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In the wake of the Blue Jays’ failed bid for Yu Darvish, an offseason that saw the team unable to sign any of the elite free agents available and recent comments by general manager Alex Anthopolous and team president Paul Beeston about the team’s payroll, there appears to be beginnings of a backlash among the fan base and growing disillusionment about the organization’s commitment to field a team that can compete in the American League East. Whether or not you think the Blue Jays should have bid more for Yu Darvish, or whether they should have attempted to sign Prince Fielder, or other coveted free agents this offseason is open to debate and there are compelling arguments on both sides. Nonetheless, what is becoming more apparent is a growing disconnect between the opinions of some in the media in this city and the sentiments of a fan base clamouring for the team’s corporate owners to spend money and bring in the kinds of players that can compete with the Curtis Grandersons, the CC Sabathias and the Adrian Gonzalezes of the world.
Commentary surrounding the team’s inaction this offseason by the likes of Mike Wilner, Jeff Blair, and Bob McCown at Sportsnet have been perceived by some to have been a too uncritical, if not disingenuous. These journalists, of course, also happen to work for the same corporation that owns the team and concerns that they might be slinging propaganda for their bosses have been voiced by fans in various forums. With the recent purchase of Toronto’s two other major professional sports franchises by Rogers Communications in partnership with Bell Media, this question of whether sports news media can objectively or fairly represent the concerns of fans on issues that conflict with the interests of the parent company, is perhaps today more than ever worth considering. Are there “editorial parameters” laid out for journalists at the Fan 590 and Sportsnet? Can these journalists be critical of management and payroll issues?
The purchase of MLSE by Rogers Communications and Bell has created a situation that is really without comparison or precedent in professional sports. These two conglomerates are the poster children of media concentration here in Canada and the vertical integration of the sports franchises with the news media reporting on these properties ought to raise concerns for fans of these teams. Rogers and Bell have a stranglehold on the sports media in the Toronto market, through specialty cable channels Sportsnet and TSN, radio stations Sportsnet 590 The Fan and TSN Radio 1050, and print the new Sportsnet Magazine. Bell also owns CTV and the news programming on this station, while Rogers runs CityTV, an important source of local news for the GTA. Bell and Rogers are also this country`s largest Internet and wireless services providers, which are quickly becoming the new frontier in sports content distribution. It is of great importance then that we understand how Rogers manages the Blue Jays payroll going forward, to ascertain for ourselves whether the corporation`s investment into the team is a good faith attempt to field a winning team.
Regardless of what you may think of Alex Anthopolous’ skills as a general manager, the idea that the Blue Jays will be able to become “perennial contenders” in the American League East, which Anthopolous has consistently stated is his goal for the team, with a payroll of 70-80 m (projected) is simply unreasonable when the team is going up against payrolls of $202 m and $161 m in the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Yes, the Tampa Bay Rays have a payroll of $41 m, but they’ve only been competitive in the last three seasons after a decade of abject futility. It is true that Andrew Friedman is an excellent GM, but Tampa Bay’s recent successes are mostly the product of being the single worst team in the league for close to a decade, during which time they accumulated 4 number 1 overall picks, 1 number 2, 2 number 3s, 1 number 4, a 6th and an 8th pick – picks that have resulted in roster players David Price (1), Evan Longoria (1), Jeff Niemann (1), B. J. Upton (2), Jason Bartlett, who was acquired for number 1 overall pick Delmon Young in a trade, and Matt Garza also acquired in the Young trade, who I might add was flipped for two prospects from the Chicago Cubs who are now Tampa Bay’s top prospects in Hak-Ju Lee and Christopher Archer.
Being not just bad but brutally bad has made all the difference for Tampa Bay and a simple comparison with Toronto’s and Baltimore’s first rounders since 1997 would bear this out. The players produced by Toronto in the first round include Vernon Wells, Felipe Lopez, Russ Adams, Alex Rios, Aaron Hill and David Purcey, none of whom currently play for the Jays. In fact, the only first round draft picks on the current roster that we know will be playing for the major league club next are Ricky Romero and J.P. Arencibia. Not surprisingly, Ricky is our second highest draft pick at 6th in 2005 over this period, while our highest draft pick, 5th overall pick Vernon Wells, was our longest serving and our most productive player, the contract notwithstanding. Moreover, there isn`t a starting player on our roster presently that we’ve received in trade for any of these first round picks with the exception of Kelly Johnson who accepted arbitration after being traded for Aaron Hill last year. Like the Jays, the Orioles have also not had a top three pick since 1997 and like the Jays, have not developed a player of any note with their first round picks other than Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters. Clearly, being the worst has its advantages and Tampa Bay is realizing those rewards right now.
