Saturday, April 7, 2012

Spring Cleaning: Making the transition from the Maple Leafs to the Blue Jays

(from left) Brett Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia, and veteran Omar Vizquel
You might not know this, but I like baseball.  Really, really, really like baseball.  And, not to brag, but I was pretttyyyyy, pretttyyyyy, pretttyyyyy, pretty good back in the day.  I once had a fastball clocked at 77 MPH.  I once had six saves as a relief pitcher in Little League.  I was awesome.

But I grew up, lost interest in the sport, and started getting into football, along with playing more hockey.  Baseball, at one point, became something that didn't matter anymore.  

In the past few years, the Toronto Maple Leafs have had mediocre results, and the idea of them playing any sort of post-season hockey has become a mere fantasy. With the NHL regular-season ending around mid-April, I've began to take more notice of the Blue Jays, and have enjoyed watching their roster develop with Alex Anthopoulos taking over the helms of General Manager, combined with the acquisitions of home run king Jose Bautista, Canadian blue-chip prospect Brett Lawrie, and the development of J.P. Arencibia.  This team has come a long way.  

The Maple Leafs on the other hand, well, uh, if you want my opinion on them, just read this and this.  You should get the idea. 

To be fair, in terms of results, the Blue Jays haven't done much better.  Their second of back-to-back World Series wins in 1993 was the last time the team had played post-season baseball.  That was 19 years ago.  Staying competitive in a division with the likes of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox is a difficult task, no doubt, but the occasional year where this team could sneak into a wild card spot has become the equivalent to climbing Mount Everest.  

This could be the exact reason why the Blue Jays tend to get more leniency from both fans and media, as the ability to compete in AL East is as much a challenge as the Maple Leafs trying to make the playoffs.  

Brian Burke and the Leafs have failed to adapt to a salary cap
In hockey, before the lockout, the Maple Leafs were amongst the highest salaried franchises in the NHL, and were able to acquire the talent needed for a winner.  There was no worry about contracts or trading for a star or sense of urgency trying to stay under a maximum salary cap.  Being able to trade for players like Ron Francis, Owen Nolan, Joe Nieuwendyk, and Brian Leetch was easy, because they could afford it. There was always the safety net of more and more money.  But now, in an era where a General Manager must not only try to get the best players, but find them for the right price, along with not spending more then they could be able too, the Leafs haven't been able to adapt.

Is the game as a whole better for it?  There is certainly more parody parity in who makes the playoffs, and for teams who are comfortable with their revenue, the opportunity to play after mid-April is a distinct possibility.  Well, unless you're you-know-who.

So that's hockey, and it appears to be flourishing with a salary cap.  Baseball on the other hand, is the definition of Capitalism, as a team can spend as little or as much money as they want too.  Franchises like the Yankees and Red Sox (oh look, both are in the AL East, just like the Blue Jays!) have the ability to buy talent, therefore buy wins.

Now, if any of you Moneyball stat dorks try to come at me with your notepads filled with OBS statistics and your 40-page documents of all these college baseball players who you think could help you win games, you can kiss my ass.  I have my own little theory about Moneyball that I will likely write about in a future column, but until then, you can remind me how many World Series titles the Oakland Athletics have won since implementing Moneyball in 2003.  Yeah, thought so.

According to USA Today, the Blue Jays are 23rd in team spending in Major League Baeball, cashing out just over $75 million.  Don't get me wrong, that's a lot of money, and $75 million is nothing to scoff at.  But considering who currently owns the team (Rogers Communications), you would hope that a little more would be spent on trying to get talent.  

So that's what winning looks like...
There is a common myth amongst the masses that Toronto is a small market franchise and must spend whatever money they have wisely.  That's a load of BS.  In 1993, when they won their second World Series title, they spent the most money out of any team in baseball, leading the way with a payroll of almost $46 million.  The next highest team, the Cincinnati Reds, spent close to $43 million.  

When this team wins, the fans come out.  Toronto is a city that is starved for a winner, and they haven't gotten it with their hockey team; their basketball team is on the cusp of irrelevant, and their Canadian Football League Argonauts have been a running joke in the past few years.  Sports in the early '90s were the Studio 54 of their time, meaning if you wanted to have a great time or be scene in public, going to a Leafs game or a Blue Jays game was the way to go.  

This team has the money to spend, but they just don't want too.  And whenever it comes up, Anthopoulos always says that the team will "spend when the time is right". Well, when will that come?  When will ownership and management decide that a salary cap that can compete with the rest of the Majors be the way to go?

Nine teams in baseball spend over $100 million in their payroll, and two of them are in the Blue Jays division (Yankees and Red Sox).  Sure, you can be like the Tampa Bay Rays and draft and develop the hell out of your players, along with superb coaching and a ridiculous amount of luck in your pitchers...but you'd have to get extremely lucky.  In order to be successful, you need to be able to pay for players who are in their prime and are looking to get paid.  Can we honestly say that Toronto has done that?

The AL East is arguably the hardest division in all of professional sports, so I tip my hat to them for at least attempting to compete.  But at some point, just like the Leafs have to do, you just have to say "eff it" and make a run.  In the off-season, there were tons of rumours of the team trying to get free agent slugger Prince Fielder, or Japanese pitching prospect Yu Darvish, but neither ended up in the Big Smoke.  

Fielder ended up signing in Detroit for 9 years/$214 million, which pays him almost $24 million per year.  At the moment, that would be a third of the Blue Jays payroll. I'm not gonna lie, that would have been a little too rich for anybody's blood, having to pay a third of their salary cap for one player.  But you can't argue that Detroit isn't a better team now because of it.  Having Miguel Cabrera and Fielder batting 3-4? Forgeddaboutit.  You just can't compete with that.  And to think, that could have been Bautista-Fielder in the 3-4 spot.  

And that's all it is: daydreaming.  Even with an extra wildcard spot, which enables the 4th and 5th place teams to have a one-game playoff to see who plays the 1st place team in the league, it might not be enough for the Blue Jays.  In 9 of the last 11 seasons, the AL wildcard team has had at least 95 wins.  Is this current team capable of winning 95 games?  Is their pitching good enough to carry them for long stretches? Can Jose Bautista continue his dominance of the plate?  Will Brett Lawrie and J.P. Arencibia become the stars that so many project them to be?  Will Ricky Romero turn into an elite pitcher in the AL East?  Will I ask more and more questions?  

It is yet to be seen.  But in this city, where all they want is a winner, optimism is the ultimate ingredient for Toronto sports-fandom.  

Hunter Crowther is a regular blogger, and contributes to the Lifestyle Blog for Gongshow Hockey. Follow Hunter on twitter @HunterCrowther or email him at 

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