Reflecting on the State of the Franchise

The Blue Jays held their annual State of the Franchise event for season-ticket holders last night, and both Scott and I were able to attend thanks to a gracious invitation by the Blue Jays. We were able to meet many Blue Jays online writers, many of whom we have either linked here on the site or contacted in the past, so it made for an enjoyable night. It was also nice to meet, in person, many of the people that we’ve interacted with on Twitter.

Along with quotes from each member of the panel — Blue Jays president and CEO Paul Beeston, general manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Farrell — here are some thoughts from the event, specifically on the five-year contract maximum, roster turnover, the bullpen, and the audience’s portion of the Q&A session.

Things started off light, when Buck Martinez turned things over to Beeston for an opening statement. Beeston thanked Martinez, calling him Albert because that’s what his contracts said back in the day, before Martinez piped back that Beeston never dealt with his contracts since they were too small. It drew a laugh from the audience of roughly 800 people and broke the ice.

In an effort to answer a few of the off-season’s more pertinent questions before they were asked from season-ticket holders, Martinez opened up the Q&A session with a question to each member of the panel starting with Beeston and on the topic of Prince Fielder. After outlining that Fielder was seeking an eight to 10-year contract and reiterating that that didn’t fit into the Blue Jays’ philosophy, Beeston centered the rest of his answer around one word: credibility.

“Rightly or wrongly, some people say you should change your philosophy,” he said. “But if you change it for one person, you change it for everybody, because when you’re negotiating with people, you say ‘we don’t give over five years’. At that point in time you start losing your credibility, and one of the things that you want to make sure that you have in this game is credibility. The credibility we have is when we say that this is what our maximum contract will be, that’s what we’re going to have to live up to.

“So our contract maximum right now is five years — it used to be three — but it’s five years right now, because we don’t want to tie our hands as to what we’re doing in the future.”

The philosophy of a five-year contract maximum does make sense, given the list of seven, eight, or nine-year contracts that haven’t panned out well, including the close-to-home example of Vernon Wells. From a free agency standpoint, it’s easy to criticize the five-year philosophy with the feeling that it rules the Jays out from signing any elite free agents in the future. Five years, though, is still a substantial chunk of time, and there have been countless free agents that have helped their new clubs after signing a contract for five years or less.

The issue with the five-year philosophy is not when looking to acquire talent via free agency, but rather when looking to lock up talent that has already been acquired. We’ve seen Anthopoulos maneuver around the rule by handing out five-year contracts with sixth-year options to both Jose Bautista and Ricky Romero, and the deals, while still early, are shaping to be absolute steals.

But with the Blue Jays having one of the top minor league systems in baseball right now, it not only gives Anthopoulos the tools to acquire proven, elite Major League talent via the trade route, while also increasing the likelihood of a home-grown impact player coming up through the minor league ranks. The Jays are putting together quite the group of high-ceiling talent, but eventually there will be players on their roster, added either internally or externally, that could warrant a commitment of more than five years.

A name that likely comes to mind is infielder Brett Lawrie, assuming his 2012 campaign resembles his 43-game stint in the Majors this past season. Even though Lawrie will probably warrant (and get) a six, seven, or eight-year contract down the road, Beeston hinted last night that it’s important to stay committed to the same five-year policy no matter who the player is.

“That’s the policy that we have, and that’s the commitment that we have to our players. Because the day we start losing the commitment the players, the day that they say ‘look it they changed it to suit their own means’, the day that they say ‘they changed it because someone is writing about it or somebody’s broadcasting about it’ then we lose our credibility.”

Martinez moved on to Anthopoulos next during his introductory portion of the Q & A, this time beating the audience to the punch by bringing up Yu Darvish.

Anthopoulos fielded the question in trademark fashion, mentioning a lot of what we have already heard in various other interviews: the organization likes a lot of players around the league, but that they like them only at a certain price. He reiterated that players on seven or eight-year contracts of over $100 million dollars do not make sense to the Jays’ front office before swiftly directing the rest of his answer to the trade route.

“I think that the goal was always going to be to primarily go after the trade route, and try to get some players via trade. We were able to make some, not all of them — there were a lot of trades out there that we could have made, that I think sitting here today people would have been excited [about] but probably by June or July of next year people would have been calling for my head because it was a short-sighted deal. Those are the ones that are tough.