Recently, both Wilner and McCown have responded explicitly to accusations that they are “shills” for management either on the air or online. McCown came out swinging, in the face of criticism directed at his two segment interview of Alex Anthopolous, arguing vociferously that he isn’t and wouldn’t be influenced by management about his editorial positions. He raised this issue of management interference by citing an example from a previous gig at Global Television during which, we are told, an executive had lambasted him about his criticism of the Blizzards, a professional soccer team owned, for inexplicable reasons, by the television network at the time. Of course, and this was the point, McCown tells us he refused to play ball with the executive. Wilner too has also come out and rebuffed accusations that he’s an apologist for management on his blog (link). Wilner, perhaps more so than any other voice on Sportsnet, has consistently defended management’s player personnel decisions and maintains a bright outlook for the team. Others on the station have also taken pointed criticism about their handling of this issue including Jeff Blair who has been called out for an interview of Paul Beeston during which Beeston predicted that the team would compete for the division next year while at the same time arguing that no one player, in reference to Prince Fielder, would put them over the top.
Now compare these three with recent articles by Richard Griffin, Cathal Kelly, Damien Cox, and Steve Buffery, all of whom, interestingly, write for newspapers. Griffin had all but accused Blue Jays management of opportunistically attempting to take advantage of rumors that the Jays had made a strong bid for Yu Darvish, to convey to the fan base that they were once again willing to spend money to acquire elite talent for a baseball team. If that were the case, as Griffin also points out, the Darvish speculation has since backfired on them, unleashing a digital storm of fan frustration and indignation on Twitter and the blogosphere that continues unabated to this day. Damien Cox also wrote on the Darvish effect on fan expectations in which he raises questions about management’s willingness to spend on “game changing” talent. Cathal Kelly has come out recently with two articles questioning Rogers and the direction of the team, while depicting Alex Anthopoulos as an unfortunate mouthpiece for the parent corporation unwilling to spend. Steve Buffery, in a guns blazing article that compares Rogers to Harold Ballard, makes reference to “the apologists,” without naming any one in particular, who justify the team’s payroll decisions while “putting Jays fans in their place for being angry or frustrated.”
Buffery, I think, has somewhat overstated the case. There are those apologists that have basically sided with management and dismissed outright those that think the team should have signed Fielder. Others, however, have been more sympathetic with fans, or at least tried to cast themselves as being sympathetic, while still approving of management’s strategy overall. I would point, for instance, to recent comments by Greg Brady on his morning show at the Fan, in which he suggested that if fans weren`t happy with the management of the team they shouldn’t go to the games, but then added that perhaps fans should consider the small market model of the Milwaukee Brewers as the one that we should expect the Blue Jays to emulate. McCown addressed the issue of fan discontent and spending on free agents in a couple of show recently but in his latest interview of Anthopolous, he spent the entire segment badgering Anthopolous to tell him if and what their bid for Yu Darvish was, which at this point seemed pointedly irrelevant. I really don`t think the fans are concerned with what the bid was. They want to know if the Blue Jays are going to spend money. There is in all of this a kind of “Meet the Press” feel to these interviews, during which supposedly “tough” questions are asked but with little accountability expected in the answers. It should also be noted here that only Sportsnet has gotten access to Paul Beeston and Alex Anthopolous for interviews on these issues.
