So the off-season has finally turned that long corner towards spring, with the best free agent finally off the market, as Prince Fielder is a Detroit Tiger, agreeing Tuesday to a nine-year contract worth $214-million.
I’m certain that it won’t, but hopefully this puts an end to some of the hysteria about the Jays and Rogers and payroll, which by the end of the saga was largely being driven by the ultra-naive assumption that Fielder was there for the taking on the cheap. The notion was pretty remarkable; premised on the idea that a supposedly-cratering market for a player wasn’t a sign that maybe clubs had huge reservations about him, but that Rogers was simply dropping the ball and punting it into the nearest piss puddle– most likely to be found beneath the pant legs of the nearest wailing Jays fan.
This, of course, wasn’t the case. Scott Boras got a princely sum for his client (see what I just did there?), and my hope is that the enormous back-end cost (see what I just did there?) will calm the firestorm. And perhaps it already has.
Yet, something still sticks in my craw about all this, which is basically the central theme of the entire off-season: the fact that so many people seem keen to live by this delusion where they insist Rogers and the Jays and Alex Anthopoulos operate against their own interests in some kind of a fantasy world that gives fans instant, short-sighted gratification.
Rogers’ ownership of the Jays has always been, in large part, a means by which to provide cheap content to their media platforms. I’ve heard the argument made that they should, but they’re simply not going to look at the market prices being paid by regional cable networks in the United States for MLB broadcast rights and decide that they owe it to the Jays to provide them something equivalent. Avoiding these kinds of escalating, already astronomical costs was the exact basis for the acquisition of MLSE by Rogers and BCE– well, that and the seeming inability of sports franchises to go down in value, regardless of how poorly they’re managed. Yes, they could spend more on the club, and it’s frustrating at times that they won’t, but it’s foolish and futile to expect them to.
Precisely because of that futility, the vision Alex Anthopoulos has set forth– the one he was assuredly hired on the basis of– requires him to be a prudent manager of assets, and to build the club through an emphasis on the draft, scouting, and player development. He was present through the Ricciardi years, and certainly saw not the untenable bargain with cheap motherfucker Rogers so many fans want to cast the GM’s relationship ownership as, but his predecessor hoisted on his own petard, reaching a point where he was unable to convince his bosses to continue spending good money after bad.
Now, Rogers’ cynical decision to close the purse strings, fire Ricciardi– eventually– and commence rethinking organizational strategy was clearly the best one for their bottom line and not necessarily the baseball club. But with a system lacking in high-end talent, a star player ready to jump ship, and a middling player being paid like a megastar, the decision made was palatable to both the fan base and the accounting department, gave Anthopoulos a clean slate, and as such is difficult to argue against. But don’t doubt that Rogers’ willingness to make it has been extremely instructive to Anthopoulos and Beeston.
Fielder’s availability this winter was a moment that many fans felt was so opportune that the Jays couldn’t possibly let it pass– a perceived opportunity for the club to make real headway in the American League East– based on the thorough misunderstanding of utterances from the club that they could eventually go to $120-million in payroll, and that money will be there when it’s needed. It’s needed now, some insisted. However, much like those fans’ similar despair over Anthopoulos missing out on top pitching trade targets, in my view, they have undersold the cost of such a move in their own minds, and overstated the impact.
Mat Latos was moved to Cincinnati from San Diego for the players MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo– hardly the be-all, end-all, but to use as a handy example– ranked as the second-best first base prospect in baseball, the sixth-best catching prospect, and further pieces still.
If the Padres viewed Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal similarly, realistically the Jays would have needed a Lawrie-plus-d’Arnaud- or Arencibia-fronted package to top it– a price that, given Lawrie’s popularity and maple-dick-explodingly awesome debut, can’t be viewed as anything but too steep. Yet many fans, often with the most smug, assholishness they can muster, piss and moan about deals that weren’t done this winter, insisting that Anthopoulos did something unforgivable by not forcing anything to happen, by not conjuring up a fantasy deal that would have added a huge piece to the Major League roster without giving one up in return, by not offering false hope for 2012 at the expense of 2013 and beyond.
Fielder, of course, is different. His cost comes only in terms of dollars, but they’re enormous dollars– dollars that might seem a terrific expenditure in the early years of the deal, but pose a great deal of risk on the back-end. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a consideration for Alex Anthopoulos, given the tremendous wealth his owners are backed by, but it has to be. He can’t live in the world, real as it may be, where Rogers ought to have no problem risking potential sunk cost, because it’s not their sunk cost, it’s his sunk cost. After earning his promotion on the back of a player development-based vision, it’s not really his place to go to ownership and demand, even though a Fielder or a Darvish may only get them close to where they want to be– may still only lead to half-full stadiums in a mid-August out of the race– that they should assume the risk on those kinds of deals, since, if they don’t produce immediate results, hey, we’re Rogers, we can always spend more next year.
Some fans seem to feel betrayed by Rogers and Paul Beeston based on the logic-defying notion that if the club hasn’t skyrocketed payroll yet, they’re never going to; that because they haven’t seen the coming wave of prospects yet, they’re being asked to chase vapours; that because they’re hearing the all-too-familiar refrain of “wait another year,” the club is destined for more of the mediocre same in perpetuity.
I guess I understand the impulse to roll one’s eyes at more pleas for patience, but it takes a pretty severe blind spot to mistake the reasons Anthopoulos is doing it for the ones Ricciardi gave.
Under the old GM, by the end, we were sold on the hope that if everything broke right, everyone stayed healthy, everyone performed at their peak, and one of the teams ahead of us faltered, maybe we had a chance. It wasn’t incorrect, but there simply didn’t exist for him, perhaps because of a lack of job security, the same kind of acknowledgement of reality– about the attrition rate of prospects, about how to approach the trade deadline or the draft, about the most efficient ways to acquire the high-end talent needed to compete with the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Fans have been discouraged by this off-season, often failing to grasp how little fruit we’ve yet seen borne by Anthopoulos’s labours, while the Geoff Bakers of the world asininely scoff from their high horses about bloggers defending their clubs’ decisions to stay the course. But while Baker may be right about Rogers’ crass, cynical cheapness on the whole, given the reality Alex Anthopoulos is forced to operate in, the best course of action he could have taken– for the sake of his own job, and by extension the franchise– is this. The Jays may not be contenders in 2012, but fans should take an immense amount of comfort in the fact that they’ll continue to load up in their preparation for unleashing hell on the American League in the following seasons.
Think about it: much like the later years under Ricciardi, the club is good– it’s close to contention– but, as constructed, it can’t not fall short, especially given it’s residence in the toughest division in baseball. However, this time there’s no magical short window that must be hoped and aimed for. This time we’re not waiting on the dramatic false hope of a free agent coup, or one high-end prospect or two progressing quickly and without setback. In 2012, we’re talking about maybe the best farm system in the Majors, with wave after wave of multiple prospects due to come over the next several years, six more early-round picks for 2012, and at least six years of Major League team control for every single one of them who has yet to hit Toronto– not to mention team-friendly contracts coming literally out the ass. [OK, maybe not literally... unless!]
What Anthopoulos has done this winter simply is not just an extension of the previous regime. And as long as Rogers owns the club, it’s also the only way it’s going to work. Not only that, it is working, just maybe not fast enough for those fans who find so much catharsis in pissing and moaning, or the writers who lack either the intelligence or the compunction that would otherwise stop them from transparently preying on such instincts.