The Plan Comes to Fruition – AA Adds the Finishing Touch

The Plan:

Phase 1: Blow It Up

Well this is the moment Jays fans have all been waiting for… The Plan has come to fruition.

Ever since taking over the reins of the Toronto Blue Jays, Alex Anthopoulos has been building his team towards a period of sustainable contention that would see the team contend year after year in the AL East. At first, he needed to dismantle the team in order to replenish the team’s prospects and build a core of young, controllable and talented players around which to build the team. Anthopoulos traded resident Ace Roy Halladay to the Phillies for Travis d’Arnaud, Kyle Drabek and Michael Taylor (who magically became Anthony Gose in a series of prospect deals). A year later, Shaun Marcum was traded to the Brewers for young infielder Brett Lawrie. Vernon Wells was moved in a miraculous turn of fate because of the foolishness of AA’s counterpart but the deal was an incredible boost to the team’s rebuild.

Phase 2: Build a Strong Foundation

At the same time that he was trading the team’s marketable MLB pieces, Anthopoulos was stockpiling talent in the minors by taking advantage of draft pick compensation for free agents. However, there would never be enough room on the Major League roster for all of the high-ceiling talent in the system if they reached their potential and the assumption was always that the team could/would move their wealth of prospects when the time was right to supplement the core that AA was building.

Sped along by the unexpected emergence of both Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, the Jays possessed a core that also included Brett Lawrie, Brandon Morrow and, until recent failures called their future role with the team into question, Ricky Romero and Colby Rasmus. AA was in a difficult position. Bautista and Encarnacion were both old enough that they would likely be well into their decline when the team’s best pitching prospects, the Lansing 3, reached the Majors. They were still at least 2 years from debuting for the Jays.

Phase 3: Build the Palace

With a solid core in place signed to extensions or otherwise under team control for the next 3+ years, the team was positioned to make a splash with more expensive players through free agency/trade. However, the team had been hard-pressed to attract impact players in the past via free agency to a team viewed as an outside shot at contention in the stacked AL East. Though the division had gotten weaker with Boston’s dismantling, the Jays were come off a disappointing season which had raised a lot of question marks. AA needed to make a bold trade that would alter the image of the team and signal to the baseball world that the team had arrived.

The Marlins trade was the master stroke needed that moved expendable pieces from the MLB roster and prospects from positions of plenty to acquire premium/elite talent capable of performing at a high level immediately and for the foreseeable future. Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle gave the Jays a top 4 that was easily one of the best in the AL certainly with the potential to be the best if Romero bounced back, Morrow stayed healthy and the incoming ex-Marlins adjusted well to life in the AL East. Acquiring elite SS Jose Reyes for Yunel Escobar and Adeiny Hechavarria signaled the team’s shift away from the team’s focus on stockpiling young, controllable talent towards the acquisition of the elite performers getting paid market value.

The Marlins trade put baseball on notice that the Blue Jays were ready to compete seriously for their division and the World Series. It allowed the team to pick up All-Star MVP and PED-influenced Melky Cabrera for what a consensus believes to be a very team friendly 2 year deal worth $16M.

At this point, the team had expanded its payroll by $~30M since the end of the season far exceeding a level expected by people around baseball including Josh Johnson‘s agent who believed some of the salary could be flipped in separate deals. However, the people most surprised by these moves were people who had not been watching the Jays closely for the last 3+ years and hanging off of every hidden hint of future spending by Beeston/AA.

Dedicated observers were typically not surprised by the fact that the Jays had completed a monstrous franchise-altering trade, but more by the players they’d be acquiring and the team that was moving them. Nobody expected the Jays to be able to acquire a legitimate #2 starter, a durable inning-eating mid-rotation starter and an All-Star SS in one fell swoop. Acquiring one of the best free agent outfielders for peanuts was a product of the Miami deal and almost certainly would never have happened had the Jays stood pat.

