Tonight, the Blue Jays and Orioles meet for the final time in 2016, the result of Major League Baseball’s playoff restructuring where the two Wild Card teams in each league square off in a winner-take-all one-game Thunderdome. It’s almost cruel. These clubs have fought hard all year, flawed teams adding pieces to make them just good enough to squeak into the postseason, but the ride will all come to a screeching stop for one of them tonight. And while that’s incredibly entertaining, it’s also a shame, given the work their front offices put in to getting them here. One of their catalysts will run out of fuel.
Orioles: Mark Trumbo, Michael Bourn
The Orioles already had an impressive murderers row of sluggers last offseason with Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and Jonathan Schoop when Dan Duquette re-signed Chris Davis and picked Pedro Alvarez off of the scrap heap. But his masterstroke was adding Mark Trumbo from the Mariners for backup catcher Steve Clevenger. Trumbo, freed from the homer-suppressing Safeco Field reinvigorated his career in Baltimore, who embraced his free swinging ways. Trumbo hit 47 homers to lead all of baseball while splitting time between right field and DH. It wasn’t pretty. But form gave way to function as Trumbo helped the O’s batter opponents into submission.
But as important as that power was to Baltimore’s success, there is often a finesse that’s required in the postseason as well. The Hulk is just as likely to flatten the building around him as an opponent, after all, and the O’s needed someone like Ant Man too. To his credit, Duquette was equally adept in addressing this, trading for veteran outfielder Michael Bourn just before the August trade deadline. Bourne only played 24 games and only got 55 plate appearances, but he made the most of them, hitting .283/.358/.435 with two homers and two stolen bases. "More than a fourth outfielder," Buck Showalter called him, which makes sense, given that Bourn's specialties aren't quite what the Orioles are known for. "Thundering home runs" they seem to have down, but intelligent, effective base running largely eluded them until Bourn jointed the club. If the game is close, Bourn is going to be an incredibly important weapon in the late innings.
Blue Jays: Francisco Liriano, Alex Anthopoulos
The overwhelming majority of the work the Jays did to put together a winning team was done by Alex Anthopoulos, the GM Mark Shapiro harangued out of town when he took over as the Jays’ president at the start of the last offseason. Anthopoulos drafted Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez and Kevin Pillar. He signed Roberto Osuna and Russell Martin. He traded for Josh Donaldson, Michael Saunders, Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis, and Marco Estrada. It may seem like cheating to pick a front office executive as the catalyst to a club's success, but A.A. left the keys to a sports car for Shapiro and new GM Ross Atkins, and without making major moves that duo managed to not drive it off the road.
That’s not to say they didn’t make good moves. They picked up Jason Grilli from the Bravs for a song and (eventually) turned Ben Revere into Joaquin Benoit. Benoit, in particular, has been a godsend for the Jays suspect bullpen, giving up just a single run in 25 appearances since coming over at the start of August. And their best move was one that, frankly, is their strangest. Francisco Liriano was a mess for the Pirates this year, walking 5.5 batters per nine innings and allowing 19 homers in 113.2 innings. His 5.46 ERA was, indeed, well-earned. But from the moment he joined the Blue Jays, Liriano has been a different pitcher. He’s cut his walks without sacrificing strikeouts and finished his last four starts with a 1.46 ERA in 24.2 innings to stabilize the Jays’ rotation. While Stromann will go in the Wild Card game, Liriano figures to get a start or two if the Jays can get past the O’s.
Even better, for taking on the whole of Liriano’s contract this year and next, the Jays also got two good prospects, Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez for their trouble. It’s creative moves like this one that will, eventually, allow Shapiro and Atkins to leave their mark on the Blue Jays like Anthopoulos did.