Friday, December 9, 2011

On Payroll, Mixed Messages and Marginal Improvements

Coming at it purely from the fan's point of view, it's hard to make heads or tails of this week's Winter Meetings.

The Blue Jays certainly were able to address the two primary areas that required tending when they made an astute trade for closer Sergio Santos and had Kelly Johnson accept arbitration, presumably to fill their hole at second base. In a vacuum, we'd be happy with those developments, and look forward to perhaps another deal or two to come to fruition before pitchers and catchers report. But in the wake of a Winter Meetings which returned to its former glory as a jamboree of signings, we've been flooded over the past week with angry tweets and notes focused on what the team didn't do, and how through their reticence to engage in the free agent market, they've failed to keep pace.

Our primary interest in the Blue Jays' success remains on the field, and we want to see the team built into a perpetual contender. This is not just about wanting to see "meaningful games" one year, but about building the foundation for a team that is always in the mix. That means spending on scouting, buying lots of lottery tickets in the form of draft picks and international free agents, and signing those emerging stars to club-friendly deals early on. From our perspective, the long term success of a team comes from within, and not by adding big contracts to demonstrate a "commitment to winning" to the fans.

But tied into the team's fortunes is its success off the field, and what frankly scares us going into the 2012 season is that a step back on the field could be disastrous to the team's conversational capital in the inherently cynical and nasty Toronto sports market. The smart moves made by the new regime and some exciting play on the field has brought back a set of fans who had checked out over the past decade or more. But spending money - BIG money - on free agents still seems in the mind of so many fans to be the exemplification of commitment, and a demonstration of the team's readiness to compete.

For those who had made the signing of Prince Fielder to be a moral imperative for the Jays, any step back,status quo or even gains that are too modest will constitute an abject failure to capture the moment. "You gotta spend if you want to compete with the big boys", they tell us.

(This morning's announcement that Rogers will buy a portion of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment only serves to further muddy those waters, and leave Jays fans apprehensive about the ownership's interest in the baseball team's success.)

It bears a mention here that the Boston Red Sox have made more splashy big offseason moves than any other team in baseball, and yet, they have missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons and haven't won a playoff game since 2008. Carl Crawford, John Lackey, Adrian Gonzalez, J.D. Drew, Bobby Jenks, Marco Scutaro...all were considered big deals when they were acquired, but none of them have contributed to the team's relative success as much as the homegrown core of talent, including Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, John Lester and Kevin Youkilis. And none of the acquisitions were enough to "guarantee" success, as many have attempted to convince us that the signing of Fielder clearly would for the Jays.

To be a bit less charitable to the Jays front office, we'd point out that they are beginning to reap the fruits of a media and fan relations strategy that is elusive at best, and illusory at worst. The desire to keep the team's budget a mystery is understandable from the point of view of the competitive marketplace, but the artfully dodgy allusions to growing the Major League player budget leads to an increased appetite to see that growth happen sooner. If you tell the fans and media that you can and will increase payroll when needed, the message that is sent when the payroll is not expanded is: "We're not ready to win yet."

We're not sure that giving a hard, self-imposed cap number would necessarily be more beneficial, as it might just feed the cynicism by making the gap between the Blue Jays and the bigger payrolls more obvious. But floating the $120 million figure, as Paul Beeston has on numerous occasions, has only served to create a desire to hit that number as soon as possible, whatever the consequences for the team.

Spending like sailors on Fleet Week is not the path to long-term, sustained success. We'd far prefer for the Jays to sign deals like the five-year, $14 million deal that the Rays just signed with Matt Moore as opposed to the five-year, $77.5 million deal that the Angels signed with C.J. Wilson. This isn't just a matter of being cheap, but it's a matter of maximizing every dollar spent for a team that doesn't have unlimited resources.

The deals that the Blue Jays have made over the past week were astute, and make the team better. So why the misery?

On "Parameters": The payroll elusiveness mentioned helped to fuel the parsing of the word "parameter", when it was dropped by Alex Anthopoulos earlier this week. We'll defer to some of the reporters who were on site, because they look the GM in the eyes when he talks about these matters and probably have a far clearer tableau from which to read than we do. But our initial take on the use of the term was this: The Blue Jays have several interwoven budgets, which include all aspects of the team's operations and which have clear dollar figures attached. However, they also have the ability to come back and make budgetary adjustments throughout the year if they can make a case that a modest investment in mid-stream could provide a short-term return.