With the Miami trade and the Cabrera signing, AA had positioned the Jays to compete for the AL East if enough of the team’s question marks (bounce back from Romero, injury concerns for Morrow/Johnson/Bautista/everyone on the team come to think of it) were answered positively. Barring a historic season of injuries/underperformance, the Jays were also positioned to compete for one of the Wild Card spots with the Angels/Rangers/Yankees/Rays/A’s of the world.

However, as the Angels/Dodgers made splashes with the biggest names, the Jays’ rivals seemed to be treading water. Boston signing expensive, aging players in Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli. They cannot be projected as anything but a last place team as the roster stands. The Yankees re-signed old veterans Andy Pettitte, Ichiro Suzuki and Hiroki Kuroda and picked up Boston re-tread Kevin Youkilis, but lost their starting catcher in Russell Martin and learned they would be without Alex Rodriguez until after the All-Star break. The Rays traded their second-best pitcher and a perennial 200+ innings and Wade Davis, a valuable bullpen piece, to the Royals in exchange for blue chip prospect Wil Myers and a haul of pitching prizes including Jake Odorizzi. They managed to acquire Yunel Escobar to play SS for them which could be a huge coup if he bounces back to his production of 2011. The Orioles, playoff team of the negative run differential, were rumoured to be active but had come up empty handed.

Though Baltimore certainly has talent on its team, there is nobody projecting them to repeat their success from the 2012 season. While the Rays might have gotten better in the long-term, they certainly took a step back by losing a main cog from their rotation. They have plenty of depth in their pitching staff, but their youth cannot be expected to immediately replace the production provided by James Shields. The Yankees got a year older but not in a good way as they’re team is mostly on the wrong side of 30. Though the Red Sox had cleared a tonne of salary, they were unable to replace the players departed for the Dodgers with exciting, elite players on the free agent market (they wound up in LA as well).

Phase 5: The Finishing Touches

Like no other time in the last 20 years, the Blue Jays were in a position where one or two more pieces could make them the undisputed front runners for the AL East. Incremental improvements made to the team at this point drastically improved the team’s chances to win its first division title since the glory days of the late 80s/early 90s.

What was the point of building a 90-win team and squeaking into a one game Wild Card appearance when the AL East division title was seemingly ripe for the taking? Spending another $10 M per season seems like a lot coming from years of lean budgets, but that was the point of all that wasn’t it? To be in a position where the team would be able to spend in order to make a run at the playoffs and the World Series. Flags Fly Forever.

Replacing the serviceable, but at time hapless J.A. Happ in the rotation with R.A. Dickey, the reigning NL Cy Young-winner coming off a 5.6 rWAR season is a slam dunk. Not only does it give the Jays one of the best rotations in baseball, it also significantly improves the bullpen where J.A. Happ instantly becomes one of the best swingmen in the business and Brett Cecil into one of the best lefty specialists. Chad Jenkins is no longer a looming threat to make an overly large number of appearances.

However, an improvement to the team like this does not come without great cost. Firesales like the ones held recently by Miami and Boston are far from the norm. The Jays cannot expect to continuously acquire elite talents like Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera for below market value. Eventually, they would have to pay the same price that everyone else was paying to acquire a frontline starter.

That cost was two of the team’s Top 4 prospects in nearly MLB-ready catcher Travis d’Arnaud and Lo-A RHP Noah Syndergaard. Having heard that the Mets were asking for Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley from the Red Sox and having witnessed the deal for James Shields, the Jays were well aware of the current market for a frontline starter. Though they very well could wait to try to acquire someone mid-season, the team would only benefit from a partial season of their production and the AL East could drastically improve by 2014.

Though both d’Arnaud and Syndergaard could be future All-Stars, Dickey is an All-Star now that drastically improves the Blue Jays whole pitching staff and instantly makes it one of the very best in baseball and suddenly the best in the AL East. However, d’Arnaud and Syndergaard are not without major question marks. Travis d’Arnaud has played in ~80 games a season for the last 3 years and has just suffered a season-ending knee surgery. He also strikes out a lot. Noah Syndergaard strikes out a lot of batters he faces, but he’s also never thrown a pitch above Lo-A. His secondaries are getting mixed reviews though everyone agrees they are certainly improving. However, he still had the lower physical ceiling between him and fellow Lugnut Aaron Sanchez.

