Do the Toronto Blue Jays have a free agent problem?


Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Blue Jays big offseason acquisition this year was Dioner Navarro, who signed a two-year, 8 million dollar pact. Their biggest acquisition this offseason was almost Ubaldo Jimenez and it was almost Ervin Santana, but in the end the team cost itself it’s chance at both and watched them sign with other teams. Now don’t get me wrong, these were not flashy, fix-all type pitchers. If the Jays don’t get healthy, productive seasons from Brandon Morrow, Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and R.A. Dickey, there is not amount of Ubaldo and Ervin that could get them to the playoffs. However, those healthy seasons would place the team further along on the win curve, meaning that the value of the upgrades, however small, that those pitchers would have provided would be even greater.

Toronto is a great city. I live there, I am an unapologetic fan of both the Blue Jays and the city of Toronto. I say this all from a place of love. This is an unattractive place for free agent baseball players. It snows a lot here, and fewer people play baseball in climates where it’s cold in the winter. Hockey is the dominant sport amongst youth. Fewer players playing means less athletes developing the skills to be noticed by the major leagues. As a result, the bulk of players both aren’t used to the weather and don’t know anyone in the area.

After the Marlins trade last offseason, Mark Buehrle made a lot of headlines in the city because his dogs were illegal in Ontario, where he would be playing his home games. Of the thirty teams, Toronto is the only MLB city where you have to train and play in a different country most of the time. While there’s a common refrain that “our money is worth less”, that does not apply as all MLB contracts are paid in US Dollars. The remaining drawbacks, however, are still more than enough to create apprehension in the mind of anyone making a decision where all else is equal.

On top of the strange environment, there are still baseball reasons to prefer other destinations. If you’re a pitcher, the Rogers Center ranks amongst the worst for giving up home runs. If you’re a position player, it’s also one of only two remaining MLB stadiums without a real grass playing surface (Tropicana Field being the other); many players complain regularly about playing on the turf there hurting their knees and legs. The Jays play in the AL East, home to the World Champion Red Sox, the storied Yankees, the brilliant Rays and the scrappy Orioles. They haven’t made the playoffs in over twenty years. Few teams are a tougher sell than Toronto.

Players and agents, however, enjoy money. And as a result of their enjoying of money, they will inevitably consider offers to play in Toronto. This often has historically seen the team overpay in order to paper over the problems with the park and the unfamiliarity, but it has happened nonetheless. This year, as they sat unsigned well into the offseason, both Santana and Jimenez were attached through rumors of all kinds to the Blue Jays. Two ‘policies’ that the Jays have developed internally were cited at different times: the team will not offer contracts containing incentives and they will not sign a pitcher to a contract longer than five years. Both of these make sense on paper, but you can’t just decide that no players are worth the money they’re getting. If every team is willing to offer someone a 6-year deal, then the policy doesn’t protect the team so much as it (at best) provides an excuse for not wanting to pay a premium on an already overvalued starting pitching market. The incentives policy makes even less sense. As I see it, every team would benefit from all of their players signing a contract that agreed to pay them the going rate of $ per WAR. Incentives benefit the team, they only pay for the performance they receive; the player is the one who takes all the risk. On top of all of the natural disadvantages the Jays have working against them, these policies place yet another roadblock in their negotiation process.

This year’s free agent class was certainly less than inspiring. Masahiro Tanaka looks like the real deal, but there were no really good pitchers available aside from him. There were a fair number of good pitchers, but scarcity drove up the prices to the point where 32 million dollars for four years of Jason Vargas is a thing that happens. If Anthopolous goes hard after Max Scherzer or Justin Masterson or swings a Jeff Samardzija trade or something to that effect, this could all look like a clever GM having waited out a weak market. The fact is, however, that the team has incredible resources at their disposal and at least Santana was willing to accept a one-year deal. It’s presumable that had they increased their bid a few days prior to Kris Medlen‘s injury, they could have landed a good quality pitcher at a price that is reasonably fair with no commitment beyond this year. Having Santana and then going after Scherzer or Masterson sure would look a lot more savvy in the projected wins department.

On top of the one year deal, the draft pick cost attached to both Santana and Jimenez was drastically reduced for the Jays, as they are the only team with their first two picks protected. The advantage they gained by having those protected picks is almost assuredly squandered, barring a hail-Mary (and well-advised) signing of Stephen Drew, and entirely because the team cheekily tried to wait out the market until the prices fell to what they felt were fair. The recent struggles of J.A. Happ and some of their other depth guys this Spring (to say nothing of Morrow) illustrate the advantage they could have gained had they not sat on their hands while they shot themselves in both feet. It’s hard enough getting people to play in Toronto, there’s no reason for them to make it so much harder.