Boys of summer 2006 .. new Jays miss out on internationalizing trend .. but C$ still rising

Apr 5th, 2006 | By | Category: Sporting Life

Fresh from the success of the World Baseball Classic, the major league season kicks off this week in parks around North America. With Japan taking the world title over Cuba the sport was shaken out of its myopic concept that the American brand is the best and only one. The game has grown in leaps around the world, where it is played with a fashion and finesse that ought to be emulated at the very top level.

One would have to conclude that a team made up of the best the world has to offer would be a dominant strategy of the top clubs. And indeed, the Yankees and last year’s champion White Sox have followed this direction with much success. Both teams have players on their roster from the countries of WBC finalists Cuba and Japan, along with many of the Latin American nations.

Strange then that with Toronto being one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse cities in the world – and with the Jays having a rich history of championing the development and use of Latin American players in the glory days of the 80s and 90s, today they are one of the most homogeneous baseball teams around, with a roster of over 85% Caucasian Americans.

This myopic view of the present management continues to perpetuate old baseball axioms, and to a lesser extent misses out on marketing opportunities with Toronto’s diverse population. One only has to see the spike in attendance when Japan’s Ichiro Susuki and his Seattle Mariners come to town, or when the Korean Chan Ho Park pitches against the Jays. Now I am not saying that this would translate into more victories for the team. Yet it does spotlight this regime’s continued lack of vision in terms of the progressive new realities that have changed the game.

Blue Jays 06 … appreciating the rise in the Canadian dollar

The Toronto Blue Jays opened the proverbial pocket strings in the off-season – no wait a second, they broke the bank, and Mr. Rogers’s piggybank – in hope of making a splash and recouping the magic and luster of dynasties many years ago. With team revenue increasing with the purchase of the Rogers Centre last year, along with the Canadian dollar appreciating vis–vis the US greenback, a number of players were brought in to compete with the Yanks and BoSox.

New faces include B.J. Ryan, A.J. Burnett, Troy Glaus, Bengie Molina, and Lyle Overbay – helping the team payroll jump from $45 million in 2005 to over $80 million in 2006. This is a change from J.P. Ricciardi and his cost-cutting “Moneyball” philosophy of the past four years, that saw prolonged mediocre play and an exodus of high-priced veterans such as Carlos Delgado. Not to mention an exodus of many fannies in the seats as team attendance continued to stagnate.

Hence, we have Mr. Rogers’s refreshing commitment to spending north of $160 million in the next couple of seasons, in an effort to both create interest in his baseball division and generate spin-off effects for his media outlet Sportsnet. Yet is it money well spent – and is it wise to commit huge dollars for extremely long terms to generally unproven players, in the hope that they will be saviors for this franchise? Or does this continue to mask the bad judgment and mis-management that have become commonplace in the past decade?

Something to chew on as the season starts …

The Blue Jays wound up paying $12.6 million for one year of third baseman Corey Koskie, including the $7.1 million they sent the Brewers in their trade of Koskie for minor-league right-hander Brian Wolfe. The Jays also lost their second-round pick in last year’s draft for signing Koskie to a three-year, $17 million, free-agent contract before last season.

Clearly, with Koskie having an injury-filled season this signing was a major disaster. For that money Delgado would still be a Jay, and the management would not have had to send gold-glove second baseman Orlando Hudson (who solidified the defense) away to Arizona, to acquire $10 million+ -per- year power hitter Troy Glaus.

Further, the Jays completely overpaid for B.J. Ryan. Granted, they must overpay to lure US-born players to Canada (even more of an incentive for bringing Latin or Asian players to town instead). Granted, the team plans to spend $160 million in payroll over the next two seasons. And granted, the competition for Ryan was considerable – the Indians were willing to go four years and possibly five for the closer, though not at the average annual value the Jays will pay.

Yet, a five-year $47 milliion contract makes no sense for a one-year closer who has never pitched in a pennant race. Five years is defiantly risky as there are only a couple of relievers who are that consistent for that period of time (see Yankees Mariano Rivera). Quite frankly, the terms of the contract make Ryan untradable – something the Jays are experiencing now with the perennial unproductive Eric Hinske , who was signed to a long-term deal a few seasons ago, rendering him untradable today.

That said, with the five-year $55 million signing of A.J. Burnett the Blue Jays are again going into uncharted waters, with a pitcher who has a history of arm troubles, and is on the DL as the season starts. He became this year’s proverbial Pedro Astascio (a flavour-of-the month player a few years ago who everyone had to have), overpaid for potential that may never be realized.  Burnett, is 49-50 lifetime with a 3.73 ERA. He lost his last six decisions while pitching in a pennant race for the Marlins last season, and the team sent him home early after he criticized the organization. He just doesn’t have the pedigree for that type of commitment.

The historic list is long with pitchers who sign large long-term deals that are complete failures. (See Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, Chan Ho Park, Kevin Brown, etc) And the list just keeps on growing. Name a pitcher who has signed for five years or more and I will reply bust!!! That is why former Blue Jay steward Pat Gillick would never go beyond three years with a pitcher. The potential for injury and prolonged inconsistency is just too great to offset the upside, and it just kills a team’s flexibility to both reward and attract performance on an ongoing basis – again see Burnett, an untradable commodity.

On the list of all-time bad contracts, Ryan and Burnett combined may rank up among the worst – $47 million over five years for a left-handed free-agent reliever who has been a closer for exactly one season and never pitched in a late-season pennant race, and $55 million over five years for a .500 pitcher with a suspect arm. Perhaps we will see the ultimate error in judgment here in 2007 when all-star Vernon Wells, who will then be poised to get a big raise, goes to Mr. Rogers and Mr. Rogers finds his piggybank exhausted. And as with such other departed stars such as Carlos Delgado we will hear the familiar rhetoric: “we just can afford to keep him.”

Prediction for 2006

No doubt, the Jays will be more interesting this year. Whatever else, they should be a better team with the addition of their two high-priced free-agent pitchers – and the addition of hitters Glaus, Overbay, and Molina. But they still might not be good enough to contend in the AL East.

Once again, it’s impossible to like the new pitcher deals long-term. The Jays are just looking for a short-term hit. Could happen, but we’re talking about an 80-win team adding at least 12 victories to become a post-season contender. Even if Burnett and Ryan perform to expectations – no sure thing in either case – that won’t be easy. The Jays have far two many corner infielders on their roster for good defensive health over the long 162-game season: their third baseman should be playing first; their second baseman should be playing third; their shortstop should be playing second; and their right fielder should be designated hitting (paging Abbot & Costello).

My guess would be a jump of 10 wins to 90-91, enough to compete into mid-September yet not enough to play October baseball.

Anyway, the new Jays are back as “Canada’s team” for the near future. From here a lot will depend on how they play this year, and on whether the paying public receives them as in the heydays of the early 80s to mid 90s. There seems to be a new window of opportunity for the next couple of years – or to the point that Mr. Rogers stops continuing to invest in his baseball operation. If they fail in this window, then it will be all for not, and the Toronto boys of summer will fall back into the also-rans they have been for the last 13 years.

So let the games begin – Play Ball!!! (And they have now begun well enough with a 63 defeat of Minnesota at the April 4 home opener – attended by a nice big crowd of 50,449 fans.)

Robert Sparrow is a Toronto marketing analyst and noted local authority on the sporting life.


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