Just over a month ago, the Blue Jays made a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates in which they acquired Francisco Liriano. At the time, the moved sparked two separate, but related story lines: How well will a six-man rotation experiment ultimately work for the Blue Jays, and can Liriano really recapture his former success now that he's working with Russell Martin again?
The results so far have been mixed, but this piece isn't about either one of those stories. What I've become more interested in as I've pondered this deal over the last month is what the Francisco Liriano trade might signal regarding where the Blue Jays are as a franchise going forward beyond 2016. To review, here's the deal in full:
The Blue Jays traded Drew Hutchison to the Pirates for Francisco Liriano (and all the money left on his contract), Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez.
Here's one of the many reasons why this is so interesting: Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez together are much more valuable assets than Drew Hutchison at this point. The only reason they were involved in the same trade is because Francisco Liriano regressed to the point where his overall value is negative when you factor in the $13.67 million he's making both this year and again in 2017. This doesn't necessarily mean Liriano will continue to be a net negative in the games he's pitching (although that's certainly possible if he doesn't start pitching better than he has so far this season). It just means that the market doesn't see him as a guy who can produce enough value when he's pitching to be worth that contract, and since he and his contract are a package deal, he didn't have much, if any value on the market.
The answer to the question of why the Blue Jays would want Liriano is as layered as it is complex, and there's numerous variables in play that we just can't pin down. So unfortunately, we're going to have to speculate some. Maybe the front office really does feel he's due for a bounce back next year (exactly how much is debatable), maybe Russell Martin is really confident he can work with him and make him better given their past success (again, exactly how much is debatable), and maybe they just felt he was good enough to fill a sixth slot in the rotation while they tried to protect Aaron Sanchez's arm. All of these factors are in play and were certainly things the top brass considered before making that move.
However, here's something else I think is on the table ...The Blue Jays took on an asset that nobody wanted (Francisco Liriano and his overpriced contract packaged together) because they have the resources to do it. Now that may sound like a rather obvious and simple statement, but it has huge potential implications when you consider what this franchise might be working with now that the Blue Jays' stock has soared in the last 13 months following the Troy Tulowitzki and David Price trades.
The Liriano trade isn't just a move of a team that needed more pitching depth (yes, that's certainly part of it, but I don't think it tells the whole story), it's a move of a team that knows it has some financial muscle to flex. If you follow this line of thinking, it's not hard to see a scenario where they completely took advantage of the Pirates who are operating near their payroll ceiling (they have arguably the worst regional TV deal in all of baseball right now) and can't afford to have a guy like Liriano on their team for $13.67 million a year. The Blue Jays recognized this and tapped into Pittsburgh's greatest resource, the Pirate farm system. In short, the Blue Jays used their money to buy a pair of prospects they liked, and that should be fascinating to anybody who's a fan of this team for multiple reasons.
Before we get into the biggest one where we explore the idea of the Blue Jays having more money to work with than ever before, let's take a trip back in time .....
Here's a link to the MLB payrolls in 1993. Two things should immediately jump out. One is the size of the payrolls (baseball's done pretty darn well increasing revenue over the last 25 years), but the other is the Blue Jays being at the top of that list. Now obviously this came at a very, very different point in baseball history where ticket sales drove revenue more than TV deals, but it's still worth noting how popular this team was before the 1994 strike. In an eight year period between 1987 and 1994, the Blue Jays led the American League in attendance seven times. And guess what, for the fist time in over 20 years, they're leading the American League in attendance again.
The TV numbers are just as impressive. This piece from back in July notes that the Blue Jays were averaging over 900,000 viewers per game in the first half of the season and that those numbers were up a staggering 50 percent over last season. As close as this division race is now, it's a good bet the Jays are going to end up averaging over a million viewers per game by the time the season concludes. A million people, every night, 162 times a year watching Blue Jays baseball. Think about that for a moment.
How does that compare to other teams? Well last year the Yankees led the U.S. teams in viewers (not in ratings, but in number of viewers), and they were averaging 228,000 viewers a game. With the Yankees seeing a drop in ratings in 2016, this means that the Jays are being watched by nearly five times as many people per night as the next closest team. This is a gap that doesn't exist anywhere else in major professional sports.
