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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. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

fawcettb

I wish you'd get to whatever your point is. I can't see it. AA, from where I sit, looks like a genius to me, and I can't find a mistake he's made. There's no point in finishing third, so he trying to do something different. There's risk in his strategy, but you gotta trust an ex-scoresheeter.

Mar 07, 2011 01:43 AM
rating: 1
 
WaldoInSC

I believe you've just elucidated Tommy's point. Don't know whether to honor you or ding you for that.

Mar 07, 2011 19:18 PM
rating: -1
 
Peter Hood

I think most fans are buying into the approach with the expectation that by 2013 the team will be positioned to make a serious challenge for a playoff spot. At that point we'll have a better idea of whether the strategy worked or not. But that it is the correct path is not in question as far as I'm concerned. It is!

Mar 07, 2011 04:58 AM
rating: 1
 
chewbalka

Good question(s) of the day, even if all you can do is grin at the last one. I can't help but look at Baltimore to see the difficulty of living with the Beasts. The O's have recently drafted Wieters, Matusz, Hobgood and Machado all among the top 5 picks but the instant success of a Posey or Sale has eluded them. They trade for an exciting young Jones and he continues to tease. Harsher yet, they offer Teixeira a chance to come home but he wants to be buried in Yankee pinstripes. That's a lot of good tries with limited success so Anthopoulos can't be blamed for taking a more drastic approach; McGuire at #11 is their highest draft over the last 5 years but AA has improved the collection of young talent in other ways to the point where a significant breakthrough can be expected by 2013; Anthopoulos has positioned the club to overpay a free agent in 2012 like Washington did this year with Werth.
There were strong connections to Vladdy and Manny yet Anthopoulos watched them sign with rivals. It wasn't for lack of money so you have to think it was part of a plan and maybe the questions get answered next year if the Jays get one of the big free agents.
If you believe in baseball karma, perhaps it's Fielder that comes "home" to the Dome....after all, if Bautista can hit 54 and Cecil never hit 50 for the Jays, Prince might like the idea of showing up his Big Daddy by hitting 60!

Mar 07, 2011 09:43 AM
rating: 2
 
John Carter

Brian (fawcettb) - Tommy isn't taking a pro or con slant and is just presenting us the Jays' situation: they are still in rebuilding mode despite having the best opportunity to take a stab at the play-offs in a long time. Tommy is asking us to comment.

So in that vein, yes, AA is making all the right moves as far as us Scoresheeters can tell. His aim is not this year, although, the Jays could surprise if Brett Lawrie and Kyle Drabek are ready to shine already. 2012 or 2013 is about right, if Bautista has that many more outstanding years in him. Whether Lawrie ends at third or in an outfield corner, thanks to Bautista's flexibility, he will inevitably replace Jaun Rivera. Edwin Encarnacion will likely get another season to prove he can contribute consistently; otherwise he could easily be replaced by a free agent. There will always be good free agent DHs available. If Aaron Hill can't return to some semblance of his 2009 excellence, Adeiny Hechavarria might be a beautiful answer by next year. These are only the most likely scenarios as baseball is unpredictable, but AA has prepared the Jays better than most teams with their deep prospect depth - and done so without mortgaging the future.

Mar 07, 2011 16:41 PM
rating: 0
 
RallyKiller

AA gets straight A's.

First he decides to retool and trades his best SP for a young position prospect, but not just any prospect--a Canadian prospect from the West Coast. So, while rebuilding he's also trying to increase the team's marketability, not only in Toronto, but as a TV draw across the country. When you're owned by a cable conglomerate, that's a pretty smart move. Next, he's able to unload the Wells contract on the LAA. Moon shot, if there ever was one.

I'm totally convinced the money will be there for a free-agent acquisition or two, when the time is right. In the meantime, the Jays and Rays will battle for 3-4 in the AL East while both teams retool. It's all good.




Mar 07, 2011 17:52 PM
rating: 0
 
greenfrog

AA has made great moves so far. To name just a few: Morrow, Escobar, Drabek/D'Arnaud/Gose, Lawrie, the 2010 draft, jettisoning Wells, the decent players acquired cheaply and parlayed into draft picks (Gregg, Buck, Olivo), the forays into the Latin American market, the 2011 bullpen. However, it's still early days. After many years of mediocrity it will take time to really turn the Jays franchise around. Let's give AA his due for getting off to a good start, and see how things go over the next two or three years before getting our knickers in a knot.

Mar 07, 2011 18:25 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

Anthopoulos is already one (big one) up on Ricciardi in that AA's plan has more direction and a sense of the pieces to be used in actuating that plan than Ricciardi ever had. Baseball means something in this city again.

Mar 07, 2011 20:18 PM
rating: 0
 
Michael Bodell
(89)

In 3 years will we be praising a BB for being better than AA and managing to unload Bautista's contract? That is really the unknown.

The other problem, is that the Jays in the AL East are really in a tough spot because with the free spending NYA and BOS teams you really need to get it all right. Terrific farm system, smart free agent signings, health, and luck. Even Tampa's return to respectability came about from many, many years of losing and getting the very top draft picks.

Are the Jays going to be willing to spend $150 million in 2013 if that's what it takes to have a 1/2 chance of making the playoffs (instead of a 1/10 chance if you spend $100 million)? Are free agents going to be willing to come to Toronto?

Mar 08, 2011 15:28 PM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

mbodell asks, "Are free agents going to be willing to come to Toronto?"

Why not? Players who come here like it very much. Word gets around. Now that the dollars are at par, it is even more affordable for the Jays to meet the tax differences.

Mrs. Mark Langston didn't like that milk came in bags when her hubby pitched for Montreal. Cartons are now readily available - and no one troubles you with French in Toronto - except on voice menus. We have better beer up here. Our slums are not as much in the cities as far away up north on native reservations.

- American expatriate in Toronto

Mar 09, 2011 14:19 PM
rating: 0
 
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