It was a roller coaster ride in 2013 for long suffering fans of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Everything seemingly was quiet until Alex Anthopoulos pulled off his first blockbuster trade since taking the reigns. Early in the winter the Blue Jays added Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonifacio. After two separate transactions saw the team add veterans Melky Cabrera and the reigning Cy Young award winner RA Dickey expectations went through the roof.
I had not witnessed as much unbridled enthusiasm and hope since the World Series years.
In short the fans were back.
Even after the team got off to a slow start the fans continued to show loyalty and a renewed passion for the Blue Jays. Passion is definitely something that hadn’t been seen in over a decade and it shows that there is sort of pent up “demand” for winning baseball in Toronto.
The TV ratings were out of this world, attendance was way up year over year and the launch of the new (old) logo and merchandise was a monster success. Blue Jays fans that had seemingly been hibernating for the last decade were coming out of their shells in droves. Blue Jays gear was everywhere and even my Grandma was talking excitedly about the team she hadn’t much cared for since Roberto Alomar left town.
There was an unmistakable buzz. Then the season from hell happened.
A terrible start followed by a devastating injury to our new leader Jose Reyes and the season was pretty much over in May. An ineffective and injury riddled campaign from both newcomers Josh Johnson and Melky Cabrera and incumbent third basemen Brett Lawrie didn’t help. RA Dickey was nowhere near as sharp as expected and Brandon Morrow had a negative fWAR.
There wasn’t much to be excited about and very few bright spots to focus on. Even the once touted farm system had been decimated with trades that haven’t had their desired effect on the current major league roster. Most prospect pundits agree there is still some exciting talent but most of it is currently in the low minors with players nowhere near the big leagues.
When you are dealing with players just beginning their professional careers the development is choppy at best and who knows what the system will look like in one calendar year. There could be renewed optimism with help on the horizon or there could be regression, injury and failure. The development of a baseball prospect is never linear and the violent rise and fall of such players is renowned.
Heading into the offseason I think the tone of the Blue Jays fan base was a kind of cautious optimism. If the team could remain healthy and management plugged the required holes in the ship this was a team that could definitely be in the hunt for a wild-card spot.
It appears the Jays brass is banking heavily on a full season of Melky Cabrera, Jose Reyes, Brett Lawrie, Jose Bautista and Brandon Morrow to right the ship. In other words, the cavalry will not be coming. Like Xzibit said – what you see is what you get.
Josh Johnson signed an extremely team friendly deal with the San Diego Padres. Similar to Ervin Santana I don’t begrudge him as it is a prudent move if either player hopes to secure one more decent sized contract. I know I’m in the minority on this one but I would’ve just begrudgingly qualified Josh Johnson with the expectation he accepts.
One year at about $14-million for a pitcher who prior to last season has been amazingly consistent when healthy doesn’t seem that outlandish when you considered the free agent market. I am not saying big Josh would have competed for the Cy Young but when you have a rotation as awful as the Blue Jays was in 2013 how do you not bring in as many arms you can afford with any sort of past big league success? He was an integral part of the trade that jettisoned several promising prospects and we just let him walk for nothing?
I was happy to see the team jettison one of the least productive catchers in baseball and bring in a competent stop-gap Dionar Navarro. Not to sound like Buck Martinez but a catcher who cut his stripes in the Tampa Bay organization should be a sound game caller and receiver at worst. Addition by subtraction (JP Arencibia) and changing the daily battery should help.
While adding a better defensive catcher is definitely a plus the reality is our offense will be fine with or without him and he will likely bat eighth in a lineup but not adding any significant pieces to the starting rotation is career suicide.
This was actually an offseason that proved to be a relative buyer’s market I terms of starting pitchers. Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana all signed for deals at less than market value. This isn’t an indictment based on not getting those specific pitchers but as a former unapologetic Alex Anthopoulos backer the only thing “ninja-like” about this offseason has been his disappearing act.
The Blue Jays have been linked to nearly every arm but in the end it doesn’t appear we had bid on any of the top available arms. There is a shifting paradigm in baseball as it is a sport flush with cash. Television deals and contracts have infused an unprecedented amount of spending money into the sport and this new reality has in turn hurt the Toronto Blue Jays in my opinion.
