Back to the future .. can 2008 Blue Jays really return to old golden age?Apr 4th, 2008 | By Rob Sparrow | Category: Sporting Life
Are you ready for some baseball? As we now finally hang up the thick coat and put away the toque and mitts, after a winter that has battered and bruised this land from coast to coast to coast, it is time to focus on more summery pursuits. This season promises to be one with many storylines – and one which could potentially provide Canada with a team reminiscent of those of the 80s and early 90s, when competitive and exciting fall baseball was a yearly ritual. There has been some broader stirring that must be looked at first – the steroid era and all that! And even if you set this aside, it has been a strange offseason in the American League East. Then there are the all too formidable Blue Jays’ rivals in their own backyard – the Yankees and the Red Sox (who are also starting off the season, home and away). As the Jays tune up we can only ask: will youth be served? Finally, we ponder the defining season of the seven-year itch. What can be said about J.P. Ricciardi’s seven years at the helm of the franchise? And will this be the season when the Toronto Blue Jays compete with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees for first or second place, and possibly the wild card? Or is that just another impossible dream?
The steroid era in the offseason – where have you gone Mark McGwire?
Before outlining the upcoming season it is worth a look back on the long offseason. It was truly an embarrassing one for all involved in baseball. It gave us a report on the game that systematically outlined the complicity between players and teams/management/medical staff, as all turned a blind eye towards the use of such Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) as Steroids and Human Growth Hormones. The affliction ramped throughout the game in the 1990s and early 2000s, as baseball sought at any cost to recapture the fan base alienated by the 1994 strike.
Yet it also went further then that. It continued to strain the bond between fan/player/team, scarred a baseball hero, and cast a shadow on players and their accomplishments over the past 20 years – now notable as the “steroid era”.
This all came to the fore when the Mitchell Report was published last December. In an exhaustive 20-month investigation over 90 current and former players were linked to using or being otherwise associated with PEDs. These drugs, for a long time banned in amateur sport and not tested for in baseball, had been found to be extensively used amongst the players – all in the effort to cash in on anything, at any cost, that could boost athletic performance and attain the American ideal of bigger, stronger, faster.
Swept up in the steroid firestorm were arguably baseball’s best pitcher and hitter of their generation – Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Barry Bonds had been previously linked with PEDs since the publishing of Game of Shadows by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams – and had been condemned publically by fans and media alike over the last couple of years, in his self-aggrandizing pursuit of Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record. Roger Clemens, a national hero, who some say embodies all that was right with the game, was surprisingly listed in the Mitchell Report amongst those who had used PEDs.
What ensued was a media circus much like a political scandal, with a litany of he said/she said allegations that led right up to the steps of the United States Congress and Supreme Court. It was within the Congressional walls that we would learn of a fallen hero, who in his desperation to retain his reputation would tape personal conversations (a la Richard Nixon) with his suspected accuser, say that it was not him but his wife that had taken the PEDs to maintain her figure for a Sports Illustrated photo shoot, and that his best friend, pitcher Andy Pettite (who had also been listed in the Mitchell Report, and confessed that it was indeed true that had taken PEDs) had “mis-remembered” when they had previously discussed the drugs.
It was truly a dark day for the American pastime and one that was on display for all to see. And it was perhaps fitting that in such a litigious society, the legal arena may now be where it is played out, as Barry Bonds has been indicted for perjury, after lying to Congress when he testified there under oath during previous steroid hearings in 2005.
Quite frankly, the American Supreme Court does not like being lied to – no one is beyond the law. And now that Roger Clemens has also professed his “truth” under oath, he too could face the same fate as Barry Bonds – both indelibly scarred in the court of public opinion as stars who have lost their luster. Who knows? Because of their continued indiscretions and constant denials under oath, they may in the near future face the real possibility of time behind bars, much the same as the disgraced Lord Black.
The Blue Jays – a strange offseason in the AL East
Shifting to what actually transpired in baseball today, and more specifically the Blue Jays, one sees a bit of an aberration in the American League East. Perhaps it is because the Yankee Evil Nation is passing the baton from the mercurial George Steinbrenner to his underling progeny, or because long-time manager Joe Torre is no longer holding the reigns. Or perhaps it is because the Red Sox Nation is no longer defined as being cursed by the trade of Babe Ruth (dating back to the early days of William Lyon Mackenzie King in Canadian politics). The Sox have now won two titles in four years and will never again be seen as star-crossed losers.
