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November 13, 2012 at 4:57 PM

After 11 seasons of rebuilding, Toronto Blue Jays open wallets again in one of bigger all-time trades

Back when they were winning the World Series twice in the early 1990s, the Toronto Blue Jays under then-GM Pat Gillick combined a shrewd knack for finding talent with an ability to outspend most of baseball.

That blueprint faded as the 1990s wore on and the novelty of their once-state-of-the-art ballpark wore off. By 2002, the Blue Jays went into full cost-cutting, rebuilding mode under then-GM J.P. Ricciardi and never really emerged from it. There was a brief flurry there my final year covering the team in 2006 when the Blue Jays brought on free agent pitchers A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan, but that was more a splashy show within the still-contained payroll confines the team restricted itself to.

But today, that’s all changing. For the first time under the 12-year stewardship of team owner Rogers Communications, the Blue Jays appear to be willing to spend some serious money to contend in the AL East again. I won’t give them full props until we see how the winter shakes down (remember, the Canadian dollar is much stronger today than 10 years ago), but a major trade this afternoon with the Miami Marlins may have just altered the balance of power in the American League for a second straight winter.

The Jays are said to be the recipients of the latest Marlins salary dump, receiving pitchers Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and shortstop Jose Reyes, to name some very big names. Infielder/outfielder Emilio Bonifacio and catcher John Buck are also headed to Toronto in exchange for troubled shortstop Yunel Escobar, outfielder Jake Marisnick, starting pitcher Henderson Alvarez, lefty Justin Nicolino and infielder Adeiny Hechavarria. The Marlins are also reported to be getting a catcher in the deal.

That sound you hear is Miami-area taxpayers screaming bloody murder, likely with help from Giancarlo Stanton’s Twitter account. More on the Marlins in a bit.

As far as the Blue Jays go, indeed, this deal will impact the Mariners, since they may have just seen another team leapfrog over them in the race for a playoff spot. But the Mariners are far from the only team with reason to fret.
The entire dynamic of the AL East just changed.

The Blue Jays have had bats for several years now, but their pitching as a weak spot. In one bold stroke today, that problem is solved. All of a sudden, Brandon Morrow is either a third or fourth starter. So, if you’re the Yankees, you want Michael Pineda on that Weight Watchers program ASAP or you could be in trouble.

Here’s the funny part of this whole thing.

The Blue Jays, under their current owners, have always had the ability to take payroll well beyond the $100 million mark. How do I know this? Because they were already spending that much money on payroll a decade ago when a U.S. dollar was costing them $1.60 in Canadian funds.

Nowadays (and I was just in Canada today, so I know this) the two currencies are more or less identical. You do the math.

You know those local cable TV deals that are all the rage? We call them regional sports networks (RSN), while teams call them a license to print money? Well, the Blue Jays are owned by a conglomerate that owns and operates its own system of four regional RSNs. No, they aren’t just doing it that way because it looks good on paper. The owners of the Blue Jays have been enjoying the same advantages that RSN operators here in the United States do and evidence of their wealth was out in public a year ago when they purchased a half-share in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

The Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team and the infrastructure surrounding it is one of the more lucrative sports properties this side of the planet. No, Toronto is not a small market town. Never has been. The Blue Jays just pretended to be from one the past decade or so, trying to get by with adequate payrolls while their owners focused on bigger targets.

What changed this year?

People smartened up.

The Blue Jays finished with 89 losses in the AL East and spent the entire year getting roundly criticized by mainstream media and bloggers alike. By season’s end, even bloggers previously defending the team’s thrifty ways had come to the conclusion that — By God, man! — some additional money had to be spent.

Now, the Blue Jays are deciding to pay the freight again. Goodbye Moneyball, hello Money.

Yes, yes. I know. The team is still looking for cost-efficiency and stuff and Alex Anthopoulos is a shrewd GM (he should be, he comes from my hometown), but seriously, after 11 seasons of trying to balance books and make ends meet, things appear to be changing.

And that’s bad news for the rest of the AL and the Mariners.

It was bad news 20 years ago when a team playing in a city of nearly 5 million in the greater metro area — with 8 million people within an hour’s drive — decided to combine some smarts with the economic muscle it’s since been suppressing.
So, keep an eye on the Blue Jays.

As for the Marlins, somebody in Miami should have kept an eye on them over the last five years when they were getting local taxpayers to fork over dough for a new $600 million stadium. All this while Deadspin was releasing documents showing how owner Jeffrey Loria was profiting year after year from the team while fielding payrolls near the bottom of the league.

Now, one year into their new ballpark, the Marlins have jettisoned big-ticket players because their gambles didn’t work out.

What was next? Loria actually risking some of his own money?

In a way, the Canadian symmetry here is hard to miss.

As anybody north of the border could tell you, Loria played a key role in hastening the demise of the Montreal Expos when he owned that team early last decade. He may not have been totally to blame, but did play his part.

Now, in a way, he may have pumped new life into Canada’s remaining team in Toronto by giving away many of his best players for cash and young, mostly-unproven talents.

As a native Montrealer, Blue Jays GM Anthopoulos would despise Loria. As a Toronto GM this afternoon, he’s gotta love him.

And he’s gotta love his owners too. For the first time in a long, long time, the Blue Jays actually look like they’re ready to play ball.

And that just made the jobs of the Mariners and a bunch of other teams a whole lot tougher.



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