With fans suffering from baseball withdrawal, patiently awaiting the beginning of the World Series next week, we have lots of time to reflect on the season winding down … and look forward to the one only 5 months away.
While San Francisco’s even-year return to the World Series isn’t too huge a shock (in May I had the Giants ranked as 10th in all of baseball and a 15:1 shot at winning it all), Missouri fans are still pinching themselves to see if this is a dream. The Royals first trip to the playoffs (let alone the Fall Classic) in almost three decades has caused widespread disbelief and made them the Cinderella team most people (this scribe included) are cheering for. As we cheer on the blue and white, let’s hope the “powers that be” from OUR blue and white are paying attention… the KC story offers lessons for all of baseball, including the Blue Jays. And, alas, also for us fans.
First, let’s start by pointing out that retiring Commissioner Bud Selig has done a fantastic job of creating parity in baseball, without a hard salary cap no less. Any team can be in the running from year to year. Exhibit A, the Beantown boys. The Red Sox, under Bobby Valentine, seemed out of control and disinterested in 2012, and fittingly ended up in the AL East cellar. Jettisoning Valentine and a couple of over-paid, under-performing (and alledged malcontent) players, they managed to get John Farrell, who we might recall was under contract to Toronto, to manage them and in 2013 won the division and their third World series in a decade. The world was their duck boat. Then this year came around, the Sox rolled out more or less the exact same team… and fell back to the cellar. Meanwhile the Blue Jays leap-frogged over them and the Rays and stayed neck-and-neck with the Yankees til the final weekend. The point being, Toronto can certainly compete and be a realistic contender in 2015. The flipside is that almost any team could too!
Which takes us back to Kansas City. What lessons are to be taken away from their magical season?
For starters, take a look at their roster. One readily apparent factor is how much is homegrown. The Royals have reached the top using primarily players they developed themselves, supplemented with a few prime pieces of the puzzle acquired by way of trade (facilitated by the abundance of good , homegrown players in their system) and finally topped off by one or two free agents. Lorenzo Cain, Sal Perez, Billy Butler, Greg Holland- all lifer Royals. Eric Hosmer, one of their former first round draft picks. This is quite different, needless to say, than the Jays.
Here, there’s Adam Lind and Casey Janssen the oft-injured Dustin McGowan and not much else in terms of homegrown talent. Even the ever-popular Brett Lawrie, one might recall was developed through the Milwaukee organization before debuting in the bigs as a Blue Jay. The Jays just haven’t done a good job of bringing high-end players to the majors this century. Rogers’ can’t fix that overnight, or even next year, but it should be a priority going forward to figure out why and fix that problem. One recalls JP Ricciardi arrived from Oakland, over a decade back, and was more “moneyball” than Mr. Moneyball himself. Ricciardi slashed the team’s scouting staff, believing that one or two smart kids with computers and advanced stats could do better than a jet-load of scouts actually watching and talking to kids. Maybe that did in the Blue Jays minor-league system, maybe the whole minor league coaching is sub-standard, but the fact is Toronto has produced little in the way of big league talent since the 20th Century. No offense to Chad Jenkins (he’s done a workmanlike job of filling in for occasional starts and now and again adding a ‘mop-up’ arm in the bullpen), but when he’s the most impressive first round draft-pick of the last decade, something needs to change! A strong farm system will help make the Jays continual contenders and also save the team some money, which leads to point two…
Budget! The Royals show that a team doesn’t have to spend wildly to be good. In spring training they were ranked 22nd in baseball in salary (finding an exact total is a bit of a shell game due to things like mid-season trades, deferred payments and performance bonuses) and spent barely half of what Toronto did. Not to mention the huge-spending Dodgers, who outbid everyone, exited the playoffs quickly (Cy Young shoo-in Clayton Kershaw having perhaps the two worst games of his career in one series didn’t help their lavish cause) and the Yanks were essentially the Blue Jays with a few more gray hairs and about $70 million more paid out.
This is a bit of a slap in the face to the fanbase, myself included. Perhaps the most consistent complaint heard about the Jays, repeated ad naseum in the Star and Sun sports sections, on sports radio call-in shows and even in the clubhouse, is that Rogers’ won’t spend to make the team competitive. That they lie when they cry poor.
