As many caveats as may be applicable, ultimately, blame for the 2013 Blue Jays season needs to be laid at the feet of the front office and GM Alex Anthoupoulos. On that point there can be no doubt, dangerous as it may be to admit as much in the company of the hopelessly negative who will dull-headedly insist on the existence of a direct relationship between the club’s record and AA’s fitness for his post. If one is actually interested in being reasonable, however, I’d say that about the worst gripe you can make about the job he did over the winter was the way he ignored red flags, and– in particular– the way he splashed prospects and money around on players with major question marks hanging over them, which have almost uniformly been answered in the negative.
Though… that’s a little unfair, I think, as Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes have been almost exactly as advertised. Without question, though, the GM whiffed on– or perhaps the circumstances simply conspired against– the seasons that were forthcoming from Josh Johnson, Melky Cabrera, R.A. Dickey, and to a lesser extent, Emilio Bonifacio, and Maicer Izturis.
Even Reyes, freak injury as it was, managed to get hurt– yet another red flag that was ignored and swept up in last winter’s wave of positivity.
“Alex should have known!” the sour fans surely bellow in their minds, oblivious to the fact that their insistence on the matter essentially means they believe baseball’s landscape is populated with a vast number of sure things, and Anthoupoulos gravely chose to take bad risks, believing too much in his own ability to evaluate talent.
Don’t believe me? Let’s play a game. How would you feel about your chances if your team was in this situation coming into this season year:
- The best 2012 ERA posted in your own league by one of your projected five starters was fucking 4.56 (with a higher FIP, slightly), as that player followed up an injury-plagued 2011 (14 starts) by being worth just 1.5 wins above replacement per FanGraphs. As a comparison, the maligned R.A. Dickey’s ERA currently sits at 4.46.
- Your most reliable starter by fWAR over previous years had seen his third straight season of decline by that metric, despite still being under 30, and posted an ERA of 4.82 (albeit with a FIP of 4.11).
- Another starter had racked up some innings in your league following a mid-season switch, posting an ugly 5.08 ERA, and also spent time in 2012 on the DL with a thigh strain and a shoulder issue.
- Your fourth projected starter was young, not considered an elite-elite prospect, and in his first full season as a starter– and the first time in his career pitching more than 130 innings, finishing at just over 160– could manage just a 4.86 ERA in 2012, with his FIP only less than a half run better.
- Your aging fifth starter had missed all of 2012, after having put up an ERA over six in 2011, and a 4.40 ERA the year before that.
So… to recap, that’s two guys who’d missed a half season or more in the previous two years, a guy who’d had shoulder trouble, a kid who struggled and might not be able to give you 200 innings (even if healthy), a declining innings eater who barely kept his ERA below five, and nobody else with numbers a whole lot more impressive.
On the field, there are more question marks:
- One of your key outfielders is 32 and looked firmly like a platoon player in 2012, with a .280 wOBA against right-handed pitching.
- Speaking of platoons, you’re looking at one in another ourfield spot, mostly combining a lefty-killer, who is below average defensively, with a youngster who was pretty much exactly league average in 2012, based on both UZR and his .330 wOBA.
- Another outfielder is young and has flashed huge potential but spent the majority of both 2010 and 2012 injured, and posted just an 83 wRC+ when he was able to get on the field last year.
- At one of your middle infield positions, both options you’re going into the season with combined in 2012 to be at exactly replacement level, per FanGraphs– one would be just 23 years old and very green, while the other was entering his age 30 season, with a decent four-win 2010 being the only real standout season in a so-far middling and somewhat injury-prone career.
So, we’re talking about question marks all over the place. And there are more, still, which will pretty clearly give away the team I’m talking about, if you haven’t already figured it out.
- Your starting catcher, in his age 27 season, posted a .222/.288/.454 with defence that, by FanGraphs’ metric for catchers was slightly below average.
- Your designated hitter entered the season coming off a major injury that limited him to just five games post-All-Star break in 2012.
- Your main first baseman lost a multi-year contract in the off-season after it was discovered that he had a degenerative hip condition.
- Your manager entered the campaign with just a 154-170 career record following an acrimonious departure from his previous job.
Yes, we’re talking about the Boston Red Sox, and obviously their 71-49 record came about exactly how they fucking drew it up!
And what is the point of all this, exactly? It’s certainly not to denigrate the Red Sox or to claim their success this year is down entirely to dumb luck. They obviously made calculated risks that are paying off well, and I think a lot of people saw that as a possibility at the time.
In fact, back in a post on April 1st (check the comments, too!) some clever person wrote this– COUGH!:
Even the Red Sox– who will hit, especially in their ballpark, with Pedroia, Napoli, Gomes against lefties, and full health from Ellsbury and (eventually) Ortiz– need only for Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz to regain their form of two years ago in order to be a club capable of winning the division themselves, really. It’s a tall order, but I suppose the point I’m trying to make is, so is having Dickey pick up where he left off in 2012, keeping Johnson on the path to regaining his dominance, getting a healthy season from Brandon Morrow, and keeping the regression demons at bay when it comes to Mark Buehrle.
Hey, one out of four ain’t bad!