Last year completely changed the dynamic for this franchise. For 19 consecutive years (from 1996 though 2014), the Blue Jays attendance averaged less than 32,000 fans per game; and that number dipped as low as 19,173 as recently as 2010. This team simply didn't play truly meaningful baseball in September for two decades. First fans left following the '94 strike, and then the Jays got buried under the Red Sox / Yankees rivalry where it seemed like everything in the baseball universe was getting sucked into those two franchises. In a world with only one Wild Card (pre 2012), that meant you pretty much had to win 90 games each year just to feel like you had a chance to play meaningful baseball in this division. It was a perfect recipe to put Jays fans into hibernation.
Everything's different now! The Red Sox have finished at the bottom of the division three of the last four years, the Yankees haven't won a playoff game since 2012, and millions of young Jays fans have gotten their first (and now second) taste of delicious playoff race baseball. As a result, Rogers Centre has transformed into a baseball paradise. Many Americans are excited about the NFL starting up again, but I'd be very surprised if the best atmosphere in any sporting arena in North America this weekend isn't in Toronto when the Red Sox face the Blue Jays with first place in the A.L. on the line. As long as the Jays don't get blown out, these crowds are going to resemble a playoff series, and it's going to be awesome.
To get back on topic, the sleeping giant in the Blue Jays fanbase is now wide awake, and I'd have to imagine that in this state it's proving to be a cash cow for those running the franchise. In other words, I think those in charge now have some hard numbers and a more complete understanding of just how much more valuable a good Blue Jays team is for them than a bad one. All the numbers that are publicly available are off the charts good.
If this is true, it's not unreasonable to expect to Blue Jays to see a jump in payroll in the next few seasons. Exactly how much is debatable, but I'd have to imagine they rank higher than 13th on that list in 2017. I'm certainly not saying to expect a Yankee or Dodger like payroll anytime soon, but I am expecting the payroll numbers to start trending north after what's happened here since July of last year. There's simply too much money to be made with a good Blue Jays teams not to invest in them going forward.
The Blue Jays possibly having more money to play with is certainly one big story, but if you look harder at the Francisco Liriano trade, I think what they're choosing to spend it on is a second major piece to this puzzle. Sure, they committed themselves to the $13.67 million Liriano is owed next season, but what they really did is buy two prospects from a team that's in a very tricky financial situation. This was a classic big market team taking advantage of a small market team move, only in an age where young, cost controlled players are the most valuable commodity on the market.
Regardless of how you feel about this front office, they managed to make their farm system better over the last six months while playing meaningful baseball and competing / adding pieces for a division title. That's a pretty neat trick.
Paying $13.67 million to Liriano next season also makes sense when you look at the free agent market for starting pitching this winter. It's an absolute disaster. Bartolo Colon might be the best option.
So if you did have more money to play with (the Blue Jays might), and the upcoming starting pitching market was a barren wasteland (it is), doesn't it make sense to spend money on a Francisco Liriano type pitcher if it's a way to grab a couple of solid prospects you like? That's what I think the Blue Jays did here, and if this really is a smoking gun, it means the Blue Jays are one step closer becoming a third empire in this division.
Again, I'm not trying to tell you that this team is suddenly going to start operating the like the 2003 Yankees, but I do think that enough has happened here to believe that Toronto is no longer going to operate like the 2003 Blue Jays. We've clearly moved into a new, exciting era. Many of the old rules may be gone.
It's also worth pointing out that unlike the teams occupying the largest metro areas in the U.S., the Blue Jays don't have to share Toronto with another MLB team. The Yankees have to share New York with the Mets. The Dodgers have to share L.A. with the Angels. The Cubs have the share Chicago with the White Sox. The Blue Jays not only don't have to share Toronto with another MLB team, but they also have the whole rest of the country (35 million people) to themselves.
Now that may not have mattered very much two years ago when the team hadn't visited the playoffs in two decades and the franchise couldn't get the energy of those millions and millions of fans to focus on the team consistently, but now that they're in the thick of the bedlam for the second straight September, we're starting to see just how deep the potential resources are for this group when the product on the field hits the high notes.
The Blue Jays may not win the World Series this fall like they did in 1992 and 1993, but there's a growing pile of evidence suggesting that the Blue Empire that existed in that era is back, and this time, it might be here to stay.