Earlier this week, Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos admitted that he doesn’t “expect to do a whole lot more between now and spring training.” While it would be a mistake to take anything a general manager says at face value, especially this particular general manager, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that an organization using phrases like “payroll parameters” in November should find itself on the sidelines in January.
While the team may have failed to fill its clear need for starting pitching depth, it did improve on other areas of weakness from last year. This occurred most notably in the acquisition of reliever Sergio Santos from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Nestor Molina. Immediately following this trade, I gave the Blue Jays a slight edge on the deal, but my appreciation of it, from a Toronto perspective, has grown almost every day since.
There seems to be a lack of understanding among the team’s fan base over just how good of a swap this was. The Blue Jays gave up a prospect that many pundits wouldn’t have listed in the organization’s top ten for a young reliever with tonnes of swing and miss stuff to go along with minimal wear and tear on his arm. The fact that Santos comes with an incredibly team friendly contract that includes three club options puts it out of the park for the Blue Jays.
Toronto further strengthened its bullpen by reacquiring right-hander Jason Frasor, again from the White Sox (the third trade between the two teams in the Anthopoulos era) and signing lefty specialist Darren Oliver to a one year deal for a guaranteed $4.5 million (the largest free agent signing of the Anthopoulos era).
Not content with merely shoring up its relief staff, the Blue Jays also acquired veteran backup catcher (and arguably the worst batter in the history of baseball) Jeff Mathis, corner outfielder Ben Francisco and second baseman Luis Valbuena in small trades with various teams that provide bench depth.
And that’s it.
These moves appear to have more in common with the type of transactions made by teams who are ready to compete for a division title. Other than Santos, they’re not the type of acquisitions that we’ve seen Anthopoulos make in the past.
On the surface, it’s easy to criticize a franchise for making a collection of small moves like this when it’s located in one of the largest markets in North America and owned by the richest owners in Major League Baseball. However, to do so would ignore, not only the many expenditures the team has taken on outside of payroll, but also the way in which Major League Baseball franchises are run.
Teams, much like businesses, rarely receive investments without first showing an ability to make money. Yes, television ratings are up for the Blue Jays, and yes, Rogers certainly takes advantage of the content that the team provides for them without cost, but comparing viewership numbers between teams is wildly inaccurate due to the differences in Canadian and American measuring systems, which sees Canada count viewers and the United States count homes.
For a more accurate measurement of revenue, we can look at attendance for Blue Jays games, which ranked third last in 2010 and sixth last in 2011. By mentioning the poor attendance figures, I’m not suggesting that the team doesn’t benefit its corporate over lords, it just doesn’t do so to the point of justifying large investments in payroll.
For a better idea of what I’m talking about let’s take a look at the Texas Rangers. In 2008, the Rangers ranked 21st in payroll and 25th in attendance. In 2009, the team moved ahead into 19th in payroll and 18th in attendance. Then, in 2010, the team went all the way to the World Series on a payroll that ranked 28th in baseball, while drawing the 14th most amount of fans to its games. In 2011, the team returned to the World Series on a payroll that last year ranked 13th in the league, while drawing the 10th most amount of fans to its games.
This off season, the Rangers will end up spending over $110 million on acquiring and signing Yu Darvish. We’ll see how that affects attendance figures this coming year, but I’m imagining that it will bode well. More importantly however, we see that the only time a dramatic increase in payroll expenditures occur is in the year following a dramatic increase in attendance. The well run Rangers have increased payroll as a reward for attendance, not an incentive to increase it.
Of course, adding to the team’s ability to do this is a television deal for which the organization will begin seeing money come their way shortly (at least that which wasn’t already fronted so that the team could afford to take part in the 2010 playoffs). While the Blue Jays, being owned by a company that televises its games on its own network isn’t going to receive this type of committed investment, it will see a rise in the ad revenue it creates for its ownership if trends continue.
This is why I suggest that paying for players up front is putting the cart before the horse.
Along with this important element is the fact that the Blue Jays have several players on their current roster whose anticipated performance for 2012 is more questionable than usual. While we’re bound to see several forecasts and projections on the team in the coming months, given the recent up and down years from several of Toronto’s regulars, the team can once again be forgiven for having a wait-and-see approach. After all, there’s been a large element of variance to the performances of Kelly Johnson, Adam Lind, Colby Rasmus and Travis Snider. Toss in a couple of sophomore seasons from J.P. Arencibia and Brett Lawrie, and there are only two every day players who can be characterized as reliable.
Quite simply, that’s not the type of team that’s one big signing away from competing. Even if we look at the two reliable contributors, we see one that was run out of town by his former team and another who was a non-tender candidate two off seasons ago.
And this is why the Blue Jays haven’t acquired the players that a large portion of their fan base wanted them to attain. It can be a confusing pill to swallow because we’ve seen the front office razzle and dazzle its way to major talent acquisitions in each of the last two off seasons. However, the team is at the point now where it must see exactly what it has in the Rasmuses and Sniders of its roster.
Not only would the team be foolish from a financial stand point to begin adding big money signings to its current roster, doing so would most likely block the team from seeing exactly what it has right now. Fans will casually throw around their desires for upgrades, but exactly what players are available that have the talent of the players from whom they’d be taking over?
This isn’t to throw the 2011 roster off the cliff as a meaningless collection of players that will inevitably finish fourth. Far from it. The large amount of question marks could just as easily go the right way as it could the wrong way, and whatever way it goes will dictate how the next off season goes.
The long suffering fan base of the Toronto Blue Jays has waited almost twenty years for a return to the playoffs. I understand that eagerness for the post season, but now isn’t the time to rush the gates. Now is the time to hold the course and see exactly of what this team is made.