Yesterday, John Brattain posted his views on the Blue Jays in an article entitled "Are Happy Jays Here Again?" In the article, he openly ponders whether J.P. Ricciardi's transactions this offseason mirror the retrospectively ill-advised transactions from the Gord Ash era.
The Jays looked like they were on the right track.
Then came the trade ...
Nov. 14, 1996: Carlos Garcia, Orlando Merced and Dan Plesac were traded to the Toronto Blue Jays by the Pittsburgh Pirates, for Jose Silva, Brandon Cromer, and Jose Pett, Mike Halperin, Abraham Nunez, and Craig Wilson.
Then on top of that on Dec. 9, 1996 the Jays signed free agent catcher Benito Santiago, who was fresh off of a 30 home run season, which even at the time screamed fluke season (it was his only season with more than 18 home runs).
I was stunned ... and not in a good way. General manager Gord Ash had aborted the rebuilding effort and decided the Jays were ready to compete. I thought at the time that it was colossal mistake, and my fears were realized, as the Jays finished 76-86. Even the signing of Roger Clemens later that December couldn't remove the bad taste from my mouth.
Well, the Jays have again made the big splash. After trying to go the Oakland A's route to success, well, unsuccessfully, the Blue Jays' front office--seeing the possibly vulnerable Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees--decided to pull out all the stops and party like it's 1996.
Other than the fact that both GMs made many acquisitions following several fruitless offseasons, I don't think the two situations are all that similar.
As John points out, Gord Ash did try to compete a year or two too early. The organization's core prospects were improving, but they were not yet ready to lead their team to the playoffs. However, the acquisitions of Carlos Garcia, Orlando Merced, Dan Plesac, and Benito Santiago didn't necessarily put an end to the team's rebuilding effort. None of those players blocked the path of any promising prospect, nor were they any worse than the players whom they replaced, with the exception of Garcia (although, to be fair, Tomas Perez was not much of an improvment). The fact of the matter is that the 1997 Blue Jays would've been awful with or without Ash's acquisitions. And once the prospects blossomed, the team did, in fact, become good. They went on to win 88 games in 1998, and didn't post a losing record until the 2001 season. The reason they never challenged for a championship wasn't because Ash blew all his money years earlier. Instead, it was a combination of further ill-advised moves on the part of Ash (i.e. Joey Hamilton and Erik Hanson) and poor play by the team's once promising youngsters. While Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green went on to become stars, Alex Gonzalez and Chris Carpenter never lived up to expectations while with the Blue Jays.
The present-day situation of the Blue Jays is somewhat different. The organization isn't blessed with many blue-chip prospects. Instead, it has decent depth, but no one to hinge its future hopes upon. As a result, J.P. Ricciardi was faced with two possible courses of action at the beginning of the offseason: embark upon a period of stagnation in which the team will attempt to rebuild a weak farm system with middle-to-late-round draft picks, or spend available resources to obtain talented, albeit high-priced, commodities. To me, the choice is simple, and J.P. made the correct one.
And unlike Gord Ash's acquisitions, the players J.P. obtained are supremely talented. For instance, A.J. Burnett may have the best stuff in all of baseball, and pitchers with K/9 totals similar to his are a rare breed; although spending almost nine million dollars a season on a closer is a bit much, B.J. Ryan is one of the few relief pitchers in the league who can rack up over 100 K's a season; and Lyle Overbay and Troy Glaus are significant upgrades over Eric Hinske and Corey Koskie.
As with most players, there are risks involved. However, with these particular players, they're almost exclusively health-related ones. Not a single one of them is below the age of thirty, and they've each established a consistent level of production. So, unlike Santiago, none of them are fresh off an unrepeatable fluke season. If they stay healthy, their high-priced contracts won't even be much of an issue; with the league flush with money and contracts on the rise, a talented player can easily be traded for something of value.
And unlike some would have you believe, this isn't a win-now-or-bust approach on the part of the Blue Jays. None of the acquisitions will block a prospect who's ready for the majors, nor was the quality of the farm system severely compromised. Dave Bush and Zach Jackson are talented pitchers, but they both project to be #3-#5 pitchers. Considering the plethora of similar pitchers in the Blue Jays farm system, that is certainly a fungible commodity. As for Gabe Gross, he's got some upside, but it was obvious that the team would never be able to accomodate him into its outfield.
Now, I'm by no means trying to be a J.P. apologist. I'm aware of the inherent risks involved with spending a large portion of one's payroll to acquire players with significant health concerns. Also, I feel the team's infield defense may regress considerably with the departures of Orlando Hudson and Corey Koskie, especially considering the '06 rotation includes pitchers who induce many groundballs. Here are the % of groundballs each pitcher was able to induce in 2005:
Roy Halladay: 46% (for example, of the 553 batters Halladay faced last season, 46% of them hit a groundball against him)
A.J. Burnett: 38%
Gustavo Chacin: 31%
Josh Towers: 36%
Ted Lilly: 26%
Other than Lilly, and to a certain extent Chacin, the team's starting pitchers rely rather heavily on inducing groundball outs. With a defensive stalwart like Orlando Hudson manning second base, all is well (or as my Jewish friends like to say, all is kosher). However, the situation is much more different now that Hudson has departed and the left side of the infield is comprised of Troy Glaus and Russ Adams, both of whom aren't all that gifted defensively. Things could get ugly -- things could get very ugly.
In the end, I'm entering the season with the same mindset as John Brattain: I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm by no means going to delude myself into thinking that the Blue Jays are poised to overthrow the Red Sox and the Yankees, but it's much more possible than it was last season.