Jays handcuffed by strategy in ‘big man’s division’

January 22, 2014, 7:51 PM

TORONTO – As the New York Yankees celebrate the signing of Masahiro Tanaka, the capper to an off-season rejuvenation approaching half-a-billion dollars, some dire words from J.P. Ricciardi at the end of a miserable 2009 season suddenly seem apt for the moment.

"Let me make this clear: It doesn’t matter if J.P. Ricciardi is the GM, or Joe Blow is the GM," he told me that September in what turned out to be the epitaph interview of his tenure as Toronto Blue Jays general manager. "Two years from now, five years from now, seven years from now, the reality that we face in Toronto is the division is not going to change. The Red Sox and Yankees are not going away. If the Yankees want to, they can take their payroll to $300-million.

"The biggest thing that people forget is that when Toronto won the World Series, they had the highest payroll in baseball. There’s a direct equivalent to that. If we’re going to play in the big man’s division, and we’re not going to spend that money, it’s going to be really hard for us to compete with those teams."

Ricciardi has since been described as many things, but prophetic isn’t usually among them. Yet as the rich keep getting richer in the American League East, and the Blue Jays continue to handcuff their bids for top-flight free agents with a policy limiting contracts to five years, it’s hard to see how they’re going to get better in time to leverage their current core.

The Tampa Bay Rays have managed four post-season trips out of the "big man’s division" on a shoestring since 2008, but to this point the Blue Jays haven’t been able to find similar success in drafting and developing players, particularly pitchers. The failures on that front have forced them to augment their staff from outside the organization, but they haven’t been able to land elite arms via free agency because of the price, and it can be even more difficult and expensive to get them via trade.

For what’s it worth, the Blue Jays held talks with Casey Close, the agent for Tanaka, and were prepared to offer a competitive annual average value on a five-year deal. But once the offers extended past five years in length they withdrew from the bidding, and are back where they’ve been all winter – waiting for the price on one of Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana or Matt Garza to fall into their comfort zone.

That strategy may very well work – the compensatory picks attached to Jimenez and Santana are significant market dampeners – but it also may leave them empty handed, underlining the contrast between how GM Alex Anthopoulos and Brian Cashman, his Yankees counterpart, have operated this winter.

The Yankees, rather than trying to play the market, have used their clout and blown the opposition away in committing $458 million to Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, dramatically reshaping their roster. Tanaka may end up being the masterstroke, deepening a rotation that needed more support for CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova.

Still, there’s also a huge amount of risk as the Yankees committed $175 million – $155 million to Tanaka over seven years, plus the $20 million posting fee to the Rakuten Golden Eagles – to a player whose next pitch in the majors will be his first. To put that into context, last spring the Seattle Mariners extended Felix Hernandez – easily one of baseball’s top five pitchers – for the same total outlay over seven years. The Mariners, at least, knew what they were getting before diving in, while the Yankees are gambling that they acquired the next Yu Darvish, thumbing their nose at the possibility they anted up big for another Hideki Irabu or Kei Igawa.

"Am I comfortable offering $155 million? It’s the cost of doing business," Cashman said on a conference call shortly after Tanaka’s signing was announced. "Whether it’s coming from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, the United States or Japan, the highest talent costs a lot of money. You can point to players here playing Major League Baseball, football, soccer transfers, or what have you, there’s a lot of success, and a lot of ones that don’t work out. One thing that’s consistent is that on a yearly basis, the efforts of clubs that try to continue to improve themselves create that bidding environment that produces large contracts for a rare talent. This is a circumstance that speaks to that."

This circumstance also speaks to the Blue Jays’ refusal to pay that cost of doing business, choosing instead to bide their time, look for value, and seek out the right fit.

To be fair, they’ve tried to pursue some big names this winter, but Brian McCann essentially said thanks but no thanks, and other catchers like A.J. Pierzynski and Carlos Ruiz wanted too much of a premium to sign with the Blue Jays. On the trade front, the Detroit Tigers never let them into the discussions for Doug Fister – there’s a belief among some in the industry that they wanted to deal him out of the AL. And the Chicago Cubs want top prospects Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez for Jeff Samardzija, an exorbitant acquisition cost made all the more prohibitive by the type of money being thrown at pitchers either on the open market or bound for it in years to come.

But bottom line, for a variety of reasons, the Blue Jays simply can’t throw caution to the wind and emulate the Yankees, who as co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner told The Associated Press, "are going to do what we’ve got to do to win."

Of course that bravado is key part of the Yankees’ brand, and only the Los Angeles Dodgers have a similar financial wherewithal. That’s worth keeping in mind. But if the Blue Jays aren’t going to outspend their rivals for top talent, they’re going to have to out-draft and out-general-manage them, and rather than bridging the chasm, right now it’s only getting wider.

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