It was revealed prior to the All-Star break by Shi Davidi of Sportsnet that the Jays never actually made a formal contract offer last winter to Carlos Beltran, who is enjoying a great season for the St. Louis Cardinals– news that was greeted in some quarters as yet another affront to the good faith of the club’s fans, who only want to see quality Major League players brought into the team, regardless of cost.
It wasn’t, of course. Beltran’s unwillingness to go to an American League club that primarily, or even as a part-time solution, saw him as a DH, rendered the Jays’ interest moot– and the fact that a formal contract was never drawn up doesn’t mean in the slightest that Beltran, or his representatives, didn’t understand where the Jays were willing to go with him. Nor does it mean– to my mind, at least– that we ought to think twice about giving the club credit for having interest or being willing to spend.
What it does illustrate, however, is one of the main problems the Jays have when it comes to acquiring players on the free agent market. As a team still not yet at the level of serious contender, players may not be as willingly shoehorned into the Jays’ lineup as they would be with the Yankees or the Red Sox, for example, and– just in case you didn’t already realize– the club also faces issues regarding playing in Canada, playing on turf, playing in an outdated, too-often-empty stadium, and constantly looking upwards at the best teams in the toughest division in baseball.
Sure, they could overpay to overcome some of these obstacles– though there seems to be a trend among players away from signing with whoever bids $1 more than the next guy– but on principle the Jays don’t, and as much as certain types of fans love to slay them for it, it’s not difficult at all to see why, as overseers of a business with their eyes on long-term success, they hold so tightly to their valuations.
When it comes to trades, however, the rules of the game change significantly. Except for the few with no-trade clauses, players have little-to-no say in where they end up, and are acquired in exchange for a kind of capital that the Jays have in abundance. The need to add dollars to compensate for Canadian tax rates or to keep a player from choosing the Yankees does not exist; the Jays simply have to make the best offer to the club that’s looking to deal.
Trades are essentially straight-up auctions, with few extenuating circumstances in play– though intra-division deals are still exceedingly rare. They’re not unlike last winter’s Yu Darvish situation, which, I kinda seem to recall, appeared so favourable to a team in the Jays’ position that one or two people around here may have gotten a little worked up about the possibility.
Of course, the Jays had plenty of prospect capital to use on the trade market last winter, too, and failed to make a deal for starting pitching. Those failures, along with the failure to splash cash on Darvish, has made a lot of fans insufferably negative in their speculation about the club’s intentions– and especially insufferable when they try to extrapolate from last year’s non-dealings what they expect will happen in the future. Some people just can’t process failure without raging out against whatever ghosts swim closest to their grasp, I suppose, but fortunately for them and their fragile ability to comprehend long-term thinking, 2012 looks very much like the year when things are going to be different.
It’s certainly the year when things should be different.
Much griping was made over the Jays’ inability to land Mat Latos from San Diego or Gio Gonzalez from Oakland this winter– especially during the latter’s dominant first two months of the season. While there’s no denying that either pitcher would have been a terrific addition to the Jays’ staff– particularly in the cold hard reality of the club’s pitching injuries– Alex Anthopoulos felt that the asking price was too steep. I tend to believe that’s fair, though those kinds of valuations are certainly open to debate. Still, something important to keep in mind that will differentiate how Anthopoulos behaved then and what to expect between now and April 2013 is that they were partly a function of knowledge he had of his own prospects at the time, the volume of the pool of prospects he was dealing from, and his knowledge of the club’s active roster roster at the time.
With several months of additional prospect data, in addition to better knowledge of the long-term shape of the MLB roster, and a number of prospects added to the system through this year’s draft, Anthopoulos ought to be much more comfortable with what he can and cannot bear to part with.
For example, when it comes to the young pitching that he’ll surely need to part with in order to upgrade his Major League roster for the coming years, Anthopoulos has all sorts more options on the horizon than just the big arms at Lansing– Sanchez, Syndergaard and Nicolino.
There are potential high-end replacements for that trio in Dan Norris and Matt Smoral. Norris is teammates at Bluefield with other intriguing teenage arms, Kevin Comer, Joe Musgrove and 17-year-old Roberto Osuna. There are also teenagers Tyler Gonzales and Adonys Cardona in the Gulf Coast League, and Marcus Stroman, who may still end up a starter, in short season A-ball in Vancouver, for now. Asher Wojciechowski and Sean Nolin provide more intrigue in Dunedin, as does Anthony Descalfani in Lansing, and there’s also potential Major League viability on the Fisher Cats in the recently-promoted John Stilson, as well as– to a lesser extent still– the struggling Deck McGuire and Chad Jenkins.
Those are hardly all the arms in the system, but the best ones are among them– almost exclusively in the lower minors– and there’s a lot of overlap there. Of course, that’s partly by design, to combat the ridiculously high attrition rate of pitching prospects, but there is certainly enough depth there to consider dealing a few arms in order to improve the MLB roster– especially since Anthopoulos isn’t only armed now with a deeper system, but armed with that much more knowledge of his own talent than he was over the winter.
