Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Whole New Ballgame

Why is this man smiling?
Though there are no pennants handed out at the end of the offseason for the team who has done the most to improve their lot, the Blue Jays will be able to hang column inches in yard lengths after the most dramatic turnover of the franchise's personnel in franchise history.

Simply put: The Blue Jays are not messing around. They're leaving nothing to chance. And they're in a hurry.

Since October 21st, the manager, half of the coaching staff, and a significant chunk of the roster has been turned over. The Jays have added at least seven full-time players to their roster, and maybe more. In most instances, they've arguably upgraded over the 2012 roster, adding bulging sackloads of money to the payroll.

After years of following along with the logic of the Eternal Building Process and attempting to understand the extended series of moves around the margins made by Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos, the bounty of signings and transactions within the past few weeks is almost befuddling. It flies in the face of much of what I assumed about his approach, and certainly runs counter to the philosophy that I had adopted with regards to the slow build paying off with a longer success cycle.

But maybe all of that is out the window at this point. Maybe it's time to recalibrate.

The Jays' previously prudent approach made perfectly good sense: Stock up the system with young, controllable players, and hope to hit the jackpot on two or three of those potential stars. Build from within, and eschew the over-priced free agent market. Buy low, sell high. It's just good business, and the Jays - an entertainment arm of a publicly-traded multimedia conglomerate - can't lose money to win games.  

This made sense right up until October 2nd of this year. That's when Major League Baseball announced a $6.8 Billion extension of its national rights agreements with Fox and Turner Broadcasting. And while you might not have felt your china rattling in its cabinet on that day, there was a geological shift in the game that occurred with this deal.

Stack that deal on top of the $5.6 Billion deal with ESPN from late August, and a lot of new money is flowing to the bottom lines of all teams before the first turnstile budges.

This money has several effects on a team like Toronto. For one, it adds immediately to the team's spending capacity. But because it also does so for the other 29 teams, it creates a competitive imperative to move quickly and spend that money immediately before premium talent is snapped up.

Ultimately, all of that giant pool of money is going to get spent, and you had better hope that your team is spending it wisely.

The pace of the transition is dizzying for someone like me, who is deliberate to a fault. Sending six or seven of the team's best under-25 players out the door within the span of a few weeks is a tough pill to swallow, especially if you still maintain that the team needs to create their own superstars if they are to be more than a one-year wonder.

Moreover, the team has added nary a young player in return in any of these deals. The system that was the envy of many in baseball will be much thinner for the next few years, with most of the more intriguing pieces being several years away from the major leagues. The backlash towards prospect watching notwithstanding, the state of the Jays' minor league system will once again become a watching brief for some fans, regardless of what plays out on the field and turf over the next three seasons.

But if this is a turning point in the sport, and if this new money will indeed fundamentally change the economics of the game - even if only for a few years - then maybe there's something to this offseason's spree that runs more profound than "spend to contend".

Certainly, the perceived weakness of the AL East for 2013 might have played into the thought process, as may have the concerns that the team might be teetering towards irrelevancy as elements of the fanbase became cynical after a poor season and the awkwardly orchestrated departure of their manager. But when you're attempting to shake loose tens of millions of dollars to add to the top line of your financial ledger, one would imagine that it would take more than a series of PR fires to create the argument for more resources.

In the next couple of years, there will be inflation on player salaries as teams look to spend the newfound riches from the national media deals, not to mention the significant local broadcasting money that is flowing into the system as well. While the cost of acquiring veteran ballplayers was high in terms of the exchange rate on prospects, the Blue Jays were smart to be aggressive in this area before truly premium talents become so scarce that middling players command huge salaries on the open market.

Trying to spend money next offseason -or even next month- might not be such a rewarding proposition.


JSayer said...

Good read Tao.

Tao of Stieb said...

Thanks. Much obliged.

MK Piatkowski said...

I also really feel there's something to the opportunity in Miami opening up possibilities. This seems very much like AA going with the flow. A door opened, which opened more doors, and next thing you know, he's built a contender for the next few years. And it's not as if the prospect cupboard is bare, or that he won't be able to add to the system in the next couple of years now that he's pretty much set the major league roster. AA always said they'd make the leap when the time is right. And the time now is.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like you're coming around just like I am. After years of being told prospects are gold and we need to horde them, it is hard to see them fly out so quickly and in such volume. But, their true impact is years away and apparently, we're in NOW. This is very exciting. Part of the excitement is the risk. Sitting at a poker table, going all in, knowing this could go wrong, despite staring at a flush gets your heart racing. AA is clearly ALL in.

Tao of Stieb said...

I had so many poker references in my first cut of this, it was ridiculous. I had to pull them all out to make sure I wasn't just beating an analogy to death.

Gruber's Mullet said...

Well said uncle Tao. The money side of it (via the large TV deals) coming to the Jays makes a whole lot more sense on adding to the payroll.

James said...

I know the cupboard for prospects is bare but we also have three pitchers who still may be able to turn into quality assets in Drabek, Hutchison, Perez. Four if you want to count McGowan. So it's not all perilous at AAA.

Drew said...

You've kind of hit on a point that a lot of people have glossed over since the Miami trade. With the glut of money now flowing through the system, it stands to reason that any contract before this represents a comparatively cheaper option for a team, especially one looking to dump that new money into upfront signing bonuses etc. Jose Reyes can always command Jose Reyes money but if you can pay him in 2011 dollars in 2012 then that's a bargain.

mike in boston said...

good read.

it will be interesting to see how the payroll fluctuates over the next 5 years or so. I'm sure the suits at Rogers have considered this, but i'm not at all sure what their plan is.

For whatever reasons, AA hates free agency. I wonder if that will continue to be the plan going forward. You can only make these trades as long as you have the prospects to make it happen. The Jays may eventually need to compete for FAs. Let's hope that the 2013 team gives everyone a reason to want to play in Toronto.

side note - once Boston committed to being a top payroll team it became very hard for them to go back. They referred to the year where they didn't sign significant FAs as a "bridge year". Basically, the default expectation now is that the payroll will be near the tax threshold. This can obviously lead to some very bad signings, but it also means that you're in the running for the top FAs most years.

Eddy Mathieu said...

I'm very excited for this upcoming season. Regardless if the teams works out or not, i believe it was the time to make something happen. AA gets my props for being an excellent GM. You can't live on prospects alone nor on just FA's (unless you're the Yanks or BoSox). JoeyBats,EE, and some others in their prime, the time is now.

CJ said...

Good analysis, but I would add in the same thing MK Piatkowski says above -- it was Jeff Loria's decision to blow up the Marlins that precipitated AA springing into action. Something like that, with the opportunity to pick up a slew of stars without paying free agent prices, only comes along once in a great while. Think of it as the passing of Loria's Comet -- he blew up the Expos in 2002 and the Marlins 10 years later.