthy at the top of the rotation and the bullpen finds a way to get outs. Sanchez's season-long battle with severe blister issues was one of the main factors that KO'd Toronto's 2017 season

The Blue Jays outfield doesn't need prospects to play every-day roles in the big leagues but names like Anthony Alford and Teoscar Hernandez are certainly getting close. And Dalton Pompey, who has battled concussion issues, could be in the mix as well.

Hernandez, who was acquired from Houston in part because the Astros had no room for him, had a big September for the Jays last season and was strong this spring. But there's probably no room for him to start the season in the big leagues.

The Blue Jays acquired veteran outfielders Curtis Granderson and Randal Grichuk to play alongside Kevin Pillar and help accomplish two ends: Trying to compete now and trying to hold spots for prospects. Filling from the outside allows players like Alford and Hernandez a chance to develop at a slower rate with the Buffalo Bisons. Sending players to the minors because you have no room for them develops depth.

"The acquisitions are more about being the best organization we can be," Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins said. "Now, it does relieve them of that pressure some but I'm sure that's not the way they're thinking about it. But having depth, having options and having people create their own timelines and not forcing them because you have a need is definitely where you want to be as an organization."

"We've got some good young outfielders whose time is not too far off I don't think," said manager John Gibbons. "The more depth you can add, when somebody is ready to force our hand here, they may be the guy. It makes our bench better, rest some guys, approach the game a little bit differently. It's important you don't rush young kids to the big leagues if they're not ready."

The Jays feel there will be several homegrown prospects in Buffalo, but mega infield prospects Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette will start the season in Double-A New Hampshire and potentially graduate to Triple-A later in the summer.

And if they want some success again in the big leagues, it's high time the Jays started winning in Buffalo.

The Bisons are sitting on the longest playoff drought in the International League, dating to 2005, and the Jays know their player development contract here runs out after the season. There aren't many better options for the Bisons and it's unlikely they would make a change, but they need to see progress in Toronto's system. It's there.

Class A Dunedin and short-season Class A Vancouver both won playoff titles last season, something the Bisons did three times as a Cleveland affiliate from 1995-2005 while making nine playoff appearances. Shapiro lived those years as Cleveland's farm director, assistant GM and GM. Atkins was a pitcher in the Cleveland chain who eventually became the farm head for Buffalo's last two seasons with the Tribe, in 2007 and 2008.

"Winning is everything. It really is," Atkins said. "You have to learn to win and that is extremely important to us as an organization. The best way to do that is to have talent. And once you have the talent, you can demand things of individuals, how things are finished off and what the expectations and standards are.

"Across baseball, organizations know they're in good positions when you're optioning guys and having several individuals, not just two or three, but a very large portion of your 40-man roster in Double-A and Triple-A. I can't imagine many teams are going to have as many prospects in Triple-A as we will."

Atkins is hoping things work out well in the big leagues. He's a lot more confident about what's going on in the minor leagues.

"Championships below will trickle up. ... It will happen," Atkins said. "You don't make guarantees in professional sports but my level of confidence that championships are coming across our organization is very high."

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