In plain English: They'll be able to add a player with a large salary in mid-season if it provides a reasonable expectation of added playoff gates to the bottom line.

This is why we think Anthopoulos tends to punt discussions of bigger acquisitions to the trade deadline. It seems like an entirely defensible policy, though it won't do much to warm the hearts of Blue Jays fans through the Winter.


Ian - BJH said...

Tao, I think the mistake was Beeston mentioning the Blue Jays COULD spend up to $120 million if need be. That number seems arbitrary to me, but to the casual fan they might see that is the Blue Jays withholding money.

In that case, it's just better off not to mention payroll totals at all.

Anonymous said...

Would love to see BCE and Tanenbaum put up some money to fold the Jays into MLSE. Gotta be big time marketing synergies and the Jays could use that cash to increase payroll sooner instead of having to trade more prospect currency right now.

Tao of Stieb said...

I'm actually pretty relieved to see the Jays remain outside the MLSE umbrella. I think that the team's ability to set their course and follow it is much easier when they have one owner as opposed to three.

The Ack said...

I think you alluded to this, but it feels like the Jays (Beeston and AA) somehow talked themselves into a corner - whether intentionally or not - by opening this "payroll parameter" can of worms and are forced to try and talk their way out. Which adds to the confusion.

And if the comments and message were intentional... directed to whom? the Borases and Lozanos of the world? Or to the media? Or to Rogers? I find it hard to believe it's all part of the master plan in playing possum in an effort to swoop in and win the Darvish bid.

One thing's for sure... AA seems ornery and out of character lately.

Andre said...

Tao - great read. Lots of rage out there on the blogs and I can see hpow the average fan can jump on the "Cheap Rogers Bastards!" bandwagon. That being said, this team has made huge strides in the past 2 years with upgrades at a number of positions and some smart and savy trades. The paying public would simply like to have their cake and eat it too me thinks...
Still...bringing in a solid #2/3 starter and clearing up LF would make me feel a lot better about the upcoming season!!

Anonymous said...

Hey Tao, do you have any information about Jays TV revenue? Where does the money go? I've heard that LA Angels signings are as a result of a very lucrative TV contract. I don't expect Jays TV revenue to be as high as LA or Texas, But it shouldn't be that low either.
btw, Matt Moores don't grow on trees. Do we have anyone like Moore or Paxton in our farm system?

Anonymous said...

I dunno, them talking about what they could spend (sometime, maybe, possible, in the future... perhaps... if we have certain conditions... which we will not outline... at the right time... that we won't tell you when) and contrasting it to what they do spend seems like a cruel tease of a fanbase.

Anonymous said...

I'm still stunned that most of the fanbase can't wrap their heads around the fact that the Blue Jays are a business operating within a budget. Apparently, they're hopeful that Rogers will turn out to be headed by Santa Claus or something. I'm also stunned that it's a story.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Tao.

Dewey said...

What I love, and you've mentioned this on Twitter NUMEROUS times...

... AA has gotten Lawrie (fan-favorite) for Marcum, he got Colby Rasmus, who going into last season was regarded as the best young CF in the game, for essentially nothing of consequence off the major league roster, FOR AN EVERYDAY GUY WITH A RIDICULOUSLY HIGH CEILING! He signed the best slugger in the majors to a team-friendly deal that is the envy of just about every other contract in the majors.

He has built the farm system from one of the worst to possibly the best in his short time as the team's GM (though there's always the stories floating that a lot of scouts just didn't like JP Ricciardi).

... but because he goes 3 days without making a huge splash (although he did get a very solid bullpen arm for a prospect who has a ridiculously team-friendly deal), it isn't good enough. I don't understand how the fanbase can turn on AA so quickly when he's done so much already...

I DO wonder, however, if there's some sort of ridiculously team friendly deal coming for any of the Jays like the ones we've seen the Rays sign their young players to... I would LOVE to see some of this "ceiling" money spent on the young, controllable talent...

Anonymous said...

Dewey... I don't think the fanbase is "turning" on AA at all. If they're turning on anyone it's Beeston and through him Rogers.

Paul said...

I really fail to see where the "huge improvements" are. Rasmus and Lawrie are still to early to call. 1B, LF and even with KJ signing 2B is just average at best.