Younger and Smarter
The notion that the Blue Jays are going to build from the farm and be smarter than the big spending clubs like New York and Boston with a young brainy Billy Beane-esque general manager at the helm is a nice selling point – Bob McCown affectionately refers to Anthopolous as the “managing general” of the Blue Jays – but it really isn’t valid anymore. There are no more Moneyball inefficiencies to be exploited. GM’s don’t discount walks any longer and they all employ nerdy statisticians compiling esoteric and exotic mathematical formulas to assess the value of players. And the last CBA has all but eliminated Anthopolous’ other two strategies of gaming the compensation system to pick up extra sandwich picks in the draft and his high risk strategy of paying over slot money for difficult-to-sign draft picks. Developing foreign players from Latin America and elsewhere remains the last open frontier where a team might be able to gain an edge if it is willing to spend and take on some risk. The Blue Jays have spent some money in Latin America, signing Cuban shortstop prospect Adeiny Hechevarria and 17 year old Venezuelan Adonis Cardona but even here the team is playing catch up to the Yankees who already have all-star Robinson Cano, top pitching prospect Manny Banuelos and 16 game winner Ivan Nova, among others, to show for their efforts.
And if you’re pinning your hopes that the Yankees and Red Sox are going to squander their resources on expensive aging free agents with declining skills sets while the Jays develop their prospects smartly while making shrewd trades to acquire talent, then the recent Pinero for Montero trade between the Yankees and Mariners should set you straight. In one fell swoop, the Yankees managed to acquire one of the league’s brightest young starters and most explosive arms for a hitting prospect that projects highly but the Yankees really don’t need in Montero. It was precisely the sort of trade that Anthopolous had been alluding to when considering the problem of adding a front of the rotation starter to the team. The fact that the Yankees were able to acquire Pinero exposes a glaring weakness in the strategy laid out for the team. Free agent spending and player development are not mutually exclusive and in fact, complement and strengthen each other. Had the Jays attempted to acquire Pinero, we would have had to include Brett Lawrie as the bat in the trade and the Jays simply cannot afford to give up an asset like Lawrie because we could not replace him. The Yankees don’t need Montero’s bat because they already have a $100 m in bats in their lineup.
Admittedly, Anthopolous has (apparently) revamped the farm system to one of the best in baseball but the first wave of this talent is at least a year away from just getting to the big leagues and likely several more years before they realize anything close to their potential, if ever. Meanwhile, our best player and arguably the best player in baseball, Jose Bautista, is under contract only until 2016 and it remains to be seen when all this talent “percolating” in the minors will breakout and coalesce into a roster that can help Jose take on the East. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Jays are a .500 team again next year and our prospects at the end of the season appear further away than we had hopefully supposed. Let’s say neither Snider nor Thames dazzle, Lawrie isn’t Mike Schmidt yet, Lind is Lind and one or more of Henderson Alvarez, Brett Cecil, Ricky Romero, Dustin McGowan and Brandon Morrow blows out an elbow, tears a labrum, frays a labrum, tears a rotator cuff, develops forearm stiffness, dead arm, elbow tendonitis, rotator cuff tendonitis, finger blisters or breaks a nail, develops an anxiety disorder. Don’t we then have to start thinking about trading Bautista? Is this scenario really that improbable? If so and then what?
And if you’re excited about the talent on the farm, I would remind you that in the mid-1990’s the Jays had Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Michael Young, Roy Halladay, and Chris Carpenter all coming up together through the Jays minor league system. Why didn’t we win with this group? You have on this list two of the most dominant starting pitchers of the last decade (when healthy), borderline hall of famers in Carlos Delgado and Michael Young, and Shawn Green, who was as good as anyone for several years before succumbing to injuries. The answer to this question is that we didn’t win with this group not because these prospects didn`t eventually become elite players but because the development curves of prospects are notoriously fickle and if you add in the propensity of pitchers to blow out their elbows and shoulders, it becomes positively a crap shoot. Consider the 2000 season. That year, Roy Halladay was demoted to Syracuse after posting a 9 + era midway through, while Chris Carpenter was sent to the bullpen. GM Gord Ash decided that the Jays had a chance to win the division and because of the Halladay demotion, and traded then minor league infield prospect Michael Young for starting pitcher Esteban Loaiza. We ended up 4.5 games back of the New York Yankees. The following year, Carpenter left the team after being offered a low ball minor league contract by J.P Ricciardi. Carpenter would go on to win a Cy Young, earn two All Star berths, and win two World Series titles for the Cardinals. Michael Young, well, he would develop into a perennial All Star for the Texas Rangers, appearing last year in the World Series after hitting .338 with an OPS of .854 at the age of 35. Loaiza would become an excellent pitcher, but only briefly and for another team, the year after he left the Blue Jays. Yes Roy Halladay did become Roy Halladay for the Blue Jays but only after four years of false starts and inconsistency at the major league level, so if you`re looking to Drew Hutchison or Noah Syndergaard, Deck Maguire or Chad Jenkins to put this team over the top, it likely won`t be with the current core of players. And if we are watching these pitchers trying to develop at the major league level as the core of our starting staff, it`ll mean that we`ve just suffered through another half decade of painful mediocrity.
