Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Whole New Ballgame

Why is this man smiling?
Though there are no pennants handed out at the end of the offseason for the team who has done the most to improve their lot, the Blue Jays will be able to hang column inches in yard lengths after the most dramatic turnover of the franchise's personnel in franchise history.

Simply put: The Blue Jays are not messing around. They're leaving nothing to chance. And they're in a hurry.

Since October 21st, the manager, half of the coaching staff, and a significant chunk of the roster has been turned over. The Jays have added at least seven full-time players to their roster, and maybe more. In most instances, they've arguably upgraded over the 2012 roster, adding bulging sackloads of money to the payroll.

After years of following along with the logic of the Eternal Building Process and attempting to understand the extended series of moves around the margins made by Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos, the bounty of signings and transactions within the past few weeks is almost befuddling. It flies in the face of much of what I assumed about his approach, and certainly runs counter to the philosophy that I had adopted with regards to the slow build paying off with a longer success cycle.

But maybe all of that is out the window at this point. Maybe it's time to recalibrate.

The Jays' previously prudent approach made perfectly good sense: Stock up the system with young, controllable players, and hope to hit the jackpot on two or three of those potential stars. Build from within, and eschew the over-priced free agent market. Buy low, sell high. It's just good business, and the Jays - an entertainment arm of a publicly-traded multimedia conglomerate - can't lose money to win games.  

This made sense right up until October 2nd of this year. That's when Major League Baseball announced a $6.8 Billion extension of its national rights agreements with Fox and Turner Broadcasting. And while you might not have felt your china rattling in its cabinet on that day, there was a geological shift in the game that occurred with this deal.

Stack that deal on top of the $5.6 Billion deal with ESPN from late August, and a lot of new money is flowing to the bottom lines of all teams before the first turnstile budges.

This money has several effects on a team like Toronto. For one, it adds immediately to the team's spending capacity. But because it also does so for the other 29 teams, it creates a competitive imperative to move quickly and spend that money immediately before premium talent is snapped up.

Ultimately, all of that giant pool of money is going to get spent, and you had better hope that your team is spending it wisely.

The pace of the transition is dizzying for someone like me, who is deliberate to a fault. Sending six or seven of the team's best under-25 players out the door within the span of a few weeks is a tough pill to swallow, especially if you still maintain that the team needs to create their own superstars if they are to be more than a one-year wonder.

Moreover, the team has added nary a young player in return in any of these deals. The system that was the envy of many in baseball will be much thinner for the next few years, with most of the more intriguing pieces being several years away from the major leagues. The backlash towards prospect watching notwithstanding, the state of the Jays' minor league system will once again become a watching brief for some fans, regardless of what plays out on the field and turf over the next three seasons.

But if this is a turning point in the sport, and if this new money will indeed fundamentally change the economics of the game - even if only for a few years - then maybe there's something to this offseason's spree that runs more profound than "spend to contend".

Certainly, the perceived weakness of the AL East for 2013 might have played into the thought process, as may have the concerns that the team might be teetering towards irrelevancy as elements of the fanbase became cynical after a poor season and the awkwardly orchestrated departure of their manager. But when you're attempting to shake loose tens of millions of dollars to add to the top line of your financial ledger, one would imagine that it would take more than a series of PR fires to create the argument for more resources.

In the next couple of years, there will be inflation on player salaries as teams look to spend the newfound riches from the national media deals, not to mention the significant local broadcasting money that is flowing into the system as well. While the cost of acquiring veteran ballplayers was high in terms of the exchange rate on prospects, the Blue Jays were smart to be aggressive in this area before truly premium talents become so scarce that middling players command huge salaries on the open market.

Trying to spend money next offseason -or even next month- might not be such a rewarding proposition.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Note On A Quote

"Do they all pan out? Do they all do well? Who knows? But I'm not opposed at all to taking prospects and trading them for big-league players.
"They're not all going to play up here and part of drafting and signing and developing these players is to use them to supplement the big  league team. I think the depth is certainly there to make a trade, and it's something we'll look at if we think we can get a player who can be part of this."

I've thrown those words around on this blog a number of times, and I'll be damned if I don't keep coming back to them.  That was Alex Anthopoulos in November 2010, just over two short years ago.  The context then was different than it is now for the Toronto Blue Jays.  At that time, acquiring "a player who can be a part of this" sounded tantalizing, despite the fact that many of us didn't have a clue what "this" was.

We had an inkling that we were in the early stages of a plan; Anthopoulos has always seemed to have a plan.  Or maybe we just needed to believe he had a plan to help us sleep at night.  In the autumn of 2010, the notion of trading large swaths of the still-under-construction prospect base was more far-off fantasy than immediate option to create a contending major league roster.

As a result, two years ago, I was probably spending more time trying to sort out whether departing players were Type A or Type B free agents under the old collective agreement than whether incoming players were any damn good.  The idea of bringing in-their-prime, elite talent to Toronto was fun to think about, in the same way that buying a winter home in the Cayman Islands is fun to think about -- maybe one day if things break right, but not really in the cards right now.

Still, I (and many others) clung to the "They're not all going to play up here" quote, through the strange ride that saw marginal relievers and backup-turned-starting catchers cycle through town as part of the Anthopoulos quest for supplemental draft picks.  I told myself it's all going somewhere, that watching Kevin Gregg walk three or four guys in an inning was just the price we were paying to stock the prospect pipeline.

Then something funny happened along the way:  I got to really like some of those prospects.  I read all the analysis, and then the analysis of the analysis, of all the annual Top 100 prospect lists, upon which more and more names from Lansing, Dunedin, New Hamsphire and Las Vegas seemed to turn up every year.