But certainly there is an element of fortune in what’s happened to the Red Sox and what’s happened to the Jays. Boston has had some good fortune in terms of health– four starters with twenty-plus starts, Napoli holding up, Ortiz himself and healthy, Ellsbury healthy– and in terms of performance as well, I think. The Jays, undeniably, to some extent have not.
To some extent, I say. And yet, while I’ll always maintain that the way fans attempt to ascribe magical powers to managers and coaches whose presence happens to correlate to a player’s emergent success (or decline), I think it’s a fair question to ask whether there’s something systemic that’s better about the way the Red Sox make adjustments to faltering players, or evaluate medicals, etc. etc.
Or, it would be a fair question to ask if Farrell and Lovullo and Butterfield weren’t in Boston now, having overseen the disasters of the previous two years here in Toronto, including umpteen Tommy John surgeries, Ricky Romero going sideways, Colby Rasmus and Adam Lind nearly slipping through the cracks, and other clusterfucks. Then again, many of those things didn’t fall under the purview of the three ex-Jays staffers– and it certainly seems a crafty hire that the Red Sox snapped up pitching coach Juan Nieves, who had spent the previous five years as the bullpen coach of the notoriously pitching-healthy Chicago White Sox (healthy, that is, before they get traded *COUGH*).
In other words, it’s complicated. Obviously. But that’s just it: laying the blame for the Jays’ awful 2013 at the feet of Alex Anthopoulos and his off-season decision-making, as much as I began this piece by admitting must ultimately be done, simply doesn’t tell the whole story. That becomes especially clear, I think, when the reality of the difficulty of the task is viewed through the prism of another team. Reducing these complexities to the equivalent of a game of checkers– as fans do when they attempt to draw a direct line from a club’s record to their insistence that someone must pay– doesn’t stand up as remotely serious in terms of either analysis or expectations.
All teams enter every season with red flags and question marks, and whether or not those are answered in the affirmative is not necessarily a reflection of a club’s fortitude, a manager’s acumen, or an executive’s plan. If we’re going to have a serious conversation about where the Toronto Blue Jays need to go following a thoroughly disappointing season, the bare minimum should be to understand that truth– to not just rage at results and supposed failures of evaluation, absent any contemplation of not just the Jays’ own process, and not only also the process that teams like the Red Sox have followed, but the necessary imperfections in every roster, given the limitations of the pool of available talent.
That isn’t to suggest that all red flags are created equal or that there may not be skill in assessing them, I just think its highly instructive to see that the Red Sox, who are having a near perfect season, hardly came into the year with a perfect roster. The knee-jerk, unthinking reaction to how such an outcome came to be might be to blindly point to underlying factors, like coaching, but given that we know here first hand that John Farrell isn’t some kind of fucking magic ghost, that’s pretty tough to swallow.
That said, we can’t completely ignore the possible influence of these other factors and act like it all just comes down to bad luck– at least, not any more than we can ignore the entirely tangible sinkholes on the Jays’ roster in left field, at second base, behind the plate, and in the rotation– but thinking through all this I find it impossible not to view at least a healthy portion of the regressions and injuries that have plagued the 2013 Jays as being somewhat related to the wrong kind of luck.
It’s easy, in the abstract, to view the front office as a bunch of fucking useless dopes stealing our summer and filling it with boundless frustration for handing so much playing time to the likes of J.P. Arencibia, Melky Cabrera, and Maicer Izturis, and for overlooking red flags on Josh Johnson, Brandon Morrow and R.A. Dickey, but that position becomes far less tenable when you consider not only their histories, but how difficult it is to populate a roster with players who’ve shown the kinds of capabilities that those guys have in their track records. Defeatist fans seem to want to believe that players turning up here at their worst is a uniquely Toronto problem, but again we only have to look over to the Red Sox– who hit on ones with Stephen Drew and Shane Victorino this year, but who in misfired huge in recent years on Carl Crawford, John Lackey, and (in their eyes) Adrian Gonzalez– to see that it’s really not. And as the game we played earlier demonstrated, it’s not like this year’s Red Sox weren’t taking their share of chances as well.
Understanding all that is the key to grasping why there is no doubt that Alex Anthopoulos deserves to keep his job and make a second attempt at constructing a winning roster here around the players who he has under contract for the two seasons following this one, and why it’s not necessarily going to require a massive overhaul. This season has been bleak, but that doesn’t inherently mean the future will be, even with many of these same characters sticking around. It’s not exactly a comforting thought, given that there will be major question marks, but last winter, while we were caught up in fawning over a roster many mistakenly saw as too-good-to-fail, a lot of fans seem to have forgotten that that’s baseball, and question marks are always going to be the case.
The task Anthopoulos is now faced with, then– as I’m sure he’s learned the hard way over the course of this season– is to find ways to mitigate and insulate the club against the big risks he took last winter. The rotation depth he’ll have without making a single move, with Drabek, Hutchison, Stroman, Nolin, Romero, and possibly even Happ on the outside looking in, is a huge start– so much so that some may reasonably be spun off in trade to help the club elsewhere. The fact that it will take so little to upgrade at second base and behind the plate is another very big plus, especially since the defensive issues with those two positions can, to an extent, be tied to the club’s pitching struggles.
It can be done. Will the upgrades he makes be enough? I don’t know, were Boston’s?