“The roster, in the two years that I’ve been on the job, has turned over a ton and I think that it has a chance to continue to turn over. We’re going to continue to make trades, continue to add players, but I think like Paul said, with the youth and the athleticism of what we have currently and what’s on the way,we;re only going to get better.”

That last part about the roster turnover is something that I think a lot of people forget about. Revamping an organization just doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s unbelievable how much Anthopoulos has done in just two years as GM.

When he took over the helm in October 2009, the starting rotation consisted of Roy Halladay, Ricky Romero, Brian Tallet, Scott Richmond and Brett Cecil/Marc Rzepczynski. Halladay desired a trade, and it was foregone conclusion that he wasn’t going to be returning to Toronto in 2010 which left Ricky Romero, a first-round pick coming off of his first big league season, as the only credible part of the Jays’ starting rotation.

From a position player standpoint, aside from Aaron Hill, the Jays lacked any potential core players that didn’t play an outfield position. That outfield was made up of  rookie Travis Snider, Vernon Wells , and Alex Rios. Wells had just completed the second season of his infamous seven-year, $126 million contract and was set to see his 2010 salary balloon by $11 million. Like Wells, Rios had also just completed the second year of his new contract, a seven-year, $69.835 million pact.

Add in to all of this that the Blue Jays had few reinforcements on the way in 2009, considering they had one of the most poorly-ranked Minor League systems in baseball, and it’s easy to see not only the work that Anthopoulos has done so far, but why he wants the club to continue to be in a flexible position going forward.

Rounding out the introductory portion of the Q&A was Farrell, who was asked a question about Anthopoulos’ overhaul of the Jays’ bullpen this off-season.

“The biggest thing compared to a year ago is that we have more defined roles, on paper, going into spring training than we did a year ago,” Farrell said. “I remember talking to Alex frequently throughout the off-season that one of our top five questions was ‘how were we going to sort out the back end of the bullpen?’ … The defining of roles, which is important to me, I think  it’s important to every reliever down in the bullpen to understand where they stack up inside a given game.”

With Beeston, Anthopoulos and Farrell all having answered an introductory question, the Q&A session shifted to the audience. The first two questions were good: where did Farrell see himself after his first year/where does Anthopoulos see himself after his third year, and what kind of role will Omar Vizquel have if he makes the team.

“I’m going to dye my hair and give myself a chance to make the team this year if I can, I’m not that much older than Omar,” Martinez quipped.

The next question, however, signaled the beginning of the critical comments.

“This is for Alex and for Paul. I would have bought a shirt tonight but the name Fielder wasn’t found up there so I’m a little disappointed. But in all seriousness, my passion has turned to anger. I’ve been a longtime supporter of the Blue Jays and I can stand here tonight and basically say I’m not sure I’m going to be back next year as a fan, because I am disappointed.

“I would have expected some on-field betterment of this season’s club,” the man said before going off about Carlos Beltran and criticizing Anthopoulos for “only making one trade” and failing to add a young Major League starter.

It kept coming.

“I don’t believe there are any Canadians on the Blue Jays. If we had more [Canadians] in the starting lineups from Day 1 then perhaps we might be drawing more fans who believe in this as a Canadian team.”

“I don’t want to sound negative before the season starts but … to me, you’re not expecting to fill the stadium this season. What are you doing to fill these seats so the club can have the revenue to have a championship team?”

“I also have a 12-year-old and a nine-year-old son at home who I have to do a constant sales job on to continue to be fans. I feel, since our last World Series, all we’ve been talking about is settling for mediocrity.”

“How will you be competitive next season?”

“Alex, I personally think you paid way too much for Colby Rasmus.”

“First off, my beefs. I think you’ve done a poor job of setting fan expectations. I think there’s been a lot of double-talk.”

Now, not all of the questions were bad and not everyone complained when they took the microphone. I just thought that we, the audience, could have better used the opportunity to ask Beeston, Anthopoulos and Farrell questions. Each one turned into a small speech, took up more time than necessary, and seemed to tire the panel. More thoughtful questions could have been asked, and delivering them in a more timely manner would have allowed more topics to get covered.

All in all, though, the event was a lot of fun to attend and it’s always great being able to talk about baseball with other fans, especially in January. What’s even better, though, is that Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays front office have a clear plan, and despite outbursts from fans and in the media, they continue to stay the course.

-JM

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Tags: Alex Anthopoulos Buck Martinez John Farrell Paul Beeston Toronto Blue Jays

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