Where’s the money, Anthopoulos?
It’s going to be an odd prelude to the winter for Jays fans, as we wait to see how the club follows last year’s big moves, and attempts to undo some of the mess they created by flipping five of their best, closest-to-the-Majors prospects, while taking on ass-loads of payroll, in order to instantly improve (supposedly) their big league roster.
Alex Anthopoulos has spoken about his preference for the trade market– as he always does– but it’s difficult to envision how he’s going to be able to pull a rabbit out of that particular hat. Of course, we felt the same way this time last year and he managed to pull it off, but this time the stakes are higher, the pool of talent he’s potentially dealing from is shallower, and he won’t have nearly the same ability to explode the club’s payroll.
A lot of focus in the media then– and around here– has been on what strength he can manage to deal from while still improving the club in the overall. There isn’t much that can be done without creating a giant hole elsewhere on the roster– one of Anthony Gose or Colby Rasmus could be moved, so could one of a number of bullpen arms, or one of the team’s many potential back-end starters, but it would take a nifty trick to parlay those spare parts into the kind pitching that the team covets. Move anything else, aside from what remains of the club’s top prospects– which doesn’t offer a great pool of talent above A-ball– and they’ll need to either promote someone from within the organization to fill the hole created, or weaken the depth in their areas of strength to trade for a replacement, or spend money on the free agent market.
There are a lot of potential moving parts when you put it that way, and opportunities for Alex Anthopoulos to use his creativity, but what I wonder is if that necessarily has to be the game plan. As unideal as we’ve been told to believe the free agent market normally is, the conversation this winter will be different. We’re no longer necessarily talking about making massive expenditures to jump-start the fortunes of the organization the way fans were when they dreamed on names like Yu Darvish or Prince Fielder. That initial hurdle was cleared a year ago, and now the roster– whether you like it or not, whether you think the rest of the talent is there or not– needs to be filled in around a core that has, for the most part, already been assembled.
Yes, the team can continue playing the dangerous game started last winter, one that Anthopoulos had spoken about since he replaced J.P. Ricciardi as the club’s GM, and spread itself increasingly more thin, but doing so means trading future assets– and crucially, for Rogers, an even bigger portion of the cheap talent base of future incarnations of the team– in order to prevent last year’s massive investments from becoming all the more pointless.
The other way– a way that Jays fans seem to have almost been conditioned to ignore, or to think they’re powerless to demand– is to follow the path of the Boston Red Sox.
So much of the conversation surrounding this team focuses on the fate of Alex Anthopoulos, of Paul Beeston, of John Gibbons, of Chad Mottola, of Jose Bautista, of Aaron Sanchez, and of all kinds of actors in between. They’re all important, but in my view none of those people ought to have anything close to the amount of expectations heaped on them as are deserved by the shadowy entity that this winter will decide whether they really believe in the vision they’ve been paying lip service to for years, or whether they’re willing to risk letting it die on the vine: Rogers.
After years of using a small payroll as an instrument to extract extra revenue sharing dollars, while using the team as little more than a source of cheap content for their regional sports networks, Rogers appeared to have seen the light sometime in late 2012. It is surely not a coincidence that their epiphany came around the same time that league’s new collective bargaining agreement with the players phased out the old version of revenue sharing, making clubs in the 15 largest markets– including the Jays– ineligible for it by 2016, with the low-spending among those– again, including the Jays– becoming the “most motivated to increase their revenue streams over the next few years,” according to Jayson Stark of ESPN.com at the time of labour deal’s announcement in November 2011. But that hasn’t stopped much of the chatter surrounding the club’s winter task from largely absolving ownership, who we’re to believe so benevolently increased spending last year, from demands that they continue to put revenues from a club, and a sport, flush with cash (especially with new national TV deals beginning in 2014, which will give each team an additional $26-million per season) back into it.
The onus, it seems, is on Anthopoulos.
The thinking, then, is– if you’ll forgive the mangled phrase– to throw good prospects after bad, rather than to throw good money after bad.
