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March 7, 2011

Expanded Horizons

Jay Another Day

by Tommy Bennett

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How do GMs of 85-win teams usually go about their offseasons? Most folks, not just major-league front-office executives, smell blood in the water and position themselves for the kill. The natural—and here I mean to evoke the ruthlessness of the Serengeti—reaction to the just-missed-it is the try-try-again. I take this phenomenon to be the primary explanation of, among other things: the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s; William Jennings Bryan; and the modern popularity of golf.

That isn’t to say doubling down is always the right strategy for a team on the bubble. If it were, the score between snarky internet baseball writers and major-league GMs would favor the latter group much more heavily. Tim Purpura and Bill Bavasi would be winners—heck, might even still sit in the big chairs—and Prospectus Entertainment Ventures would not. At least half of that story is counterfactual, though, and the twin tendencies of decision makers to discount their failures and expect their successes to continue have a lot to do with it.

Skate To Where The Puck Probably Can’t Get To

Last year, the Toronto Blue Jays won 85 games. With the Canadian dollar approximately at parity with the U.S. dollar, those 85 wins could have been cashed in for 84 Pythagenpat bucks. Exactly 3.8 third-order wins were all that kept them (and their 89-73 third-order record) from the number-two spot in the American League East. With a disappointing offseason in the Bronx and the exodus of Carl Crawford and much of the Rays’ bullpen from Tampa Bay, the Blue Jays might have been in the catbird seat. If you were to imagine a team for which marginal payroll dollars are likely to have the biggest rate of return, I’ll bet it would look a lot like the 2010 Toronto Blue Jays.

Yet nobody suggested that Alex Anthopolous should go out and spend a bunch of money. Nor did the Blue Jays show any signs of aggressive activity on the free-agent market this offseason. Instead, they lost their second- and third-best hitters by VORP (even if they were Vernon Wells and John Buck), traded away their most effective pitcher from a year ago (Shaun Marcum), and cut their payroll. Now, don’t get me wrong—trading Wells was a coup. Nobody in their right mind should have given Buck three years. Brett Lawrie might turn into a legitimate middle-of-the-order thumper. But all of those moves made the Blue Jays less competitive in 2011 and shifted them further away from the sweet spot of valuable marginal wins.

Moving Back to Move Forward

The question remains whether the Blue Jays will now find themselves caught in a 75-win holding pattern. The band of 70-80 wins is the graveyard of once great mid-market teams. How will they get out of it? Consider what the Blue Jays have going for them in the next few seasons. First, they have a cheap and potentially excellent starting rotation. Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, and Kyle Drabek are all former first-round draft picks and each is under team control for several more seasons. Second, the Blue Jays have a very deep farm system. The system was helped tremendously by a very good draft in 2010 and several key trades in the last eighteen months. They have a mix of lottery tickets and mid-ceiling guys who are ready to contribute in the near future. Third, the Blue Jays have latent revenue potential. The Toronto media market is Canada’s largest, and the metro area’s population is the seventh largest in North America. Despite the city’s size, average attendance in 2010 was the lowest it had been since 1982 (when Bobby Cox led the team to a 78-84 season).

These three factors suggest a way out of the darkness for a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since Joe Carter took them to water. Nevertheless, the decision to go back underground after the team has averaged more than 83 wins over the last five seasons does not come without risk. Teams that consistently trade away top talent have to do extra work to convince the fan base to remain loyal. Opportunities to break through in the AL East are rarer than boring Neil Peart drum solos. Ceding ground now would in some senses be like getting to Everest Base Camp only to go back down to make sure the garage door was closed.

Struggling For Air

That analogy isn’t quite fair, though. A more sympathetic story would be that the Blue Jays made it to base camp and realized that they didn’t have the oxygen to make it to the peak, in which case discretion would become the better part of valor. The Wells contract, the middling farm system before this year, the underperforming offense—all were structural weaknesses, any one of which might have been enough to disqualify the Blue Jays from serious contention for several years to come. In other divisions, you might be able occasionally to stumble into the playoffs with an 88-win season. The last time the second-place team in the AL East had fewer than 94 wins was 2006; that year, the Blue Jays finished in second, 10 games out of first and eight out of the wild card.

Anthopolous has opted to take the Blue Jays entirely out of contention for at least the immediate future. Our revamped postseason odds report gives the team just a 1.0% chance of making the playoffs, and a 0.2% chance of winning the division. This is the kind of clear-minded but ruthless move that we often push for; internal consistency demands that we laud it now that it is manifest. But that isn’t to say that it isn’t a risky path: twenty consecutive seasons without making the playoffs is now a very real possibility. Maybe Anthopolous should study the lesson of another GM who whipped an organization into shape without making the playoffs: Ed Wade. The Jays' GM's fortunes may be rosier than all that, but at some point the specter of wins and losses at the major-league level will present itself.

Question of the Day

How drastic should the measures taken by the front office of a merely mortal American League East team be? Was the Blue Jays’ decision to trade present for future wins the right one under the circumstances? Would anyone have thought a year ago that the Blue Jays would struggle to replace Vernon Wells’s offensive production?

10 comments have been left for this article.

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