But it's the starting pitching that's the big question mark. The Jays starter with the third most wins last year was Jo-Jo. I really don't want to see the "let's try 17 different SP and see what sticks" strategy of last year.

The Jays have basically the same payroll as in 1993. Expecting to get the same results from spending the same amount on something you did 20 years ago is just naive.

Yes, building from within is great, but we need some starting pitching now. Just bring us up to league average in payroll, otherwise what happened to Halladay will happen to Romero and Bautisa in a couple years.

Deere5800 said...

Rasmus vs Davis = huge improvement
KJ vs Hill = Between big and huge improvement
Lawrie vs Nix/EE = huge improvement.
You're right, some of them are too early to call, but their ceilings are much higher than were the guys who patrolled those positions last year. As far as pitching, out of the group of: Alvarez, Jenkins, Hutchison, Drabek, McGowan, McGuire (am I missing someone?) they should get better back of the rotation results. Jo-Jo's win totals are a good indicator of how useless win totals are in judging the value of a pitcher.
If they have the opportunity to get a good top of the rotation guy then great, but other than that I'm happy with the status quo.

Anonymous said...

My take on this is it was a PR disaster. It worked well last year when people realized the team was in transition, but not this year when fans are starting to think why can't we be the wild card? In addition I think AA was using the media to send a message - to the agents who ate using the Jays in their negotiations. We are not going to be used. Be patient people the addition of Rasmus, Johnson, Santos and Lawrie is probably worth at least 10 wins over the rag tag players we threw out most of last year in those positions. Granted their are questions for at least 3 of those players, but it is reasonable to assume that they could each have 2+WAR seasons....if we get Darvish we will have a formidable starting 5. I think the Jays will be players in the Darvish sweepstakes .

Ivan said...

I am of the belief that AA isn't going to say anything unless it's calculated. He knew EXACTLY what he was doing when he said what he said. The only question is who he was sending a message to.

To those of you saying it's too early to see if we're making progress I could say the same of the free agent signings. Have you already forgotten about Boston last season? Talk to me about Pujols and Fielder in 3 years. Face it we buy one big piece...and we're still missing many others. So why should AA buy a big expensive toy that's going to just sit on the shelf? Because you "think" they'll still be good in 3 years? I expect these arguments from people who know nothing about the Jays or who have no logic. But the majority of responses I see suggest people beyond the casual fan are enraged. And it's pissing me off!

WilsonC said...

Suppose, hypothetically, that the Jays actually were considering Fielder. What's the better tactic for negotiating with Boras:
"Hi fans! We have wads and wads of cash that we're itching to spend and we want to add a big name free agent, no matter what the cost!"
"Well, we do have a budget, and frankly, we think 8-10 year deals are ridiculous."

I think there's a case to be made for or against opening the bank for some free agents this year, but it would be stupid beyond belief for them to enter into negotiations with Scott Boras while flashing an open wallet about. A lot of fans right now seem to be enraged not only that the Jays aren't spending, but also that they're not spending stupidly.

Ty said...

I think the most frustrating sentiment I've read across the blogosphere lately is "I dot want them to spend stupidly or just spend for th sake of spending, but I want them to do SOMETHING to show they're committed!"

Nobody ever says what exactly that "something" should be, and the way I'm reading it, they're basically asking for the exact same thing they explicitly claim they aren't asking for. The Jays actually had a much more exciting/interesting Winter Meetings than I think anyone could have reasonable expected and ended up filling what were ostensibly their two biggest immediate needs. People just like having something to complain about.

I guess the nice thing about having such a fickle/reactionary fanbase is that all those people who were so quick to turn on Colby Rasmus after 100 underwhelming PA's should turn around just as quickly if/when he hits well next year. The fairweather fans have been making a lot of negative noise this week, but that doesn't change the fact that the proverbial weather is going to be pretty fucking fair next year in Jays-land, and they'll likely be singing a different tune if the on-field product ends up being as good as we (reasonably, I think) expect it to be.

Tao of Stieb said...

Thanks for all the great comments guys. I was a little afraid of what the discourse might resemble here, but I like what you're all bringing.

Anonymous said...

I think AA is broke, PB is a pawn, and all the PR bullshit will dry into patties before the Jays even hit .455 WP next year.
There is no money, there are no FA signings, nothing will change at all.

Is it negative in here, or is it just me?

David said...