Yet a look at the offseason sees these two baseball clubs in unfamiliar territory. Both perennial huge spenders were quite noticeably absent in shelling out big bucks for new free agent players, and in the surprise of the offseason were shut out of the all-star pitcher Johan Santana sweepstakes. Which raises the observation that the rich aren’t getting richer – they are merely trying to tread water.
So while the Yankees and Red Sox focus on retaining their existing players instead of adding, what in the world is up with the Toronto Blue Jays? You know the Jays, the team that J.P. Ricciardi proclaimed he could guide to the promised land of baseball’s postseason, but now finds itself in the seventh year of his five-year plan – a plan he now denies knowledge of. Ricciardi didn’t look to take advantage of the distraction the Red Sox and Yankees faced, nor the financial boost the Canadian dollar has enjoyed in the past year.
The Blue Jays have budgeted flat this year, even though the Canadian dollar is up around 20 percent in its value against the US dollar. Seeing as the Jays do business in Canadian money but pay American dollars to the players, the Jays could have joined the $100-million-a-year teams without even asking owner Ted Rogers for more money. But this is indicative of Ricciardi: the only time the Canadian dollar has seemed to be a factor with the Blue Jays was in the past when it was weak against the US dollar and could be used as one of Ricciardi’s excuses for failure.
But then again if the Jays did expand the budget, Ricciradi might start running out of excuses, built around the notion that the Jays just can’t afford to keep up with the big boys. He might then be expected to do something a bit more exciting than pick up the oft-injured Scott Rolen (currently on the disabled list and expected to miss the first month of the season) or trade for the light hitting David Eckstein and Marco Scutaro.
That’s a tough way to survive in the AL East, where the Yankees ($200 million) and Red Sox ($150 million) have established that all the bad contracts in the world shouldn’t scare you away from shelling out big-bucks deals each offseason.
A look back to the future – will youth be served?
The fact is, it’s not just money that separates the Red Sox and Yankees from the Blue Jays in the AL East. Both the Yanks and the Sox have farm systems ready to provide high-impact help, whereas the Jays’ system has been watered down by a bizarre draft approach that has not allowed for any big harvest.
Remember, this is the team that in back-to-back years used its No. 1 pick for the journeyman-caliber shortstops Russ Adams (now a third baseman who was released this month by the Jays), and Aaron Hill (now listed as a second baseman), and then passed the next year on Colorado all-star Troy Tulowitzki.
In fact, it may be June 7, 2005 that will go down as the day that defines the failure of the Blue Jays in the first decade (and perhaps second?) of the 21st century. In what is now being talked about by insiders as the greatest draft in baseball history – one that included the likes of budding stars Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Jacob Ellsbury, and the aforementioned Troy Tulowitzki, as well as potential future stars Cameron Maybin, Andrew McCutcheon, Jay Bruce and Colby Rasmus – the Blue Jays shot a blank in their selection of Ricky Romero.
This was outlined in the offseason by espn.com writer Keith Law. Law had joined the front office of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2002, and by the time he left the organization in 2006, he had risen to the role of Special Assistant to GM J.P. Ricciardi. Here’s an excerpt from his thoughts on what really happened in the Blue Jays’ draft headquarters on that fateful day in 2005:
It’s a textbook example of a managerial failure. The consensus of the people who were hired to evaluate players was to take Tulowitzki over Romero. (It wasn’t unanimous, but it was the majority opinion.) The GM substituted his own evaluations, based on one observation for each player and a flawed one at that for Tulowitzki, who was just coming off of a wrist injury. Several of us made the case for Tulowitzki over Romero, myself included, but Ricciardi is not one to change his mind, and I always thought he rather enjoyed digging in his heels when anyone questioned a decision. There had to be a million dollars in salaries sitting in that draft room, and the GM overruled them. If you’re going to hire talented people and pay them all that money, let them do their jobs. The fact that the decision has backfired so spectacularly just justifies that point – if the Jays had Tulowitzki at short, they’d probably be one of the top four teams in the AL.
The fact is, this just continues to reiterate how myopic and stubborn the current Jays management is with its baseball decisions. Five years ago it was a franchise that was investing its future in the defensively challenged Eric Hinske at third base, that took umbrage at the suggestion it was a bad deal, that four years later proclaimed he was just what the Jays expected all along – a backup on the corners – and then unloaded him. Ditto for Cory Koskie, brought in as a power hitting third baseman who was signed to a three-year contract, and then after one injury-filled disappointing season was dumped off (with the Jays eating a considerable amount of his contract) the next year – to the prospect-rich Milwaukee Brewers for no noticeable return.