I still kept the quote tucked in my back pocket, ready to pull out when Anthopoulos made a deal that made me squirm a little bit because I'd invested a few hopes and dreams in a kid I'd never really seen play.  Sure, Alex, move one or two of those stud prospects, you know, if you have to, but don't trade the special ones.

Turns out none of them were special.  Or, more accurately, even the most special ones weren't immune to what was foreshadowed of November 2010.

I can't claim any deep inside knowledge of the character or intentions of the GM of the Toronto Blue Jays.  I can only take what he says, compare it to what he does, and see how they match up.  And even though he seems to talk in circles that leave the kind of wiggle room any politician would envy, I've found that he generally does what he says.

So long, then, Travis d'Arnaud.  Be well, Jake Marisnick.  Go get 'em, Noah Syndergaard.  You were fun to read about.  You're probably going to be fun to watch for other teams.  But then again, "Who knows?" Right?

But we should have known all along you weren't all going to play up here.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Music City Mundanity

For as many years back as I can remember, the annual Major League Baseball Winter Meetings were something I anticipated with a sense of both optimism and dread.  Optimism, because even if the actual track record says otherwise, the impression that the meetings are where the off-season dealing takes place can give the fan looking forward to roster improvements a reason to think they may be coming soon.  Dread, because a lot of the time (at least for the Toronto Blue Jays), the rumours and speculation flying around the Twitter-sphere and whatever southern town was hosting the meetings usually ended up bearing little to no fruit for my team of choice.

As the buzz around the team confirms, though, this year is a little different, with so much of the off-season dealing seemingly already done and roster holes fairly nicely filled going into 2013.  Alex Anthopoulos has already been a busier GM than most would be in an entire off-season, in keeping with his well-cultivated industry persona as a enthusiastic, thorough, and diligent baseball man.  But it's that same persona that leads most to believe he isn't about to coast into Nashville this week just to sit in a corner booth at the Bluebird Cafe, sip Jim Beam and pat himself on the back.  Most of the flapping jaws and twittering thumbs that feed the baseball rumour mill from November through March believe that AA isn't done, and that there are at the very least details left to attend to.  So what could our man be up to in Music City this week?

More Pitching

Much to AA's credit, the scrambling for major-league bullpen arms that is likely to preoccupy some of his colleagues is not on his to-do list.  But more pitchers that can carry a larger load than the 60, 70 or 80 innings the team would ideally ask from its confirmed stable of relievers would remain a welcome addition.

Much of the talk of starting depth has boiled down to whether the team can land an arm that would push J.A. Happ to 6th-starter status.  But slipping into AA's brain for just a minute, I don't think he would be entirely dissatisfied opening the season with Happ in the rotation.  I have a feeling Anthopoulos acquired Happ for a reason, and that he has been keen on him for a long time, if the rumours we heard around the time of the Roy Halladay trade have even a kernel of truth to them.  And frankly, at this point, are there that many reasonably-priced pitchers out there, at least in the free agent pool, that would without question be upgrades on Happ?  I suppose it depends on what you'd consider to be a reasonable price, but with the payroll the team has already added, I'm guessing they're shopping at Dollarama for now, as opposed to Holt Renfrew.

That doesn't preclude another out-of-nowhere trade going down that brings back that fifth member of the 2013 rotation (and perhaps beyond).  Speculation persists that Toronto matches up well with the Mets in a potential deal for National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, for instance.  I think the uncertainty about whether Josh Johnson will be a Blue Jay beyond next season might preclude the team from acquiring another pitcher who comes with some-assembly-required from a contract point of view, however.

Besides, we need look no further than the words that actually came out of the GM's mouth in the above-linked article, where he says that he's more likely to be looking for Buffalo-type depth via the minor-league free agent route, as an insurance policy against injury to the current batch of Johnson, Happ, Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero, and Mark Buerhle (not necessarily in that order).  If there's anything one might expect as a signing out of Nashville's meetings this week, I'd bet on an Aaron Laffey type like that.

Platoon Partner at DH

To put things charitably, Adam Lind has been not good against left-handed pitching for the better part of his career.  I mean, over the last couple years, he hasn't exactly been a superstar against right-handers either, with sub-.800 OPS numbers in 2011 and 2012.  But barring a more expensive 1B/DH acquisition before spring, he's notionally still penciled in as the every-day guy at one of those two positions.  I'll restate the blatantly bleedin' obvious here and say that the words "Adam Lind" and "every day" shouldn't find themselves in the same sentence anymore, and having him face left-handed pitching in anything but an emergency should be avoided at all costs.

Thankfully, with the re-installation of John Gibbons as manager, there's evidence that the smart use of platoons will once again enter the strategic picture in Toronto.  Now they just need the personnel to make it happen.  But cheap lefty-mashers don't necessarily grow on trees -- while there are some out there who could be useful, those that are most useful tend to get snapped up for seemingly more prominent roles (Jonny Gomes) or have questions about age, health and/or bat speed (Andruw Jones).  Scott Hairston would seem to be a reasonable fit to partner with Lind in the DH spot and take some reps in the outfield occasionally.

But it's also not as though there aren't right-handed bats on the roster as currently constructed that would make the old "half-day off" routine a viable route for Gibbons to go when facing southpaws.  The added positional and switch-hitting versatility that the acquisitions of Melky Cabrera, Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis bring could make it feasible, for instance, for the likes of Jose Bautista or Brett Lawrie to cycle through the DH spot, with one of Bonifacio and Rajai Davis moving to the outfield, or one of Bonficacio and Izturis moving to third base.

All of this is to say that there's really very little pressure for Anthopoulos to get something done in Nashville beyond poking around for what might be available and checking on price tags.  It's a nice situation for him to be in, I'm sure, and it's definitely a change of pace for fans like me.