Facts are facts. Toronto is a big city, and with all of Canada as its fanbase for TV and marketing, the Jays possibly have the largest market of any MLB team. Rogers Communications is a hugely profitable corporation – according to their own website, your celphones, cable TV and newstand magazines helped them make a five billion dollar profit last year. They could certainly afford to ramp up spending to compete with the pinstripes or LA teams. But, alas, doing so might not help the cause. Look at what the Angels have gotten for about $50M per season from Albert Pujols and whiny Josh Hamilton.
The Jays may need to up the salary a little for 2015, for instance to keep Melky Cabrera or Casey Janssen around, and perhaps bring in a reliable second baseman, but spending like drunken sailors is no guarantee that the seamen won’t sink the ship. The Royals brought in two free agents last off-season, Omar Infante and Jason Vargas. Each make about $8M a season, no longer big money in the free agent field. One has to imagine that the arrival of Infante in Toronto a year ago might have been met with more derision than cheering, yet seeing what he’s added to KC (and seeing the black hole that 2B has become in Toronto) he might have been the missing link that kept the Jays from the post-season. Something to think about when people start yelling (as they surely will) that the Jays need to outbid Boston, New York, Texas and so on for the services of Jon Lester in December.
Actually watching all the Royals playoff games has been entertaining, largely because it’s been baseball played like it should be. Cain, Moustakas, Gordon and company have provided highlight reel plays night after night. Stated simply, Kansas City is all about defense. “D” wins games. And that’s not something Toronto is very good at. Yes, Jose Bautista has a cannon for an arm and is stellar in right field, and Brett Lawrie is a joy to watch at third when he’s healthy (which is increasingly infrequent), but by and large the Jays are lacklustre in the field. It’s not necessarily measured accurately by simple errors, but the number of balls get missed by sluggish infielders or fly balls misjudged by Colby Rasmus or others. They all add up to inflated opponent batting averages and Jays’ pitch counts. The last player Toronto had primarily for his defensive prowess was Devon White…and that was when— yes, when the Jays won World Series. I’m guilty of it too– most of us fans get seduced by gaudy stats- the .300 hitter, the guy who steals 50 bases– and think of defense as simply icing on the cake. Perhaps we need to begin to think of it as the cake itself. One has to wonder if maybe Ryan Goins might be the second baseman of the future. With effort he could probably be taught to hit marginally, advance baserunners and so on and what the team lose in RBI might be gained with his above-average range and glove.
Finally, one has to mention the stellar KC bullpen. Too often teams look at the bullpen as the least important component of the staff, whereas the Royals have succeeded largely because of the ‘pen. they know that if they lead after 6, they’ve got a win in hand. A big part of this is Wade Davis. Davis was lights out as a ‘set-up’ man, going 9-2 with an ERA of exactly 1.00. This is the same Davis that Tampa alledgedly tried to pawn off on Toronto two years ago. The Jays had little interest, and why would they? Davis had been a highly-indistinguished starter for years with the Rays. His first year in KC (2013) wasn’t memorable either, posting a 5.32 ERA and logging only 132 innings. One wonders if the Royals would be playing baseball if some brilliant baseball mind hadn’t thought of shifting Wade to the bullpen. He managed to keep approximately the same number of K’s in only half the innings, limit opponents to half the batting average of the previous season and combine with Greg Holland to make a bullpen tandem reminiscent of Henke & Ward. The takeaway- repurpose!
Shake things up if they’re not working. Be inventive. The Jays did this, with some success, a few years ago by shifting Brett Cecil to the bullpen, maybe this off-season is the time to try a similar landmark change for Jose Reyes. With his salary and age growing in direct proportion to his shrinking defensive ability at short, he’s become a fielding liability. However, with a $22M salary and three years left on contract, he’s not going to be attractive trade-bait. Besides, he can still hit OK and run the bases. The 2015 Blue Jays could be a stronger squad with a different SS– but with Reyes still hitting leadoff. Others have suggested CF might be appropriate for him, I might go so far as to suggest he might be a decent 1B, letting Edwin work as DH (and save his back) most of the time. Or if Adam Lind returns, perhaps Reyes could replace Cabrera/Pillar in left. Either way, Toronto would be wise to think of Wade Davis before assuming players can fulfill only one role.
Lots to think about, for Alex Anthopolous and the Rogers’ staff. For me, time to start thinking about snacks and bevvies for cheering on the Royals next week!