This week has been the whole off-season in a nutshell for the Blue Jays. It’s not what they did that deserves criticism; it’s what they didn’t do. The Jays roster is undeniably a little better than it was one week ago thanks to the signings of Omar Visquel and Francisco Cordero. Unfortunately, so too is the Yankees roster and Toronto has done little to bridge the gap between the Big three of the AL East and themselves.
Cordero is unquestionably a good signing. Some might worry about his advanced age, hitting 37 this season, but might do well to look south to the Bronx where a certain closer turned 42 not long ago and shows little sign of letting up. Cordero managed to turn in 37 saves last year in Cinci and actually lower his ERA by better than a run from the previous year. He has the experience and the mental toughness to take the closer’s job and run with it (something that recently acquired Sergio Santos hasn’t proven he has yet) and in so doing gives Toronto their first real bonafide closer since B.J. Ryan at the start of his monster contract. Along with veteran Darren Oliver, repatriated Jason Frasor and Santos, it should give the Blue Jays a solid bullpen. Which is certainly going to be much called upon given the lack of depth in the starting rotation, which management has obstinately refused to address.
Similarly, bringing in Visquel is a great little move, even if it is possible that he will be the oldest player in the majors on opening day (depending on what Jamie Moyer and Tim Wakefield do). With 2841 career hits, over 1000 walks, and not only the most games played at shortstop in history but the best lifetime fielding percentage at the position, Omar seems likely to join his onetime teammate Robbie Alomar in the Hall of Fame. He can still make some smooth moves in the field, gives the team a reliable backup to Yunel Escobar and will doubtless provide a good clubhouse presence. The attitude and dedication that it took to play over 20 seasons, make 3 all-star games and play in 57 post-season games will rub off on some of the younger kids who were still in diapers when he was starting his big league career. Best of all, as Alex anthopolous pointed out, by signing him to a minor league deal for now, there is almost no risk to the club beyond air fare to and from Florida and a bit of chump change to see how he looks come March.
Which makes the Jays lack of action in that area all the more perplexing. With so many solid veteran players looking for chances and any shot at retaining a big league job this off-season, one has to wonder why Toronto has taken so few chances.
This is especially true in the area of starting pitching, a noted and admitted weakness of last years club. One can arguably forgive the team for not outbidding Texas to get Japanese sensation Yu Darvish and can debate all night about whether Gio Gonzalez was worth the package of prospects Oakland got for him (and thus if Toronto should have tried harder to obtain him), but it seems a no-brainer to think that they could have taken a chance on Vincent Padilla, signed to a minor league deal by Boston this week. While Padilla may not be destined to be an All-star, he’s only a couple of years removed from a 12-6 season, and exhibits a durability that would doubtless make him a more attractive number 4 or 5 starter than say Brett Cecil or Luis Perez. Likewise, the Energizer Bunny known as Jamie Moyer, signed to a minor league deal with Colorado this month. If Moyer says he can pitch, is anyone going to doubt him? What could having him on the mound for 26 games do to the team , and having him in the clubhouse do for the plethora of young, up and coming starters Toronto seems to stockpile? Kevin Millwood, Rich Hill, the list goes on and on of solid veteran pitchers trying to kickstart their careers by signing penny ante deals with other clubs. The types of deals people made fun of New York for this time last year when they brought in chubby Bartolo Colon and years from relevant Freddy Garcia. Two pitchers who, of course , outperformed “stars” AJ Burnett and Phil Hughes and got the pinstripers into the playoffs.
The real story this week of course was Prince Fielder. To most people’s surprise, Detroit came out of the blue to reward him with the lucrative set-for-life contract, thus ending weeks of speculation and countless false stories about the Blue Jays being serious about acquiring him. It could be argued that he isn’t worth the money he got , could be argued that he might end up being another Vernon Wells to the Jays were he to have signed on here– a player who five years down the road might be posting only ordinary numbers and earning the scorn of the fanbase. On the other hand, it could be argued that by the time his contract expires, he’ll be in the elite 600 HR club and may have helped his club to an extra two or three playoff appearances. One wonders how many more good pitches Jose Bautista would get to swing at if pitchers saw Fielder standing in the on-deck circle.
