BLUE JAYS BUYING IN

By Murray Chass

November 25, 2012

From the activity the Toronto Blue Jays have generated this month, you would think their braintrust gathered in a summit meeting after the season and, tired of their perennial also-ran status, plotted the course for a coup d’etat in the American League East.

But that’s not the way it happened, according to general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who nevertheless set out to improve the team. Take the mammoth (12-player) Marlins’ trade, for example.

“It just worked out that way,” Anthopoulos said. “It kind of developed. The idea was to improve the team.”Alex Anthopoulos3 225

The Blue Jays, the general manager said, initiated talks with the Marlins by expressing interest in Josh Johnson, a hard-throwing pitcher, who in the past two seasons has been hampered by injury and ineffectiveness but is considered a potential No. 1.

“From there, we expanded it,” Anthopoulos said.

At some point in their discussions, a light went on for the Marlins. Here was a chance to get rid of their three highest-paid players, Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes, and they couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

“It was clear what they had to do,” Anthopoulos said. “Go young.”

It was like a personal insult to Jeffrey Loria, the Marlins’ owner. After 10 years of hoarding his and revenue-sharing clubs’ money, Loria, backed by a new revenue stream from a new ball park, spent lavishly on Reyes, Buehrle and Heath Bell.

The new Marlins showed up for the first 50 games or so, standing half a game from first at the end of May. New park, new players, new name aside, the Marlins won only 40 games the rest of the season, winning their battle for last place against the Mets.

“Need to shake it up a little bit,” Anthopoulos said. “Two clubs in need of making changes.”

The Blue Jays, who once upon a time (1992-93) won consecutive World Series, have finished in fourth place in the American League East each of the last five seasons. Their 73-89 record this year was their worst in that stretch. Changes? The Blue Jays desperately seek them.

Johnson and Buehrle give them a strong established pair of starters. The starters this past season were collectively 10th in the league with a 4.82 earned run average. The only worse starting corps in the division belonged to the Boston Red Sox, whose last-place finish was largely a result of its’ starters 5.19 e.r.a.

One of the starters who contributed to that poor group performance was traded to Miami in the seven-player package the Marlins received. He is Henderson Alvarez, who in his first full major league season had an 8-14 record and 4.85 e.r.a.

The trade also gave the Blue Jays their middle infield of shortstop Jose Reyes and second baseman Emilio Bonifacio. The Blue Jays, however, weren’t satisfied with only starters. They gave Maicer Izturis $10 million for three years to be their super utility infielder, able to fill in wherever he is needed.

Marlins TradeFree agency brought the Blue Jays a starting left fielder, a controversial one at that in Melky Cabrera. This isn’t the Cabrera (Miguel) who was the American League most valuable player. He’s the Cabrera who hit .346 for San Francisco but lost out on the post-season and National League batting title because he was suspended for 50 games for testing positive for use of an illegal performance enhancing drug.

The Blue Jays are gambling a lot of money to find out if Cabrera is the .267 hitter he was in his first five seasons or the .322 hitter he has been the past two seasons, at least a part of which was chemically aided.

Anthopoulos brought in one other free agent, a new manager, John Gibbons. Actually, Gibbons is an old manager. He managed the Blue Jays from Aug. 8, 2004 to June 20, 2010. Gibbons replaced Carlos Tosca and was replaced by Cito Gaston.

Anthopoulos was assistant general manager when Gibbons was fired. J.P. Ricciardi was the general manager.

“He was in the last year of his contract,” recalled Anthopoulos. “There were expectations to win. We had a so-so April and a league-best May but a bad June. The team needed a shakeup. Cito came in and provided a spark.”

John Farrell subsequently replaced Gaston, and now Gibbons has returned, an unusual development unless the manager’s name is Martin and the team is the Yankees.

“I was focused on the roster,” Anthopoulos said, discussing his decision to hire Gibbons. “We won 73 games and it wouldn’t have mattered who the manager was. I wasn’t consumed by it. Last week I thought about him a little more. He came up over the weekend. We had dinner and we talked.”

Does Anthopoulos have any more plans to secure players to bolster the Blue Jays further?

“I always like to get better on the mound,” he said. “We clearly need to pitch better. It starts with the rotation. That was an area we needed to address. We’ll see if we need to tweak some things. We have five starters, and we’re happy with our position players. I’d like to have more bench depth. If something big comes up where we could get better at a core position, we’d look at it.”

