Two years ago this week, the Toronto Blue Jays and Alex Anthopoulos finalized the signature trade that was designed to change the course of the franchise.
It was bold. It was the right move at the time. It was received ecstatically among Blue Jays fans and media and generally got the thumbs up throughout the baseball industry.
Though no one’s fault (well, other than maybe Josh Johnson’s elbow), it hasn’t (yet) worked.
Still, on Monday, Anthopoulos doubled down, as he reached a five-year, $82-million contract with 31-year-old, Toronto-born, Montreal-raised catcher Russell Martin.
It is the largest free-agent signing in Anthopoulos’ career and stands out because it can’t be shaped as a value play in any shape or form. It’s a big investment and signals loud-and-clear that he remains committed to bold measures to leverage the primes of middle-of-the-order studs Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.
That was the plan in 2012-13 when Anthopoulos sold off a load of young talent to acquire quality veterans like Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey and Johnson to take advantage of the his two in-house stars.
So far that plan has fallen far short, despite best intentions, yielding 157 wins over two seasons.
Is Martin the difference?
There’s a lot to be said for adding a defensively sound catcher coming off a season in which he hit .290 with an OPS of .832 for a Pittsburgh Pirates club that has been in the heat of the pennant race for two seasons.
But it raises questions also — and not just because Martin’s average production the previous five years was .234 with an OPS of .702, or that last season he enjoyed a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .336, which was a career-best and towers over his .263 BABIP the previous five years.
For all the holes the Blue Jays had in their lineup last season and still do, catching didn’t seem one of them, as Dioner Navarro (who will earn $5 million in the last year of his deal in 2015) proved capable, hitting .274 with an OPS of .712 and ranking ninth in MLB among catchers with 450 plate appearances with 2.3 WAR (Russell was second with 5.5 WAR in just 374 plate appearances).
It seems almost certain now that the Blue Jays will look to offer contract extensions to Encarnacion and Bautista before the 2016 season, prior to them hitting free agency. If that scenario unfolds, consider that the Blue Jays will be looking to reach agreements with stars that will be 34 and 35, respectively, in a universe where 35-year-old Victor Martinez just got a four-year, $68-million contract from the Detroit Tigers, or where Martin — who will be 33 in 2016 — will be in the second year of a contract paying him $16.4 million.
Doubling-down wasn’t the Blue Jays’ only option, but it is the path Anthopoulos has chosen. It’s expensive and comes with risks and high expectations. It also means the Blue Jays have passed any opportunity to reshape their organization by selling their veterans at peak value.
With two years left on their exceptionally club-friendly contracts (Bautista is at $14 million a year for 2014 and 2015; Encarnacion is at $10 million) and coming off monster seasons the value of Bautista and Encarnacion will never be higher.
Did Anthopoulos ever explore packaging them with the likes of Buehrle and Reyes? That type of move would instantly lop $55 million off the Blue Jays’ projected payroll. Shop Dickey’s 200-innings and you save another $12 million.
Those kinds of payroll cuts would go a long way towards making up for whatever losses the Blue Jays and Daddy Rogers might have suffered in attendance or television ratings.
Managed properly it’s a process that would return boatloads of cheap, young, elite talent to match with the young core that remained. Sprinkle the payroll savings around in future years as the talent comes of age and perhaps Toronto has a long, fruitful run.
It’s all a gamble, of course.
The idea of the great dismantling came up on Friday during a roundtable conversation on Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown. That McCown shared the opinion perhaps suggests I’m on to something or on something, I’m not clear myself.
Not surprisingly when I ran this concept by Anthopoulos on the weekend he chose not to comment. Maybe it was just his way of being too polite to laugh me off the phone. Just as likely — in retrospect — was that he was on the verge of signing Martin and knew that it was too late to consider something so radical.
But doubling-down carries risks for a general manager in the last year of his deal and an organization heading into their 21st playoff-free season. Does a couple more seasons of hoping to win 88 games get Anthopoulos a new contract?
The Blue Jays are not an 89-win team that just missed the post-season, it’s worth pointing out. They are an 83-win team that finished third in the AL East and five games out of the second Wild Card. They need an answer at second base and will head into spring training hoping Dalton Pompey and his 29 career at-bats can play centre field. If there is any kind of significant offer in the marketplace beyond three years for Melky Cabrera, the Blue Jays will be trying to figure out how to replace the .808 OPS he provided in left field.
And let’s not forget the bullpen.
If the Martin signing suggests the Blue Jays are prepared to spend to paper over their shortcomings with money, then by all means, carry on.
As it stands, the plan appears to be extending the primes of Encarnacion, Bautista, Martin and Reyes and hoping it will be enough to extend a bridge to the future promised by Marcus Stroman, the 23-year-old putative ace, who has just 20 MLB starts to his name; 21-year-old Aaron Sanchez, who would need to develop into a No.2 starter sooner than later in any scenario where the Blue Jays contend in the next two seasons and Drew Hutchison, who logged some outstanding starts last season, but is a 23-year-old coming off a season where he posted a 4.48 ERA. Daniel Norris is another exciting prospect, but is a 21-year-old with zero MLB pedigree.
There were other, more radical paths Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays could have taken this off-season. By committing to Martin, he’s chosen to keep on the road he set out on two years ago this week.