But does that actually make more sense than the other potential options? I don’t think so. Because of the cheap value provided by players in their pre-arbitration years– and, really, through all six of their big league years under “team control”– we can say for certain that a not insignificant part of what a team is giving away when it trades its prospects is future payroll flexibility. Assuming, that is, that the team is committed to winning and won’t just run replacement level players out onto the field every day, for lack of a better available option. (Being a touch too cavalier in offloading Yan Gomes, Travis d’Arnaud and Carlos Perez, for example, hasn’t just cost the Blue Jays their potentially valuable services in the future, but also all the dollars or other assets it’s going to take to upgrade behind the plate for 2014).
This is, in other words, a long way of saying that by placing a firm cap on the club’s payroll, and not allowing the front office to look legitimately, and with an open mind, to the free agent market, Rogers will very possibly hurt the club in both the near- and the long-term. And if winning, or the non-phony prospect of it, drives revenues the way it certainly seems, more movement towards a future with less depth, fewer potential impact prospects, and more bloated contracts for aging players acquired in a fashion similar to last year’s Marlins deal, would seem to have trouble written all over it– unless maybe (fingers crossed!) revenues spike by way of a healthy playoff run in the meantime.
Banking on that, Alex Anthopoulos could certainly eschew the free agent market and possibly still be fine for a couple years. Conversely, the club could certainly hurt themselves down the line by committing too much to the wrong players in free agency, but that’s why the Red Sox’ example could be so instructive. Over the past year, with the exception of Jose Iglesias going to Detroit in the Jake Peavy deal, Boston has held the crown jewels of its farm system while adding lower-cost pieces to surround their current core of Ortiz, Pedroia, Lester, and Buchholz– providing what they call a “bridge” to an up-and-coming generation of talent, while still being frustratingly competitive in the meantime.
The Jays, by looking at free agents aiming for just two- and three-year deals– or maybe even more, if they can find the right long-term fit– can and should do the same. More importantly, they should be talking more about why it’s possible– i.e. because of the change in the revenue sharing system, because of national TV deals, because of the ever-increasing value of the content they provide Sportsnet, because of the highest-in-MLB growth they saw in terms of attendance this season, and because the new CBA saves them money in other ways, like the fact that MLBTR indicates that in 2010 and 2011, the club spent $22.6-million on the draft, while Baseball America indicates that for 2012 and 2013, the figure was just $12.3-million.
There have been little-noticed savings on international free agents, as well: in December of 2011 (the first time I used the image above) I figured that, though the numbers were murky, in 2010 and 2011 the Jays had spent about $20-million on international amateur players (including $10-million for Adeiny Hechavarria, plus bonuses for Roberto Osuna, Dawel Lugo, Wulimer Becerra, etc.). Because of the new CBA, in the signing period that began in July of 2012 their pool allotment limited them to spending just $2.9-million (though they could go over that by 10% before incurring a penalty that would prevent them from signing anyone above $500K in the following period), and this year their figure dropped to $2.82-million.
Fans should be demanding the Jays talk this way and about this stuff, and not just because it makes no sense for the club to set themselves up to have to spend to paper over their 2016 or 2017 rosters, after so many of their current players’ contracts expire, with the prospect pipeline unable to compensate, having had so much of its talent either failed or traded away.
Fans should also be demanding it because it follows exactly from so much of what the higher-ups have always said.
We haven’t heard a lot of comment lately, from either Rogers or the Jays, about what to expect out of the club’s 2014 payroll when all is said and done– aside from the fact that it won’t be going down– but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been a whole lot of forward-looking comments over the years that it seems the appropriate time to hold the club to account for.
In August of last year, I wrote a post containing a bunch of quotes from a Paul Beeston appearance on Prime Time Sports, including his assertion that “the rebuild and the infrastructure is now complete.”
“The building of the minor leagues and putting ourselves in a position for the future, all of that has been put in place,” he said at the time. “It’s now time to return something to a) those people who’ve supported us, and b) the players themselves.”
Of course, the Jays did return something to the fans and their players. Say what you will about how badly it failed, and for what reasons, but they delivered anticipation like has never been seen in this city before– or at least not for 20 years. But in doing so they dealt away large chunks of that “finished” infrastructure of prospects. To be asked again to go that route will do even more damage, while simply making acquisitions with money– which Anthopoulos and Beeston may not ever have a better opportunity to do, given how much is riding on this off-season (plus the fact that exactly one year ago today it was announced that Beeston had signed a two-year contract extension)– would obviously leave the prospect pipeline intact.