I understand the build from within philosophy. I understand that the budget exists for a reason and that any thought otherwise is ridiculous.
The fanboy in me would still love to see Darvish and Prince in blue next year.
At what point do I need to kick my own ass?

Paul said...

Fair weather fan? 20 years of crap. 20 years. They have the same salary they had 20 years ago. If you had the same salary you did 20 years ago, you wouldn't bitch?

I for one said the "something" that I thought was needed, that being another starting pitcher. They need to get up to at least the league average and show me that it isn't all just about free TV content.

Ty said...

Paul: what starting pitcher? Who would you sign?

Ty said...

And the "20 years" argument doesn't seem sensible to me. The current regime has been in place for just over two years, and thus far they've done an outstanding job - they've done more with the team than the previous regimes did combined since the last WS win. I'd say that's a reason to be excited, not angry.

Paul said...

There are tons of starting pitchers available. Mark Buehrle would have been a great fit, a perrenial 200+ inning guy that is proven, not more "potential".

And 20 years is extremely relevant. $56 million salary in 1993, and $63 million last year. Want to try and buy the same house or car for the same money you spent 20 years ago and expect the same results?

WilsonC said...

If you want to compare the current payroll situation with the Jays from 20 years ago, you should look at the whole picture. The Jays of the late 80's and early 90's were built mainly through home grown talent, with some key trades. They did that without having big payrolls, but rather relied more on excellent player development. In '92 and '93, they doubled their payroll and won two championships - but only after they built a sustained contender and saw attendance rise, both as a result of their success and their new dome.

Their increased spending turned a perennial contender into a championship team - but the roster became less flexible and their extended run of success came to an end only two years after they went all-in. It was worth it, because it was successful - but it didn't come before they had at least a fringe contender in place long enough to have consistent fan support.

To me, the divide is this: the quality of the team is such that a big move could put the Jays in a position where they'd have a better chance at the second wild-card. As fans, that's a very appealing idea on the surface - we want meaningful games in September again. But competing for the second wildcard means hoping that one of the three top teams in the division will falter enough to be in reach, as well as hoping that no other team (the Angels/Rangers loser, for instance) jumps out of reach - and the road to a championship is now much harder for a wildcard team than a division winner. I'd much rather see the target painted on the divisional title, with the wildcard as a nice stepping stone but not something you sacrifice your building flexibility to attain.

Paul said...

Over-analyzing to death.

The simple fact is that you can't expect the same results from the same payroll you had 20 years ago. Period. End of story.

There is no room for error with this lineup. One proven reliable starting pitcher, and unknowns at half the positions. Unless all of the "ifs" fall into place, we "may" end up with a record above .500.

Can't wait to tell everyone I told you so when Bautista and Romero want to go to a contender in a couple years.

BigBear said...

Seattle Times had a very good article about the Blue Jays. I thought some of you might be interested.

Paul said...

Great article BigBear. Rogers will spew out any excuse not to spend. As long as there are enough people out there willing to accept their BS, nothing will change.

Gabe said...

Shorter Paul: No, I don't remember the Ricciardi years, why do you ask?

Rogers has spent money before. Loads of it.
And what did it get us?
$55M/5yrs for AJ Burnett's last few good-ish seasons.
$5M/1yr Bengie Molina.
$18M/2yrs for an aged Frank Thomas.
$47M/5yrs for one quality season of BJ Ryan.

And that's just free agents - never mind the albatross extensions of Wells ($126M/7yrs) and Rios ($70M/6yrs).

Did any of that get the Jays closer to the World Series?
Sure, they finished 2nd in the division on 2006, but that was still 8 games back of the Tigers for the wild card.

Willingness to win /= willingness to spend.

WilsonC said...

No, the simple fact is that payroll doesn't play baseball; players do. And it's also a simple fact that the Jays' attendance is less than half of what it was before they wen all-in 20 years ago, and that it took years of contention before they reached the point of going all-in, and that Jose Bautista alone now makes more money than that entire team did when they were at their current stage of development.

The way I look at it, there are three mandates a team can operate under at a given time: cut cost, improve the current talent, or improve the future talent. It's often easy to accomplish one or two of the three at the expense of the third - for instance, trading a well-paid veteran will usually reduce the current talent, but cut costs and help restock the farm system. Or, signing a free agent improves the current talent without sacrificing the future, but at the expense of financial flexibility.

