By: Chris Dagonas
Now that the recent “blockbuster” deal between the Miami Marlins and Toronto Blue Jays has officially been approved, the Toronto Blue Jays are slated to open the 2013 MLB season as serious playoff contenders, for the first time since 1998.
That ’98 team featured what many believe to be the best Roger Clemens the world has ever seen (he won the pitching Triple Crown that season), and a rotation that also included Woody Williams, Chris Carpenter, and Pat Hentgen. The bullpen featured Paul Quantrill, Kelvim Escobar, and an aging Dave Stieb. Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green and Jose Cruz supplied ample offensive production. In retrospect, this team looks pretty dangerous. However, they were only able to achieve a record of 88-74, good for third place in the AL East, and nowhere near the playoffs. This trend continued in 1999, when the Jays won 84 games, and decided to start a rebuild around young stars Roy Halladay and Vernon Wells. Then-GM Gord Ash was ushered out in 2001, and his legacy was cemented as a high spending, low achieving, overall disappointing General Manager. Granted, he did draft a number of very good players, including Halladay, Wells, and Michael Young, whom he traded away to Texas soon after, but only Halladay really panned out in the long run. He was replaced by J.P. Ricciardi, and we all know how that went.
This past week, Alex Anthopoulos shocked the baseball world by acquiring former all-star shortstop Jose Reyes, catcher John Buck, infielder Emilio Bonifacio, and starting pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle from the Marlins, in exchange for infielders Yunel Escobar and Adeiny Hechavarria, outfield prospect Jake Marisnick, catcher Jeff Mathis, pitching prospects Justin Nicolino and Anthony Desclafani and pitcher Henderson Alvarez. Two days later, Anthopoulos scooped up a somewhat prized free agent in Melky Cabrera, who was batting .346 last season before being suspended 50 games for banned substances. In summary, Anthopoulos and the Jays have laid all their cards on the table, so to speak, and have quickly gone from a promising young team that was almost there, to one that should contend this season. That is a dangerous game for any GM to play.
Rogers Communications have been known to display patience with their second largest toy (remember, they own a large part of the Leafs now, too). Ricciardi had eight full seasons at the controls of the Jays, and in that span had to recover time and again from ill-advised free agent signings and “blockbuster” trades. Remember Frank Thomas? Remember Lyle Overbay? Remember the ridiculous extension Vernon Wells received, and how thankful we all were when Anthopoulos managed to unload it on the Angels? These decisions are not made in a vacuum; they are made because owners and GMs feel pressure to appease vocal, angry fanbases. I can’t think of many professions where those outside the profession force a five-year plan to become a two-year plan. “Teacher, I’m unhappy that my son can’t multiply fractions yet!” “Well, he’s only 7, he has to progress toward that.” “NO! Multiply fractions this year, or you’re fired!” This seems ludicrous, yet it is an expectation we put on GMs every year, to throw their plans out the window, and do what we expect them to do, because if it’s possible in a video game, why can’t it be possible in real life?
Ricciardi had eight years for his plan, the cynic will say. That’s too long for one GM. I agree in principle, except that I don’t really believe every move he made in his tenure was consistent with his plan. He was a product of Billy Beane and the Moneyball system in Oakland, so how likely is it that he thought he really needed to sign Frank Thomas at that stage in Thomas’ career? Anthopoulos has also been working on a plan for this team, and we’ve only just been through year three of his tenure. Year one was devoted largely to cleaning up Ricciardi’s mess, and ensuring a proper return for Halladay. Year two had his fingerprints truly on the roster, and the team showed development. Last year was year three, and what started promisingly was derailed in July due to a mounting of injuries, and a disappointing season from former ace Ricky Romero. With a rotation and lineup returning fresh for 2013, my hopes were high before these moves even occurred.
“Blow it all up!” they shouted from their windows and rooftops. “Playoffs now, or you’re fired!” they screamed. So, that’s where we are today. Melky Cabrera is a good signing for two seasons of solid left field play and good hitting, but has little value beyond 2014, and may have to shake off some rust after missing 50 games last season. Mark Buerhle is not the pitcher he once was, and never will be again. Moreover, he may be extremely unhappy about playing here due to his love of dogs, and Ontario’s pitbull ban. Jose Reyes has two main talents; getting on base, and stealing bases. His batting average and on-base percentage declined last year from a stellar 2011 season, and fell more in line with his career averages. So we’re now paying for Reyes’ 2011 season, which was an outlier more than a true indication of his ability, as he continues to grow older and less effective. He stole 78 bases, five years ago. He’s more likely to reach 35-40 stolen bases this year, depending on how aggressive the new management is on the basepaths. Which brings me to my last point.
Who will be in charge of this team this year? And will it matter? I suppose the trades and signings make this team look more appealing to potential candidates, but that 1998 team I mentioned earlier was handicapped by its manager; Tim Johnson. I won’t bother to rehash his whole fabricated Vietnam War story thing, but suffice it to say that he lost the trust and respect of his squad, and that led to a disappointing season. Potential candidates include Bobby Cox and Ozzie Guillen, both World Series winners, as well as a return of Cito Gaston. [Ed. note: Apparently, the Jays are going with re-hiring John Gibbons.]
What if this team doesn’t make the playoffs in 2013? Or 2014? Anthopoulos has forced his own hand, as well as the hands of his bosses and the fans of Toronto. Whether this was part of his grand plan or not, Anthopoulos will now sink or swim with the results of the next two seasons. Fans, don’t be surprised if this does not go the way you wanted it to, and rather than blame Anthopoulos for it, feel free to blame yourselves.