Alex Anthopolous’ rhetoric about acquiring high upside controllable talent and payroll flexibility is really baseball spin for operating on a budget. There isn’t a GM in the league today that doesn’t covet high upside controllable talent. “Payroll flexibility” basically implies that they won’t lock themselves into long term contracts, which all the top free agents are demanding today. The organization’s avowed refusal to sign players to contracts longer than five years is really just a means of managing fan expectations by precluding, as a rule, the signing of elite and expensive free agents. The issue that fans of this team should be debating should not be whether or not the team should sign this or that player, because the debate invariably becomes muddled by questions of whether this or that player is really worth the money. What we should really be adjudging is the so called “payroll parameters” Anthopolous spoke of in Dallas in the winter meetings.
The question is whether a payroll (projected) of $70-80 million is justifiable for the Toronto Blue Jays. Should fans tolerate Rogers Communications operating this team at this number? It is true that only five other teams in baseball had a worse attendance than the Jays did – two of whom, not surprisingly, also play in the American League East. But unlike Tampa Bay or Baltimore, the Blue Jays play in the fifth largest television market in North America, similar in size to that of Philadelphia`s, and the Phillies had a payroll of $172 m in 2011. Moreover, the potential market is much larger as the Blue Jays are broadcasted and marketed across the nation on Sportsnet. Economically, Canada is comparable to the state of California and California ably supports four MLB baseball teams, just one of which, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, recently signed a $3 b local television contract with Fox Sports, which they took and signed the best position player and the best pitcher available in free agency. The Los Angeles Dodgers across the street is expected to command upwards of up to $300 million per year on their next deal. The Texas Rangers, who ended up outbidding Toronto for Yu Darvish, signed a $1.6 billion television deal with Fox last year. Unfortunately for Jays fans, no such announcement is in the offing, not because the Jays aren’t worth that much in a television deal but because the television company that would otherwise have to purchase their rights happens to own the baseball team, which they purchased for $150 million in 2004 or approximately half of what the Los Angeles Dodgers may earn in a single year from their next television deal.
Now Rogers can frame the accounting of the revenues they derive from the Blue Jays to say pretty much whatever they want and the company hasn’t been forthcoming about the team`s finances and likely never will. If you consider, however, the market size and the ratings numbers for Jays games on television and radio, when you factor in all the cheap programming Rogers is able to create around the Jays broadcasts, the national audience the Blue Jays have access to, when you consider the value add of free streaming of all Blue Jays games for Rogers Internet subscribers, when you add to the ledger BlueJays.com, or count all the traffic this team generates for Internet properties like Sportsnet.com, Fan590.com and so forth, you don’t have to be a forensic account to see that Rogers is making out like bandits from the Blue Jays.
Putting the Cart Before the Horse
Perhaps the biggest news coming out of the winter meetings was not the Santos trade but when Anthopolous unexpectedly brought up the idea of “payroll parameters”. Up until these two words were uttered, Beeston had consistently stated that the money was there if the team needed it and even went so far as to suggest publicly that the budget could go up as high as $120 m ($130m). When confronted as to the meaning of payroll parameters, Beeston qualified his earlier statements by suggesting that the budget would go up as attendance increased, or in other words, the money will be there when the money gets there. Let’s consider implications of this statement. Firstly, it would seem to be suggesting that the real reason the team isn’t spending is because of revenues from attendance. But the rhetoric has consistently maintained the team would spend if they were ready “to go for it.” Which one is it? Beeston`s statements also suggest management expects the consumers, i.e. the fans and not the business, i.e. the owners, to assume the risk of improving the product, i.e. the team on the field. How many businesses do you know that operate in this way? The last implication, and perhaps most disconcerting, is that Rogers has explicitly tied the payroll to attendance and not overall revenues, discounting, arbitrarily, all those revenue streams I mentioned above.
