TORONTO – This sort of feels like a moment for the Toronto Blue Jays, and not in a good way.
The pitching market looks to be zipping past them with the winter meetings opening Monday in San Diego, and Chase Anderson is the only pitcher sure to be in their starting rotation come opening day 2020. There’s plenty to do beyond the rotation, too, from addressing the outfield and fixing the bullpen to hiring a new amateur scouting director, perhaps the most crucial task ahead of a potentially franchise-altering draft in which they hold the No. 5 overall pick.
And as names continue to come off the board – cancel those Michael Pineda jersey orders, stat – the crucible of public pressure around the club intensifies, with meaningful moves needed to avert the devolvement into a full-blown crisis of confidence.
Now, there’s still enough off-season and opportunity on the market remaining that it’s way, way too premature to fairly post-mortem the off-season. The Blue Jays may yet leverage their months of prep work into legitimate and needed progress for the overall program.
Still, given the optimism and opportunity afforded by the ample financial flexibility they carried into the winter, this is a dangerous spot to be in, vulnerable to the type of default spends to fill gaping roster holes that so often lead to bad, payroll-hampering contracts.
That’s why there’s a markedly different feel right now than there was 14 years ago, the last time the Blue Jays entered a winter with a similar combination of financial flexibility and naked ambition. That off-season, then-GM J.P. Ricciardi signed free agents A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan and convinced Troy Glaus to waive his no-trade clause, facilitating a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to boldly upgrade an 80-82 club.
Then, as now, the Blue Jays faced the usual list of challenges in luring players to Canada – the unknown of being in a foreign country and the lack of appeal in joining a team playing AL East catch-up chief among them – but once they identified whom they wanted to target, they fought through the array of excuses.
“Most free agents want three things,” says Ricciardi, now a senior advisor to San Francisco Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. “They want the most money they can make; they want to be as close to their home as they can be; and they want to be on a winning club. Sometimes, you just can’t get as close to their home as they want, so you’ve got to try and create the other two things. Once Rogers (Communications Inc., the team owner) gave us the money to work with in Toronto, we weren’t going to let that fall apart and sit there and say, ‘Oh my God, we didn’t get these guys.’ So we just 100 per cent put on the full-court press.”
That meant, in part, accepting that “we were going to have be a little more on the years with the contracts in the realm of trying to be creative, and we were going to have to overspend,” Ricciardi adds.
Knowing that was going to be the cost of doing business in free agency, the Blue Jays decided to target the players they most wanted, reasoning that if they were going to overspend, better to do it on the guys they believed in most.
“We weren’t going to take the talent and go, we hope this guy is going to be good,” he explains. “We thought that we evaluated them the right way, so we had no problem with an extra year and we had no problem with the money.”
Even with that, the Blue Jays had to “work 24-7” to get their signatures on a deal. Ricciardi marvelled at how “not only players but families looked at Canada like it was going to Europe to play,” and he and his wife Diane regularly preached the city’s merits. “We still love Toronto, and we kept trying to explain to people, listen we’re Americans, and we can’t tell you enough about how nice it is up here, how you’ll really enjoy playing here and all the city has to offer, especially compared to some of the other places. I mean, it’s not even close. Toronto is an international, fun city.”
That was part of the pitch, which started with calls to the representatives for Burnett and Ryan the minute free agency opened. Ricciardi and others flew in to meet the players. The club arranged visits for them and prepared promotional videos. Roy Halladay served as their guide.
“We pulled out every possible stop we could, we recruited them like they were college players for a big-time program,” says Ricciardi. “They saw the passion we had for trying to build a winner in Toronto. I was very honest. I told them these are the challenges we have – we’re facing the Yankees and the Red Sox and they’re not going away, their payroll is not going away. But you have a chance to be on a team that can take the title from those guys. My whole heart and soul was in it and we tried to let those guys see that everybody in the organization was pulling on the rope in the same way and was 100 per cent invested in the Blue Jays being successful.”
Ryan was the first to sign, agreeing to a $47-million, five-year deal at the end of November. A week or so later, Burnett followed, turning down the St. Louis Cardinals to accept a $55-million, five-year deal that included an opt out after the third season. Two weeks after that, the Blue Jays nailed down a deal that sent Orlando Hudson and Miguel Batista to the Diamondbacks for Glaus and Sergio Santos, a trade that required the slugging third baseman’s approval.
“I can remember Christmas Eve at 6 o’clock, my wife screaming at me to get off the phone as I was trying to talk him into coming to Toronto,” says Ricciardi. “I remember his agent getting on the phone with me and saying, ‘I don’t know what the hell you told this guy, but he’s fired up to come to Toronto.’”
At the beginning of February 2006, the Blue Jays made another splash, adding catcher Bengie Molina on a $4.5-million, one-year deal. They finished 87-75 that year, good for second in the AL East, and while they didn’t reach the post-season during the competitive window that was opened, the players they acquired helped lead the charge.
Burnett was worth nearly seven wins during his three seasons with the Blue Jays before opting out. Ryan was a five-win player during the two seasons around his 2008 Tommy John surgery, before being bought out of the final year and a half of his contract. Glaus produced nearly eight wins in two seasons before he was flipped to the St. Louis Cardinals for Scott Rolen.
“Look, free agency, it’s not a place you want to be in,” says Ricciardi. “But if you want to be good, sometimes you have to bite the bullet, step up. I look at Ryan, he had two great years for us around Tommy John and then he just lost it. I look at Burnett, I would do those three years over again any day.
“Was it a gamble? Yeah it was a little bit of gamble, but we weren’t playing with traditional rules at the time in Toronto. We had to take some chances. We had to be willing to fail because we didn’t have an unlimited payroll. Everything we did – some of it was good, some of it was bad – we didn’t do it being afraid. We did it like, if we fail, we fail, but we’re going to go down swinging.”
Courage, conviction and determination helped the Blue Jays to a transformative winter 14 years ago. The business of baseball may have changed immensely since then, but doses of all three are needed amid the objective analysis and disciplined valuations that rule the day now, too.