When I was a kid, my life ambition was to be the shortstop for the Toronto Blue Jays. I played short in house league, and just like my favourite player Tony Fernandez, I loved to field ground balls.
Back in the mid-80’s and early 90’s, shortstop was a glamour position in baseball, lead by the likes of Ozzie Smith, Alan Trammel, Barry Larkin, Cal Ripken, and Tony himself. Into the early 2000’s a new era of shortstop dominance emerged, with Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, and Jimmy Rollins. The position has always been one of the most important on the diamond, the anchor of the defense – a team can’t hide a bad athlete at short the way they can at first. Teams with good hitting shortstops have a huge advantage.
Which is why the offseason acquisition of Jose Reyes is such a huge deal for the Blue Jays. Shortstop was always a strength in Toronto’s history and was always a measure of consistency. Alfredo Griffin played the position from 1979 to 1984, when he was replaced by Tony. Fernandez was the starter up to 1993 (except for two years of Manuel Lee woe), and was basically superceded by Alex Gonzalez who started for the most part until 2001.
But from that moment on, shortstop has been a black hole in Toronto, a position filled by journeymen, stopgaps, and failed prospects. Look at the below list and try to hold back a tear:
2002 – Felipe Lopez
2003 – Chris Woodward
2004 – Chris Gomez
2005 – Russ Adams
2006 – 2008 – John McDonald
2009 – Marco Scutaro
2010 – Alex Gonzalez
2011 – 2012 – Yunel Escobar
The first four on the list were simply forgettable, players that were pegged for much, much more. As much as fans love Johnny Mac, he always was a solid bench player and nothing more – definitely not a three year starter. Scutaro and Gonzalez had good seasons but were never in the long term plans.
With the acquisition of Escobar, Jays fans finally had reason to believe and to hope that the rot was over. Here was a young player with power, with an excellent glove, and with solid on-base skills. Here was a guy who was going to solidify the position, to bring us back to the days of the great Fernandez. However, some attitude questions here, a maturity issue there, and declining on-field performance ended that idea quickly.
Which brings us to Reyes.
His past accomplishments speak for themselves. He is a four time All-Star. Five times he has finished in the top-30 in MVP voting. He has won a silver slugger award and a batting title. He has lead the NL in stolen bases three times, in triples four times, and in hits once.
He solves two massive holes that have been wide open for years in Toronto – quality shortstop, and solid leadoff hitter.
And best of all- he’s still young. Reyes will be 29 on Opening Day, and is signed through 2017, meaning he will be sticking around for a while. When’s the last time you could pencil an All-Star shortstop into Toronto’s starting lineup for many years? Exactly…
Of course there are question marks: will his health hold up on turf? Will he decline as he ages? Will his contract look like an albatross in a few years? But let’s be honest. The same questions can be asked of Miguel Cabrera, Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Felix Hernandez.
With all elite players comes the risk that they will decline and/or not perform at the level they did in the past.
But Reyes has a long, long, long way to fall to be nothing more than a Russ Adams, Chris Gomez, or John McDonald.
And that should make every Jays fan very, very excited.
If all goes the way it should, shortstop will be saved, and Tony’s legacy will live on.