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Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ walks off the field after being pulled against the Tampa Bay Rays during the eighth inning of American League baseball action in Toronto, Saturday September 28, 2013. (Mark Blinch/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ walks off the field after being pulled against the Tampa Bay Rays during the eighth inning of American League baseball action in Toronto, Saturday September 28, 2013. (Mark Blinch/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Blair: For Jays, there is no shortcut to winning Add to ...

First, it was the Oakland Athletics. Then, it was the Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays. Now, it’s the Boston Red Sox.

This is what happens when a team doesn’t win, when, like the Toronto Blue Jays, you haven’t made the playoffs for 20 years: You search for a plan or hope for a shortcut – as the Jays are now doing by holding out as an example the worst-to-first story penned by John Farrell’s 2013 Red Sox.

It is nothing new. J.P. Ricciardi was hired as general manager to bring Moneyball north. Then, Terry Ryan’s homegrown, cost-effective Twins became the blueprint that intrigued the Blue Jays. After that, it was the Rays and their ability to develop starting pitching. Now, the Blue Jays are hoping they can get a bounce-back season in 2014, as the Red Sox did this year, when they authored the best single-season turnaround by a Boston team since the 1946 season.

That might be possible, although there is nothing in the track record or makeup of, say, pitcher Brandon Morrow that suggests a Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz about-face is in the offing. Can R.A. Dickey be better? Sure. Can Mark Buehrle? Probably not.

In fact, it can be argued GM Alex Anthopoulos has to acquire the one or two starters the team needs to author such a turnaround. “What’s Broken Can Be Fixed” was the Red Sox marketing slogan last winter, and Boston had a core of players used to winning. They didn’t airlift a bunch of guys from the Miami Marlins. What additions were made in the off-season – Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes, for example – were to bolster a pre-existing core.

The Blue Jays do not have a catcher that management trusts. Nor do they have a Dustin Pedroia at second base – or anywhere on the roster, for that matter – and they don’t have the minor-league depth of the Red Sox. Nothing suggests the Blue Jays are a tinker or two away.

There are ample reasons to watch baseball’s playoffs this weekend: Canadian content coupled with the classic underdog story in the Pittsburgh Pirates; Yasiel Puig and the Los Angeles Dodgers; the possibility the plumbing at Oakland’s O.co Coliseum will back up once again and flood the dugouts; or blind hatred of Farrell, the man who jilted Toronto.

But time spent dreaming of a miracle on Blue Jays Way might be better off studying how the Rays and how they go about developing pitching. Yes, it’s back to the Rays.

The Rays had 108 starts this season from pitchers they’d developed and this was a rare year for them because they used 10 different starters. Since 2008, they’ve only had 20 different starters in total. For the fourth consecutive season, the Rays posted the lowest opponents’ batting average in the American League.

And stow that rubbish about how the Rays only have all these good young arms because they had so many seasons of poor finishes and high draft picks. David Price was the first choice overall in 2007, but Jeremy Hellickson (fourth round, 2005), Matt Moore (eighth round, 2007) and Alex Cobb (fourth round, 2006) were all taken in the “crapshoot” stages of the draft.

The Blue Jays, we’re led to believe, will take another deep look into their soul to find out why they can’t develop front-line starting pitchers, or keep them healthy the way the Rays have been able to do.

Ben Zobrist, the Rays super-utility player, said in a conversation earlier this season he marvelled at the arms he sees at the team’s minor-league complex every spring training: mechanically sound, patiently loaded up with minor league innings; held back until a secondary pitch is honed.

“There’s a certain look to a Rays pitcher,” Zobrist said.

On Friday, before the first game of the AL Division Series against the Red Sox, Rays manager Joe Maddon cited a demand for fastball command as being part of the formula. So was what Maddon called “the original scouting concept: who you sign.” But there’s more, too.

“I’m a big believer in the change-up and curveball,” Maddon said. “The slider and cutter are nice pitches – when you can’t throw a change or curve.”

No secret, Maddon told reporters. He might have added: no shortcuts, either.


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