And look at the big boys, about whom the Jays complain because of their resources for the “best players money can buy.” Last year when the Yankees pitching staff needs help it wasn’t free agents or name players that were summoned. Under their scouting and player development folks, they have been funneling in reinforcements with dominating ability such as Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Ian Kennedy. It is to these players, as well as some of their existing high-priced talent that they look to compete for championships well into the next decade.
Then there’s the Red Sox. They can boast of developing 2007 AL Rookie of the Year Dustin Pedroia. Moreover, when their offence needed a spark going into the postseason they drew upon their own farm system for Jacoby Ellsbury. He became an instant World Series hero and is now ready to take up residence in CF, helping cover up the money wasted on incumbent Coco Crisp. In terms of pitching, the battered Red Sox rotation can be reinforced from within their organization with the up-and-coming Jon Lester and the arrival of Clay Buchholz – he of no-hit fame in his big-league cameo last year.
The seven year itch – a defining season
All this leaves one to question what the Jays have to say for Ricciardi’s seven years at the helm of the franchise. Where are all the kids vying for positions from the farm system? This J.P. Ricciardi regime, which has now seen seven years of mediocre baseball, has yet to fulfill its mandate of making the club competitive and sustainable with the development of young players.
The proof is in the pudding – of what was once the most successful franchise for developing the most players year-in and year-out! The Blue Jays in Ricciardi’s tenure have developed only one position player (Aaron Hill) and one pitcher (Shaun Marcum), able to crack the big clubs’ lineup.
This, I believe, is the crux of the matter when looking at the Jays both for this season and in the longer term. They simply cannot compete head-to-head with the Yankees and Red Sox financially and must develop their own players to have any sustained shot at being competitive. It is this mis-management, both in its failure to consistently provide the appropriate resources for scouting and development, and its poor decisions and judgment on drafting and trades, that explains why Toronto has had to overspend in the free agent and used veteran cast-off markets so extensively these last few offseasons.
Couple that with an on-field manager John Gibbons (entering his forth season) who has at times looked overmatched both by other managers and in the handling of his own players. Here is a manager whose hiring had more to do with his roommate in the minor leagues (GM Ricciardi) than with any pedigree from successful ball clubs. (This is his first managing job.) And here too is a manager now positioned to be the first to take the fall (for his ex-roomie), if the Jays do not get off to a good start and people begin to hit the panic button. Overall, it makes long time fans of the club yearn for the days when the stewardship of the club was in the trusted hands of Pat Gillick, Paul Beeston, Bobby Cox, or Cito Gaston.
As for what will go on between the white lines this season, for the Blue Jays to contend they will need major comebacks from their newly crowned franchise player, center fielder Vernon Wells (.245, 16 home runs, 80 R.B.I.), and from closer B. J. Ryan (reconstructive elbow surgery last May), who won’t pitch until at least mid-April. They also need huge contributions from the new left side of the infield (shortstop David Eckstein and third baseman Scott Rolen, who as previously mentioned will not be able to play until May because of a broken finger).
Yet the old adage that pitching wins championships still rings true – even in the days of an at-par loonie. And to that end the most critical question is whether the Jays’ young starters can support Halladay, and that perennial question mark A.J. Burnett (who has yet to win more than 12 games in a Major League season and has been on the disabled list 10 times in eight seasons). As for the young supporting cast, Dustin McGowan (12-10), Shaun Marcum (12-6) and Jesse Litsch (7-9) have a combined four years of major league experience – making a huge question mark about whether they can repeat or improve on their 2007 performances.
Even with all these questions in tow, this is supposed to be the year the Blue Jays compete with the Red Sox and the Yankees for first or second place, and possibly the wild card. But they need both the Yankees and the Red Sox to co-operate, and then for a lot of other things to break right. Then they need their veterans to stay healthy. And all this may be their impossible dream.
The rich may not be getting richer, but when the middle class is content to muddle along in mismanagement and mediocrity, another season of dashed promise and disappointment along the shores of Lake Ontario may be blowing in the wind
Robert Sparrow is a Toronto marketing analyst and noted local authority on the sporting life.
A few references
For the quotation from Keith Law, see East Windup Chronicle, March 24th, 2008. For some further introduction to Keith Law’s work nowadays try: ”Keith Law” on the ESPN.com website ; and The dish – Thoughts on food and books (and sometimes baseball), from sportswriter Keith Law.
For an official view on the Jays prospects in 2008 see Blue Jays poised for run at AL East title.