Yesterday's baseball trade deadline was a thrill ride, especially if the team you were rooting for made statement moves like acquiring a Jon Lester or David Price.
I wouldn't know those feelings, because I'm a Blue Jays fan, and spent the trade deadline trying to keep my sanity by amusing myself on Twitter.
As of last night, the Jays are 60-50, they've won six in a row and are 11-3 since the All-Star Break. It's August 1, they're 1.5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East, and they are in sole possession of the second wild card spot.
They're in the race. The Jays are playing meaningful baseball games in August, which ranks pretty low on the list of accomplishments you want your team to achieve, except this is the Jays, and the playoffs haven't felt like such a realistic goal for over two decades.
In this context, you could put the Jays in the same category as the Tigers or Athletics. They're teams built to win now, teams that have to win now. Toronto made its "all-in" move before last season, when they traded several of their top prospects in two separate trades to acquire Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson (since left for San Diego, where he had Tommy John surgery this season), Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio, and R.A. Dickey as key pieces in return. Along with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, the Jays have a particular window with which they can contend with this core. They were terrible last season. This year, there's a chance.
But, the problem for this team is that Jays ownership appears to have put a cap on what general manager Alex Anthopoulos can spend: Zero. The word around baseball circles—and very much confirmed by the inactivity of a team with multiple needs—is that Anthopoulos was telling teams he could not take any additional money back in trade.
It appears this mandate has been in place since the off-season, when the Jays made no moves to bolster the roster, aside from signing catcher Dioner Navarro to a two-year, $8 million deal. The entire financial constraint narrative really came into focus during spring training, when it was revealed five Jays players volunteered to defer money in their contracts in order to sign Ervin Santana to a one-year deal. That altruism was for naught as Santana—depending on who you ask—reneged on a verbal agreement with Toronto and signed with the Atlanta Braves instead.
Afterwards, Blue Jays president Paul Beeston went on sports radio stations in Toronto and defended the team's stance. The rhetoric from Beeston—and the Jays front office—is that ownership has always been supportive, and will make the money available should there be a need. That statement has been told to Toronto fans in many different variations over the past few years.
Now this is where it might sound like another case of a fan complaining about someone else's million dollar budget, and crying foul because ownership isn't willing to empty their pockets out like the Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Yankees. But it's not that simple.
The Jays are owned by Rogers Communications, a telecommunications and media conglomerate in Canada. Rogers own Sportsnet, a television channel that broadcasts to all regions in Canada, and the station that owns the exclusive rights to all the Blue Jays games.
Last year, Rogers acquired the rights to all national NHL games in Canada, in a 12-year agreement with the league that will cost $5.232 billion dollars (Canadian). Rogers also have a majority stake—which they share with their competitor Bell Canada—in Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, who own the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC and other sports and arena properties in Toronto.
So, it's not like this ownership group isn't willing to spend money especially when it comes to sports. It's just that they've decided to press pause on spending with the baseball team, preferring to take a wait and see approach, when the Jays are not built as a team that has the time to wait for ownership to pony up the extra funds to add on the fringes. In November, Rogers brought in a new CEO in Guy Lawrence. Layoffs occurred, and there were rumblings the baseball budget was being scrutinized. What's happened to this club this season seems to confirm that as fact. All the fans want is for Rogers to treat the baseball team fairly relative to its other sports properties.
Worse still, local sports writers seem hell bent on spinning this a particular way. Before the trade deadline, Mike Wilner cautioned against inactivity at the trade deadline, and said this about the return of Encarnacion, Adam Lind, and Brett Lawrie from injury, "They will be adding three very significant pieces over the coming weeks, more than any other team will be able to do." Yesterday, Michael Grange called out Bautista—who expressed his frustration at the lack of moves—and said he had no reason to be upset. Both of these men, it deserves mentioning, write for Sportsnet, which is owned by Rogers Communications. While both produce good work frequently, it's often difficult to tell if they believe something or are just toeing the company line.
It gets tiresome reading articles rationalizing management's position. Many will point out the Jays have the eighth-highest payroll in the league this season. But you can't just look at payroll as a number, it has to be relative to what the team still needs, and the window of opportunity for the roster. The Jays were never going to be in on Lester or Price, but they could have added a back-end starter or made an addition to the bullpen, which currently has the fifth-worst ERA in the majors.
That we're talking about all of this and not actual baseball topics—Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez; how the Rogers Centre might have a playoff atmosphere next week when the division-leading Orioles come to town; how exciting these next two months will be, etc.—is the most frustrating part.
After two-decades of futility, the Jays are finally in a pennant race. This week, a Jays-Red Sox game drew the highest non-opener local audience in the history of the Sportsnet network, with 1.09-million viewers tuning in. If the Jays keep winning into September, you can bet more records will be set, and we might even see sold-out home crowds on a nightly basis, a rarity in Toronto. Heck, it wouldn't surprise me if the Jays made the playoffs and went on a run to the World Series. Crazier things have happened in baseball.
The financial constraint and zero-money policy has loomed as a subplot all season, but it now has the potential to become the A story. If Toronto falls short of the postseason, the players and the fans won't have to look far to find a reason why. There would be damage and the reputation of the organization would suffer. If Rogers is fine with that, they can chalk it up to the cost of running a baseball team.
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