Did they smell blood in the water? I think they might have. On the heels of this week’s massive blockbuster deal with the Miami Marlins, the Blue Jays have just signed Melky Cabrera to a 2-year, $16 million deal.
Are the Blue Jays for real? Yes. They are for real, and they might not even be done. They’ll probably sign a second-tier starter like Ryan Dempster sometime in the next couple of weeks and their fans will walk around with Enzyte grins for the next four months. That offense could be just a little better than average (despite a full season of Jose Bautista, replacing Yunel Escobar with Jose Reyes, Rajai Davis with Melky Cabrera, Jeff Mathis with John Buck and Kelly Johnson with some combination of Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio) – but if they do get rebounds/improvements from Adam Lind, Colby Rasmus and J.P. Arencibia I think that they’ll be as good as or better than the aging Yankees at the plate. If Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow are healthy and effective, their rotation should be second in their division behind the Rays. I’m currently pegging them – even with J.A. Happ as their 5th starter – as a 91-win team. No one else in the division – at this point in the offseason – looks to have a better expected win total than that.
There are two reasons to be interested in this: the first is that, while Cabrera would likely have gotten a much larger deal had he not failed that PED test, this deal is in excess of the dollars and years that most people thought Melky Cabrera was going to get. Torii Hunter signing for 2 and $26 instead of 2 and $20, now Melky Cabrera signing for 1 and $16 instead of 1 and $8 does suggest that interest in second-tier free agents is high (while interest in first-tier free agents seems to be low) and that this might be leading to some salary compression. I’m skeptical that the new CBA has much to do with this – though it still may be the case that teams are reluctant to sign players who received and declined qualifying offers, much as many teams were reluctant to sign low-end type A players before (if they were offered arbitration). Placido Polanco, for example, was snapped up quickly after the Tigers declined to offer arbitration while many others saw lukewarm interest. Why is this not necessarily CBA driven? Just because this phenomenon is not new to the new CBA – what might be new is that teams could be more reluctant to sacrifice draft picks without the ability to overpay down the line.
And now for the interesting part: the effect this has on competitive balance. I mentioned already following the big deal that competition in the AL East doesn’t really affect the Detroit Tigers in any way shape or form – the only impact of Toronto’s rise would be in pressuring the other AL East teams to spend (perhaps on Anibal Sanchez – and NY Times, please don’t call him Anabel…). The AL East offseason is actually going to get very interesting to watch now – particularly for a bystander with no vested interest.
The Yankees are on the ropes: just keeping their current roster would give them a preposterously high payroll and a preposterously high luxury tax payment. The Yankees look likely to let all three of their top free agents go and collect sandwich picks for each. They’ll probably blow whatever small amount of cash they feel they can spend on another season of Mariano Rivera, another season of Andy Pettitte and a few more years of Russell Martin. Then? They’ll have to scramble to find a right fielder to replace Nick Swisher and a starter to replace Hiroki Kuroda – on the cheap, and perhaps through trade. They aren’t likely to be as good – on paper – as they were in 2012, and they weren’t all that amazing in 2012 by their own standards. They could – if they so choose – put themselves in a good position to compete (rather than expect a trip to the World Series) while preparing for a future without their aging stars by making good use of all of those sandwich picks in the next draft and the one after (if they let Granderson go, for example).
The Red Sox are toast: nobody knows exactly what they are planning over there, but “competing” doesn’t look to be part of it. We hear about them in conjunction with free agents from time to time, but not top tier free agents and they often seem to speak in terms of limited resources. I think the Red Sox are about to be the new Blue Jays and the Blue Jays the new Red Sox… both have good markets, baseball enthusiasm and revenue streams but may not want to spend if the team is too far from contention. The Blue Jays were stuck playing basically .500 ball for years with some great prospects coming through and some tremendous individual players with tremendous individual seasons. You got the impression that if the core team looked good enough to win 87 games with an $80 million payroll they’d shoot up to $140 million in a heartbeat to dethrone the Yanks. It just didn’t happen (until now). The Red Sox look to be the new once-burned team that develops prospects, gambles on second-tier free agents and plays around .500 ball with a middle-of-the-road payroll. They’d splurge if it would get them somewhere, but until it looks that way they’ll bide their time. The only difference between that and flat-out rebuilding is that there is no revenue-driven desperation, and they’ll therefore need less to ultimately go right someday to get back into the upper echelon than a team like Cleveland would.
The Rays? The Rays – it would seem – cannot and will not spend so long as their poorly located ballpark keeps fans (who seem to actually like the Rays) away from games. They are going to return most of a team that was pretty darn good in 2012 – though not quite good enough. Can they actually make it better? It doesn’t look like it. It’s fair to expect Tampa Bay to be very active on trade markets this offseason – but they probably won’t (despite the added pressure) be chasing big money free agents. What would be interesting is if the Rays are induced – by the Jays binge – to start trading prospects for established (if cheap) major leaguers as opposed to the other way around.
And of course – the Orioles. The Orioles finally sniffed playoffs this season – though honestly their team wasn’t nearly as good as it’s record. We know what tends to happen in these circumstances: the teams make moves and increase payroll to make the team genuinely better so that they maintain last season’s level of success. O’s fans love their team and despite the Nationals invasion of their turf they do not have a small market, low revenues or a poor park. If they win, the Orioles can spend and Peter Angelos has demonstrated a greater than average willingness to do so in the past (before they embarked on that long rebuilding process). Baltimore is – when you come right down to it – reacting to the same signals as Toronto: and when there is chum in the water it is time to feed. Add to that the pressure from the Blue Jays’ metamorphosis? I would be very, very surprised if the Orioles didn’t spend big this year. The only problem is that their biggest positions of need don’t have much to choose from in terms of free agents. I do think the odds that they sign, say, Nick Swisher and Edwin Jackson have significantly improved.