Because of the trade with the Marlins and the team’s expenditures – the Blue Jays committed to pay the five players a net of about $158 million – there will be expectations this year. Gibbons will be expected to have the Blue Jays in the division and/or the wild-card race.

Neither of the races will be easy. The Yankees are always there, the Orioles got there this year, the Rays didn’t miss the playoffs by much and the Red Sox have to be taken seriously despite their dreadful 2012 season. Remember, they are free of Bobby Valentine.

“I don’t look at it as competing with the others,” Anthopoulos said. “We just had to get better.”

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AND THE WINNER IS….

First came A.J. Burnett, then John Lackey. Now it’s Ricky Romero.Ricky Romero2

The 28-year-old Toronto pitcher is the winner of the Sigh Young award as the worst pitcher in the majors this year. Romero won my award in an extremely close competition with Ubaldo Jimenez, Luke Hochevar and Tim Lincecum.

The surprise there is Lincecum, whose 10-15 record and 5.18 earned run average gave him a chance to be the first to win the Cy Young and the Sigh Young awards. The Giants’ not-long ago star won the National League award in 2008 and 2009.

Cleveland’s Jimenez had 17 losses, most in the majors, while Kansas City’s Hochevar lost 16.

Romero was one of eight pitchers who incurred precisely 14 losses, but none of the seven others could match his striking statistics: 5.77 e.r.a.; 9-14 record, 15.56 baserunners per nine innings.

It wasn’t a very good season for a pitcher who in his first three seasons had records of 13-9, 14-9 and 15-11.

A BASEBALL WRITERS’ GIVEAWAY

For the first time, the post-season awards voted by the Baseball Writers Association of America were the stars of television shows this year. Under an agreement reached a year ago with the BBWAA, the Major League Baseball network produced four awards shows and one preview show.

I did not attend the writers meeting last December when they approved the arrangement so I have no first-hand knowledge of the discussion or the reason the BBWAA gave its long-held property away and got nothing in return, as in payment.

BBWAA LogoI posed that question to Jack O’Connell, the long-time BBWAA secretary-treasurer, who announced the awards live on the shows.

“Any answer to my question about our giving away our awards while MLB network makes many thousands off it?” I asked in a second e-mail.

“The answer is that we did not give away the awards,” O’Connell replied. “They are still ours.”

I will give O’Connell the benefit of doubt and figure he misunderstood my question. My “give away” was not to be taken literally, as in giving the network proprietary control of the awards. But the BBWAA gave away the awards for television profit and got nothing in return.

There was commercial money involved, and the network got it all. Matt Bourne, an M.L.B. public relations vice president, said the network declined to say how much it received for the commercials it aired during the shows.

“We don’t give out that information,” he said. “Our people aren’t comfortable talking about it.”

However, he noted that the BBWAA benefits from the shows because they publicized the awards and raised the BBWAA’s profile.

Two problems there. The awards, especially most valuable player and Cy Young awards, have always been well publicized because they are probably the most popular post-season awards for any sport, with the possible exception of the Heisman trophy.

In addition, the BBWAA doesn’t need to have its profile raised. It is not in business and sells nothing. In fact, its non-profit status might have been the reason the BBWAA sought no payment.

That was one of the reasons cited for rejection several years ago when an independent television production company made a proposal to the organization that included payment.

A person familiar with the sale of television advertising said that a 30-second commercial for the baseball awards shows would sell for $5,000 to $10,000. The m.v.p. show, the last in the series of one-hour shows, had a total commercial time of 14 minutes and 40 seconds, including 2:40 for in-house commercials about the MLB Network and its programs. There were 31 commercials plus 8 house ads.

Using the low estimate, each show would have earned $120,000 for a total of $600,000. Even if the commercials were discounted by 50 percent, the network would have had $300,000 in revenue.

The person familiar with television advertising made another point. “One thing to keep in mind about this,” he said, “is that in the off-season, original, newsworthy programming is hard to come by. So while it’s not a windfall, it’s still content in a content driven business.”

What could the BBWAA have done with the money if it had received any from the network? It could have helped families of writers who died or writers who had lost their jobs in a shrinking and decaying industry. Institute a college scholarship program. Make donations to hurricane or earthquake victims.

The BBWAA wouldn’t have to keep any of the money and ruin its nonprofit stratus. But instead of giving away money, the BBWAA would rather give away its awards.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.