Whether or not Fielder was ideal for the Toronto roster, the fact that he went to Detroit speaks volumes. The Tigers arguably didn’t “need” him, given they already had a superstar first baseman. But they saw a temporary need -short term replacement of injured Victor martinez- and figured that you can never have too much hitting. That a huge contract is worth risking if it will bring fans through the turnstiles and ensure more post-season play for the team.
Toronto , on the other hand, saw a need and an opportunity and chose to let it pass by, crying poor despite being owned by a hugely profitable corporation, and blaming the fans for their reluctance to fully embrace a lacklustre product. Omar Visquel has the attitude of a winner. Too bad his new team lacks it.
This week sets off the baseball fan’s Christmas- the Owner’s Meetings kick off , this year in Dallas. Like a child on Christmas Eve, the fan is twitchy with anticipation to see what is going to land gift-wrapped in a big, shiny contract underneath his club’s tree this year! Perhaps nowhere is that truer than here in Toronto, where the media at least has bought into the idea that I preached last year at this time- namely that the Blue Jays are in a position to end their playoff drought in the coming season. The recent Collective Bargaining Agreement (ensuring labour peace for the next few years, proving that at least baseball learned from 1994, even if other sports seemed to fail to) addition of an extra wild card spot in each league should make it all the more possible . The next week should give us an idea if Rogers and Alex Anthopolous are serious about making the team competitive or are content to continue telling the fanbase to buy tickets for a team which is still not going to attempt to be anything more than a .500 club. So far the signs haven’t been encouraging.
Since the World Series ended, not much has happened in the world of baseball, and the Jays are no general. The only significant changes have been a minor trade and Adam Loewen, after spending a couple of years rebuilding his career, or rather kicking off a brand new one as an outfielder, in the Toronto minor league system was curiously deleted from the 40 man roster and walked off to the New York Mets days later. This weekend’s trade, well noted in sports pages (indicative of just how quiet the off-season has been thus far) sees the Jays acquire backup catcher Jeff Mathis from the Angels for lefty Brad Mills. Now letting Mills go isn’t such a big deal really- despite combining for a 19-15 record and decent ERA at Vegas over the past two years, he is a ways down the depth chart for pitching and probably would not garner more than a handful of spot starts for the team in ’12. What is troubling however is that Mathis is being brought in as a replacement for Jose molina who signed on for mere chump change with our divisional rival Rays. Mathis is supposed to have decent defensive skills and an Ok throwing arm (27% of base stealers tossed out last year) but is a huge offensive liability. Last year he managed to see his average tank to below his previous .199 career average and he launched all of 3 homers in 70+ games played. With Molina, they had a versatile catcher who can hit and could even be used as a DH in a pinch; with Mathis they’ll be playing essentially with an NL lineup of 8 hitters and one sure out. Not a step up for a team trying to move up in a tight division and the thing of nightmares should jP Arencibia end up injured.
Bigger news locally though are ongoing rumours that Prince Fielder is headed to the Jays. Tonight CTV were quoting a CBS-TV report saying Fielder was wanting to join the Blue Jays and only Texas and Milwaukee were even left in the running for his services.
Fielder might or might not make sense for the Jays right now. He certainly is a power hitter who’d help give Jose Bautista some protection in the lineup and he’d be likely to excel at the Rogers Centre. However, given the presence of Adam Lind , one wonders if the few extra home runs would merit the bump in payroll. That notwithstanding, signing Prince could make Lind expendable and a good piece to use in a package deal for a first rate starter (ala James shields or Matt Cain perhaps?) and moreover would signify not only to us- the fans- but to other big league free agents that Toronto means business. That the retro jerseys aren’t the only thing from the early 90s that the team wants to return to the astroturf. So, I am of course hopeful that Santa Alex will deliver him to our Jays Christmas tree.
Yet I doubt it. A big budget , big name signing would seem to go on a tangent from the well-worn and marked path Anthopolous has been charting since taking over as GM. I cynically suspect that the team has no interest in Fielder but have an interest in projecting that idea in order to sell more tickets and sell more optimism about the 2012 season. I expect Fielder to be in blue and white by Christmas– but the blue and white of the Cubs. It will be fun to see if I’m proven wrong though, won’t it.
Monday update: predictably (as predicted here last month) the first big deal of the Winter Meetings is Jose Reyes signing a nine-figure, 6 year deal with Miami.