Alex Anthopoulos has been suspected of distorting his perceptions of his prospects prior to moving them. Nestor Molina had his tires pumped by Anthopoulos prior to his trade to the Chicago White Sox for closer-to-be Sergio Santos. Molina has since floundered in the White Sox’ system. Perhaps  Alex Anthopoulos used reported earlier rebuffs of inquiries on d’Arnaud in order to build the perception that he was an Anthopoulos Untouchable in the organization that would only be moved for elite talent. Perhaps the team didn’t believe in the long-term future of Syndergaard’s breaking stuff and decided to sell high. What’s more likely is that AA decided that this was a unique moment in the AL East that was his for the taking and decided to make the final pushes that he’d always planned to make when the time was right. Either way, the team could not expect immediate contributions from either prospect and were more likely going to wait years for above-average production in the MLB, if at all.

Phase 6: Maintenance

Though the prospect cost was high in trades with the Marlins and Mets, it doesn’t actually leave the team short of quality prospects at pitcher, catcher or in centre field.

The team still has Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, Roberto Osuna and Daniel Norris at similar stages to in their development to Syndergaard along with more quality arms poised for action in short-season levels including Matthew Smoral, Alberto Tirado, Chase DeJong and Adonys Cardona. There’s even hope for remaining for pitchers in the upper minors like Chad Jenkins, Deck McGuire, John Stilson and Sean Nolin to make a meaningful contribution in the coming years.

With JP Arencibia under team control for the next four years, the team is in no rush to graduate a catcher but the team does have a strong defensive catcher in AJ Jimenez who also performed well offensively in his last full season in the pitcher-friendly FSL. Now coming off Tommy John surgery in 2013, AJ Jimenez could begin the year with either New Hampshire in AA or Buffalo in AAA but could move quickly to the MLB if he returns strong. Behind him, the team has Sean Ochinko is a sleeper pick who was not overmatched when moved up to AA to replace Jimenez. Santiago Nessy who projects to have above average power but lacks the defensive game at this stage in his development is an interesting name to watch after a strong 2012 season.

Though one of the team’s best prospects, Jake Marisnick had a number of question marks including whether he’d be able to stick in centre field. Considering the two years of control remaining of Rasmus, the presence of Gose at AAA and the plethora of up-the-middle prospects in the lower minors, Marisnick was actually quite expendable. There were also concerns about whether he would be able to stick in centre field which would have allowed his bat to play up.

In the end, the Blue Jays still have a farm system stocked with talent at the lower levels that with time could place the team at the top of farm system rankings once more. For now, AA will have to continue gaming the draft system in order to acquire talent more efficiently than their rivals. AA won’t have the flexibility that he had with supplemental picks but neither will most other teams. The team has also shown itself to be proficient in signing some of the best talent available in the international market including under-the-radar guys like Alberto Tirado. There is no reason to believe that AA will not be able to continue adding high-ceiling talent in the years to come.

Conclusion:

Though the moves made this offseason are drastic and unforeseen, the rise of the Blue Jays should not be viewed as wholly unexpected. The flurry of trades and signings were widely expected to be the product of more incremental improvements and the eventual graduation of prospects. Presented with a unique opportunity to acquire a bevy of talent and with a division in flux, AA pounced on the chance to build a clear cut division favourite capable of winning 95+ games. The beauty of prospects lies in their flexibility. This flexibility allowed the Jays to accelerate their timeline by immediately turning them into proven performers.

If Boston had kept their foot on the gas and counted on a bounce back 2013 with some additions, New York had made the previously expected splash and Tampa Bay had decided to not be so frugal all of a sudden, then it’s almost certain that Alex Anthopoulos would have been content to wait patiently for another year to strike when his prospects were all the more valuable or waited even until the homegrown talent was winning championships themselves. But Anthopoulos decided that the best thing for this team was to take advantage of the core in place now and the lull in the division to great effect.

Make no bones about it. The Plan has come to fruition. The Blue Jays have arrived and they don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

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