And it’s not like it’s necessarily going to require catastrophic damage to the club’s pitching resources to make a deal, either. That’s not to suggest that it would be easy, but many fans and observers could use reminding that, based on deals we’ve seen in the past, much of the wealth of pitching the Jays possess would almost certainly be left in tact at the end of their GM’s wheelings and dealings, and that depleting it shouldn’t be the kind of barrier to a trade that it has been in recent years.
The pitchers going the other way in the Latos deal, for example, were 24-year-old MLB-ready reliever Brad Boxberger, and the once-promising 29-year-old Edison Volquez– position players Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal were the key there.
Trevor Cahill cost the Diamondbacks 25-year-old reliever Ryan Cook, and Jarrod Parker, who has had an excellent start to his Oakland career, but who was Arizona’s fourth-highest pitching prospect (and fourth overall), according to Baseball America, at the time he was dealt.
Even in the Jays’ recent history we see that Brandon League brought back Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek was the only pitcher acquired for Roy Halladay, and in the deal that netted Colby Rasmus it was reliever Jason Frasor and middling prospect Zach Stewart who brought back rental Edwin Jackson (and the supplemental draft pick that was very likely attached to him), who was then flipped to St. Louis along with mildly-promising swingman Marc Rzepczynski.
Sure, Gio Gonzalez cost Washington its top two pitching prospects (and third and fourth overall, per BA) and a throw-in arm in Tom Millone, and obviously there were position players involved in these deals as well– sometimes very highly regarded ones– but clearly these sorts of big acquisitions can be made without completely decimating a farm system. Especially one as deep as the Jays possess, and especially so if some of the better-regarded position players are on the table, as they should be for Anthopoulos, given their status on the depth chart in many instances, and the premium teams often place on receiving MLB-ready assets in trade.
The club could find configurations to accommodate them, but the spectacular play of Colby Rasmus, the contract of Yunel Escobar, and the ascendancy of Travis d’Arnaud will force Anthony Gose, Adeiny Hechavarria, and JP Arencibia in to unideal positions, to be miscast as backups, or out of the organization. Sure, they could deal the better-established (or, in d’Arnaud’s case, better-regarded) players in a sell-high gamble, but either way, these situations make for some seriously attractive candidates to be dealt, I think.
Toss in a group of relievers, mid-level pitching prospects and back-of-roster guys like Rajai Davis, Yan Gomes, David Cooper and Eric Thames to lubricate things, and you start to see all kinds of possibilities.
Of course, just about every team still within a sniff of the extra Wild Card spot wants to acquire pitching, so it’s not like it isn’t going to cost a painful price for Anthopoulos to improve his club, but few have the ammunition he does to get a deal done, and few could make a trade so transformative to his club.
No, I don’t mean the kinds of pie in the sky things we often hear about fans magically returning to the ballpark in droves to salivate over a shiny new player, but a deal now could truly kick-start a new, and much-needed, phase of talent acquisition.
Pieces are in place to build around. Bautista, Encarncacion, Lawrie and Rasmus form the core of the lineup, with Escobar and d’Arnaud as, at worst, nice auxiliary pieces. Morrow and Romero anchor the pitching staff, and with the addition of someone like Matt Garza right now, not only do the Jays give themselves that much more of a shot to hang around in the 2012 playoff race, and that much more of a shot to be competitive next year, but they become a much more appealing destination for one of the many free agent pitchers who are slated to hit the market over the winter– including Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster, Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, Colby Lewis, Brandon McCarthy, Jake Peavy and Anibal Sanchez.
If he can make a deal without dealing any of those core players, without breaking up the trio at Lansing, and without touching Norris, or (obviously) the just-drafted Smoral and Stroman, Anthopoulos very nearly has to do it. That’s a tall order of course, but even if he has to touch one of his elite young arms, the time has come. The system is deep enough to absorb the hit, and the benefit to the Major League roster over the next two seasons far outweighs the loss of one long-term lottery ticket– especially when remembering that the Jays ought to have a significant advantage in terms of knowledge of their own system to rely on.
Perhaps the numerous free agent options available in the winter will depress the trade market for pitching, making it a more ideal time to get heavily involved, but it would be a gamble to once again wait for then in the hope that something better comes along. The asking prices are reportedly high right now, but the arms are there in the Jays’ system to replace what they may have to give up, and with so much of the core of the team finally appearing as though it’s really here, the time to start pushing clubs around with the prospect capital Alex has built up is now. There’s simply no reason for it to not be a fantastic next six months in the player acquisition department, and a time in which the braying from the insufferably impatient sectors of the fan base could finally, finally be given a long rest.
Image by Katherine Wakely-Mulroney via The Grid (and, y’know, Google Images).