While it's true the payroll's down from before the current regime, the current roster has more talent than we've seen in a long time, and the farm system has taken giant leaps leaps forward in a short period of time. Somehow - and frankly I'm not sure how they managed it - the Jays have managed to make improvements both on the field and in the minor league system while simultaneously building a more financially flexible roster. That's a downright impressive accomplishment, and it's reason for some serious optimism surrounding the team.

Paul said...

"Loads", what a laugh. Loads is only relative to what they are spending now.

Did you read the article from the link posted earlier? Until proven wrong, Roger's are cheap fraking bastards that only want the Jays as cheap content for Sportsnet.

Be a Roger's apologist all you want. The team isn't going anywhere until they spend at least the league average, which they haven't for a LONG time. They have done zero for the major league team, other than forcing AA to make deals on the cheap.

How many more years should we wait? The perpetual "two years away" will only end when the money comes through.

Tao of Stieb said...

Learn how to correct your apostrophe faults, and I'll start listening to your wailing.

And seriously guys: Why so angry? It's sports. Can't you have a sense of humour about it?

Gabe said...

@Paul: I did after commenting, so I will partially retract my thoughts based on it. All those big contracts came after 2005 when Rogers finally got the stadium.

I also find it interesting that Mariners writers are complaining about the same things - they're the other MLB team owned by a corporate conglomerate (Nintendo).

I dislike Rogers' growing hegemony in Toronto sports as well, but changing it is somewhat out of my control. What am I going to do, boycott the team? Not buy a Fan Pass or tickets? That only robs the team of revenue, giving Rogers further motivation to choke the squad of funds and handcuff Anthopolous.

I'm with Tao that Anthopolous likely does have access to the Money Bin, but is hesitant to dive in until he's confident he can sustain the winning.

Paul said...

That's exactly what I'm doing, not buying tickets. My kids and I had a flex pack for the past few years, and while I enjoy going to a game for the game's sake, you can only take so much frustration.

Last season I saw McCoy pitch, Loewen, Thames and Rivera lose games by dropping routine fly balls, and a bevy of starters with great "potential" screw up royally.

I'm all for building from within, but for God's sake get a proven starting pitcher. I don't want Bautista and Romero to be wasted like Delgado and Halladay were.

Tao of Stieb said...


Naomi said...

The article articulates more clearly what I complained about on this blog a few weeks ago, with the same response... about incorrect spelling of AAs name (big deal) and a comment that my writing skills were less than stellar.

Rather than face the reality that they as apologist bloggers of the team, are actually a part of the problem, they prefer to continue their fascile disparagement of those who see this for what it is.

I was extremely angry when I learned Rogers had landed Skydome for 25M. The land alone is worth 10 times that amount. Essentially, the taxpayers gave Rogers Corp a welfare check of 275M. Yes I know the story is more complex that that, but the reality is that we as fans have been manipulated by Rogers.

Yes, the Jays have signed the big contracts. The Jays have always had at least 1 player to ensure that we are not the Pirates, but that is it. And be honest, Jose Baustista was lightning in a bottle, without him this team would have been Pittsburgh.

AA has made some shrewd moves, yes. The news that the Jays may have been high bidder on the Darvish sweepstakes is hope for a team that will be better. But for us to buy into the concept that this team can't "afford" to compete with New York, Anaheim, Philadelphia, or Chicago and then for you to blog on that as apologists is unfair to all fans of the sport.

Like Paul, I have given my thousands per year in ticktets, concessions, etc. Like Paul, I am fed up and don't buy into the AA story because it is simply history repeating itself. A fan who wasn't in the stands for the WS games of 92-93 or the run up to that, will think this is the first rebuilding, but we know better.

But all that said, I remain hopeful that perhaps now that Rogers has its shiny ball of part ownership of the Leafs, it will now try to build what other cities have in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia - which are professional sports teams that are always in the mix. If not, then I will trade in my energies for a team with ownership that gives its fans something back and not just its shareholders.

Naomi said...

I should add too though, that this is the fun of baseball and sports talk in general. We should be able to have fun in our disagreements. Take our lumps when we are wrong, and delight when we are correct. I haven't always agreed with this blog, but I enjoy it enough to follow it, and at times comment.

Let's all remember one thing, we are all passionate about the sport and the Jays, and that binds us all in mutual interest and we should at least stay civil, especially as guests on the board that Tao has allowed us a voice to participate in.