Andrew Stoeten of Drunk Jays Fan fame, unabashed imbiber of beer and writer of a profanity laced and oft entertaining Blue Jays blog, has come up with a rather curious analogy to refer to management`s logic on spending and attendance, referring to the problem as “putting the cart before the horse.” In this analogy, it is the fans, apparently, that are the horse pulling the “cart” of the team, or as he put it “the revenue horse driving the money cart.” In other words, arguing that the team should invest to improve the team is like putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Apparently, according to Mr. Stoeten, the fans of this city have to collectively decide en masse to start spending their hard earned money to attend Blue Jays games in order to give Rogers the wherewithal to improve their product. Even when Rogers fields a team consisting of the likes of Jayson Nix, Corey Patterson, Dana Eveland and Jo-Jo Reyes? Really Mr. Stoeten? Even if the team has no real chance of making the playoffs? Even when the franchise hasn’t sniffed a playoff or division title since 1993? According to this logic, we can expect before long for Rogers to start berating the fans for forcing the company to put a crappy team on the field. Alex Anthopolous expressed similar sentiments in his January 12th interview with Bob McCown in which he confirmed that more money would be put into the payroll once the teams starts winning. But doesn’t this only bring us back to the same fundamental question – how do we start winning without spending?
Mr. Stoeten is also of the opinion, for some inexplicable reason, that the fans should not expect Rogers to reinvest their television revenues into the team simply by virtue of the fact that Rogers purchased the team:
“ it’s hopelessly naive to expect Rogers to undermine the entire point of their ownership by handing the Jays a cheque comparable to ones being given out by regional TV networks south of the border.”
So by this logic, a person could purchase the New York Yankees, reduce it to a Triple A team roster, and pocket all the profits simply because he owns it? Owners owe nothing to the fans or the city? What about the players? There is no ethical obligation on the part of Rogers to reinvest earnings into the team and make a good faith effort to win? Is this because Rogers is a cable company and cable companies possess some innate right to make obscene profits? And why precisely would it be hopelessly naïve to think so? What prevailing business logic is Mr. Stoeten alluding to here that the rest of us are apparently unaware of? Or is it that Mr. Stoeten has simply been given a privileged glimpse into the ruthless mendacity of the business culture at Rogers and is merely sparing us the futility of expecting Rogers to behave like a responsible corporate citizen?
Manufacturing Consent… finally
Andrew Stoeten isn’t in the employ of Rogers (he works for the Score) but his bizarre defense of Rogers’ management of the Blue Jays is revealing of the lengths one is forced to go to in order to justify this team’s current payroll. And the cracks in the rhetorical dam are beginning to show. Paul Beeston suggesting that fan attendance has to increase before the team spends on free agents is a bad public relations gaffe, uncharacteristic of him. His opinion, offered in a recent interview with Jeff Blair, that the 2012 Blue Jays are good enough to compete for the division title while at the same time asserting that no single free agent could put them over the top only further churned an already agitated fan base. The blatant contradiction was ignored by Blair and instead he politely suggested that they sign Fielder. Whether it is fair or not, it is not surprising that the fans are beginning to question whose interests Blair, McCown and Wilner are representing.
Such accusations must particularly be disconcerting for Bob McCown whose whole media personality is that he`s an opinionated, uncompromising son-of-a-bitch. Having to defend himself against claims that he`s spinning softball interviews for the suits upstairs strikes at the very heart of who he is to his rather large audience. Is it possible that the journalists are beginning to behave like their nightly news counterparts, manufacturing consent as it were, doing their masters bidding while the parent company packages us, the fans, together like so many flocks of muttering sheep, to sell to their advertisers, reaping untold profits? I doubt anybody would begrudge sports news departments from making a buck and the idea that there is hard sports news that might be “distorted” or left out the editorial column for the sake concision, or to please advertisers, for ratings or “flak” is perhaps dramatizing things somewhat. I doubt Chomsky is losing any sleep at the prospect and it is more likely that he thinks all of this is just more diversion from the real issues that affect our lives, and I wouldn’t disagree. Nevertheless, I’m a fan, not only of the Blue Jays but also the Leafs and the Raptors and I`m pissed off, to put it bluntly, at what I have been forced to watch for much of my life from these teams. The prospect of being served still more puff pieces, yet more articles hyping up the next wave of prospects tearing it up in Double AA, more patronizing comments on talk shows about how hearing fan discontent is a good thing because it means the fans care, more tautological explanations about why the parent company won`t spend money on this or that overpriced free agent, while our teams muddle through one season to the next, battling for the eighth seed, fans secretly hoping that the Raptors lose in order to move up in the draft, is, simply put, demoralizing.