After the major markets New York, Boston and Los Angeles the Blue Jays had recently risen to a sort of “mid-major”. We wouldn’t necessarily outbid any of the top dogs for free agent talent but if the major markets either passed on or didn’t need certain targets the Blue Jays stood out as the next in line for securing a decent contract.
We would have to pay up but over the years we still managed to bring in the likes of Troy Glaus, AJ Burnett, BJ Ryan, Roger Clemens, RA Dickey and Melky Cabrera. However as we have seen in this past offseason with all the money floating around even teams like the Minnesota Twins have become players in free agency.
The Twins signed Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and were linked with Tanaka, Garza, Santana and Jimenez. This is bad news for Toronto. We are no longer only competing with the New York’s and Boston’s but also smaller US markets that might have a leg up in terms of a desirable American location for free agents.
Rogers Corp. recently announced fourth quarter earnings and managed to make a $367MM profit for the three month period. The Blue Jays have some of the deepest pockets in baseball but the changing league economics has made it harder than ever to actually land talent.
More available money league wide combined with teams becoming insanely efficient in locking up their stars to team friendly contracts has made competing in major league baseball tougher than ever. You simply cannot afford any missteps in this ultra-competitive environment. The front offices of baseball teams are not only filled with experienced baseball men but also some of the brightest and best mathematic and economics students who are packing Ph.Ds. This is now an industry where Harvard graduates are willing to serve as interns to land their dream job in baseball.
Baseball is filled with sharks searching for market inefficiencies in hopes of taking advantage of even the smallest of edges. Think top high-stakes poker players trying to grind out a measly hourly profit against other like-minded players.
In short, it is sink or swim.
I don’t think Alex Anthopoulos has shown he cannot compete but I also don’t think he is a proven winner. The best way to compete is to draft well, develop talent at a consistent pace and either hope the talent contributes in a meaningful way (making league minimum salaries) or you cash in this prospect currency via smart trades that pay immediate dividends to your current major league roster (i.e. Miguel Cabrera).
Part of this equation is simply money. You can use it to lock up your top young talent or to splash around in the less efficient free agent market to improve your roster – or preferably both. Anthopoulos is calculating and perhaps even frugal and this has not worked to his advantage when it comes to helping field a competitive starting rotation.
The Blue Jays have not developed a competitive major league starting pitcher since Roy Halladay. Ricky Romero appeared to have found his groove but it is not certain if he will ever contribute in a meaningful way again. They also haven’t landed a top free agent starting pitcher since AJ Burnett was signed. This is not to say the Blue Jays do not possess some legitimate major league talent across the diamond.
Edwin Encarnacion has blossomed into one of the game’s best all-around hitters. Jose Reyes is worth the price of admission on an almost daily basis. Brett Lawrie still has a tantalizing glove and untapped potential with the bat. Jose Bautista and Melky Cabrera are still very solid professional hitters and combined with Colby Rasmus form a strong outfield nucleus.
Starting pitching should be better this season with a rebound from R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow and perhaps Ricky Romero. Mark Buehrle will give us more of the same (4.50 ERA and 200 IPs) and the team hopes one or two of Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, JA Happ, Todd Redmond, Sean Nolin and Dustin McGowan take a step forward.
In the minors the team is still counting on top prospect Aaron Sanchez to develop into a front line starter and help them forget about Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino and Aaron Wojchieski. Marcus Stroman appears major league ready and will be given every opportunity to contribute as a major league starting pitcher. Roberto Osuna teased all of us with an amazing beginning to his professional career only to fall prey to the unavoidable Tommy John.
Beneath them is an intriguing group of talent including DJ Davis, Mitch Nay, Daniel Norris, Sean Nolin, Franklin Barreto, Alberto Tirado, Dawel Lugo and AJ Jimenez.
In closing the current “State of the Union” isn’t completely bleak but we appear to be a bit of a rudderless ship in one of the most cutthroat & competitive industries in all of sports – major league baseball.