Stephen Brunt, around the same time last year, explained the Jays situation, in light of rumours of a possible rift between Beeston and Rogers, with prescient words about how ownership must view things:
“I think the notion that this is a lock-type, we’re not going to spend another nickel, do the best you can kind of situation– that doesn’t work for the Jays, obviously, and that also doesn’t work for the owners. The better the team is, the more money they make. The brand– the value of the brand is important to them on a whole bunch of different levels: the TV, radio, all over the place. So, I think they want to win. And I think that they would spend to win at the moment when they thought spending would actually make a difference.”
That stuff is just as relevant today as it was a year ago, the only difference being that Rogers has already pitched in substantially– though maybe not as substantially as they’d like you to believe, considering the draft savings, the international free agent savings, and the national TV money that has essentially fallen into their laps.
In March of 2012, Beeston had a Q&A with Brunt for Sportsnet magazine, which I posted about, and in which he clarified comments about “payroll parameters” from Alex Anthopoulos earlier that off-season with what you might optimistically call a pledge.
“The fact is, we’ve got to win to make the fans come out, and then we spend the money. But we have to give them the reason to come out. That got lost in Alex’s comment that day,” he explained. “It was that we win, you come out, we’ll spend the money–it won’t be money we put in our pocket; it will be money reinvested in the team.”
Obviously the Jays didn’t win, and obviously Rogers did spend, but the fans held up their end of the bargain, too. And the funny thing is, if we’re to believe that the hard earned money fans spent this year won’t just disappear into someone’s pocket, we can’t allow ourselves to think too simply about where this sudden influx came from. It’s not that payroll went from $84-million to $119-million between 2012 and 2013, and so that’s how much Rogers kindly dished out. Factor in the additional national TV money they counted on being there ($26-million per season), plus the draft and international money that they didn’t, or couldn’t spend (a $10-million difference in the draft, and approximately $14-million on international free agents, over two years between 2010/11 and 2012/13)– not to mention the looming cut to the flow of revenue sharing dollars that has forced them to act like a big market club– and it just doesn’t appear to have been as significant a bump as it looks like on the surface.
It was a bump, to be sure. And with the club– as I figured last month– looking at a payroll in the $130-million range if they make no additions, it’s not an entirely insignificant one. But it’s important to see just how small it really may have been, especially if some of Beeston’s other words from that Prime Time Sports appearance in August of last year continue to hold true.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in the organization, including the ownership, that doesn’t think that we should be taking it to the next level,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we’re going to be crazy, though, from the point of view of ten-year, twelve-year, thirteen-year contracts. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to go out and try to get the best players, so that we give ourselves a chance. We think that we’re close right now.”
If Anthopoulos is forced to make cash-neutral deals, or is only authorized to add to payroll minimally, it’s certainly going to lessen that chance.
More crucially– at least to those who matter– it’s going to lessen the brand.
Now, maybe the reason Anthopoulos and Beeston can’t– or won’t– yet be more firm about what is now available to spend this winter is that they don’t want to tip their hands, and don’t want unscrupulous agents to know when they’ll be able to get more money out of the club than it wants to give. Maybe Rogers sees that the way to do right by its investment in this club is to give its GM the resources he needs to strengthen the team not just for 2014, but for the future as well, and we have nothing to worry about. But even with what we saw from ownership last winter, we can only wait and see whether the corporation truly believes that sustained winning genuinely drives revenues, or if owning the club is just a means to procuring cheap content– content that’s got a strong core of consumers and can be kept profitable enough with false hope and infusions of cash every five or six years, while we all watch whoever is the current GM continue down the well worn path of his predecessors, being similarly undone by failing to produce miracles from just enough money to appear adequately lavish.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Obviously that’s not good enough. Obviously if Rogers wants to do right by the club– their product– they can’t pretend that we don’t know where last year’s money came from and, at the risk of sounding hopelessly greedy, that it isn’t enough. Over the course of the winter, the more it seems they’re forcing Anthopoulos into making difficult choices with his core players, the more we ought to remember this.
Then again, maybe we won’t have to. Maybe Rogers actually understands what tremendous value another level of spending could provide. I mean, shit, even if 2014 goes down the tubes, the more talent you acquire with money now, the better trade chips you’ll have to start rebuilding that prospect pipeline come next summer. Ugh. It’s a dispiriting though, but seriously…