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.