For better or worse, the ownership of the three major sports franchises by this country`s two most powerful media companies will change how we think of sports in this city. And there are real issues on the horizon that will be shaped and determined, in no small part, by commentary and dialogue moderated by journalists and talk show hosts who draw their paycheques from Rogers and Bell. What, for instance, might they say when John Balsille, or some other interloper, attempts to move a failing NHL franchise into the GTA or Hamilton, which the Leafs claim in no uncertain terms as their own territory? Many at Sportsnet and the Fan 590 were openly supportive of Balsille’s attempts, including Bob McCown, prior to the purchase of MLSE. What now? Isn’t having another hockey team here in Toronto good for fans? What happens if the NHLPA now under Donald Fehr tables more revenue sharing and a soft cap in the next CBA? A soft cap would be great news for Leaf fans, not so great for Rogers and Bell. Will Rogers ever go into the luxury tax to put a Raptors team together that has a legitimate shot of winning the NBA championship? These are all issues that will have direct impact on the quality of the teams in this city for the foreseeable future, and I would prefer it if the journalists covering our teams in this city thought of our interests ahead of the bottom line of the company they work for.
Deux Ex Machina
It is perhaps fitting that I would conclude an article about the Blue Jays, the Leafs and the Raptors with a discussion about an act of God. Failure has a way of instilling such beliefs in unseen forces. I speak in particular of one completely unexpected and unforeseen gift from the baseball gods, fallen from the sky and dropped into right field. I am speaking, of course, of Jose Bautista, the swatter of majestic towering homeruns and fence hurdling frozen ropes, the canon in left field, the walk machine, the clubhouse leader, but a player who in baseball terms was a complete fluke, a right fielder who came completely out of left field, a real life Roy Hobbes. He was supposed to be a stop gap, a utility guy with a little pop, a fourth outfielder who could also play some third base, a soon to be journeyman. But with a couple adjustments by Cito Gaston and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy, he was transformed into perhaps the best hitter, if not the best player, ever to don a Blue Jays uniform and make no mistake about it, he is the only reason why the fan base might believe that the current team has any chance of winning now. If you take Bautista out of this line-up, the prospects for this team are something else altogether and this recent outburst of fan discontent would never had occasion to erupt. Instead, this team would be firmly in rebuilding mode, likely an afterthought on the Toronto sports scene. But with what appears to be a capable core forming around Jose Bautista, management really has to make a decision whether they want to go for it now. Simply put, the window to win is Bautista`s contract which ends in 2016. After that, it`s anybody`s guess where this team is. This is precisely the reason why Detroit signed Fielder, because their two best players, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, have contracts – and their best years – ending in 2015 and 2014 respectively. The organization was willing to put up with three or four years of paying Fielder to be the most overpaid DH in league history in order to try to a win championship or two with Verlander and Cabrera in their prime. The fact that the Blue Jays weren`t even seriously considering Fielder is not a good sign and strongly suggests that these payroll parameters are far more rigid than either Beeston or Anthopolous are letting on. It isn`t too late to change course but much will depend on what happens this season. If Bud Selig throws in another wildcard team, we may even have reason to be interested in September. It isn’t completely improbable that this team make the playoffs, but the numbers don’t add up and we will likely need a couple more acts of god to send us on our way. (McGowan becoming the pitcher we thought he would become?) I suspect, however, the fans will approach this spring training not looking so much at what could be but waiting cynically for this team to betray the telling signs of what we all suspect is true, that this team just isn`t good enough, again.