While the level of excitement in Toronto about baseball has not been this high since the World Series runs of 1992 and 1993, the level of expectation is considerably high. For close to two decades, franchises like the Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers continuously had very high payrolls with no championship to show for it.
The acquisitions of Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, Emilio Bonifacio, Melky Cabrera, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle are nothing short of impressive. The Jays' trade with the Florida Marlins quickly evokes memories of the 1990 trade the Blue Jays pulled with the San Diego Padres for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter. While free agents and traded players are part of any team, an excessive number of acquisitions cannot be expected to go out on the field and produce results.
It may be a long season (there is an extra wild card team), but there is an all or nothing sentiment about this team which is unfair. The fact that the Blue Jays gave up quite a lot in the R.A. Dickey trade could haunt the franchise. Back in 1992, the Blue Jays gave up a promising infield prospect in Jeff Kent to the New York Mets for a fiery right-hander known as David Cone.
While Cone contributed to the Jays' World Series title, he departed for the Kansas City Royals in the 1993 season. Kent would go on to a superlative career, and would have been a remarkable piece of the Blue Jays' future. In 1993, the Jays made the same mistake when they gave up Steve Karsay to the Oakland Athletics for future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.
As Dickey is 38, the Jays took a huge gamble. Toronto’s top prospect, Travis d’Arnaud was the centerpiece in the deal for the Mets. He has the potential to be an anchor on any team’s lineup for the next decade. The last time that the Blue Jays took a gamble on a knuckleballer was Cleveland Indians hurler Tom Candiotti in 1991. In giving up a package of prospects (which included Mark Whiten), the Blue Jays were disappointed when Candiotti folded in the 1991 American League Championship Series.
Although the Blue Jays teams of 1992 and 1993 spent considerably on free agents (Dave Winfield, Jack Morris, Paul Molitor, Dave Stewart), the reason the team was able to gel was due to the leadership of players like Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter and field manager Cito Gaston.
The current Blue Jays do not have a player like Alomar or Carter that captures the imagination of the fans. In addition, the Blue Jays hired a manager whose first tenure with the club was nothing short of disastrous—John Gibbons. Having spent the 2012 baseball season with the San Antonio Missions (a Double-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres), his return to the Blue Jays was highly unexpected.
His first tenure with the Blue Jays was defined by controversies with several players. There was an incident with Dave Bush in May 2005, after the pitcher was removed from a game. The following day, Bush was sent to the minors. A confrontation with disgruntled player Shea Hillenbrand occurred in July 2006 when he was upset over lack of playing time.
A few weeks later, Gibbons was involved in a physical altercation with pitcher Ted Lilly after an argument over pulling the hurler from the game. In 2008, a dispute with Frank Thomas over playing time led to the former AL MVP being released by the Blue Jays.
If the Blue Jays enter a slump early into 2013, who is to say that there will not be another possible incident or confrontation? With the level of managerial talent available (including former All-Star players Ryne Sandberg and Tim Wallach), Gibbons is a painful reminder of the failed J.P. Ricciardi regime in Toronto.
Considering that Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos made a trade with the Miami Marlins that will either define or tarnish his reputation, he would be wise to learn from the Marlins' 2012 season. With a new ballpark, new uniforms and a small fortune spent on free agents, the Marlins were expected to challenge for the National League East title. Instead, the underdog Washington Nationals shocked the baseball world by claiming the division crown.
The Blue Jays were on the right track with their prospects in 2012 and did not need to undertake such risk. Building from within like the Nationals and the Tampa Bay Rays is the right way to do it. When one plays in the same division as the New York Yankees, it is all too tempting to take risk and go for broke.
As Canada’s only Major League franchise, the Blue Jays are in a unique position, and contention is an important part of maintaining an entire nation of fans. Even if the Jays grab the World Series in 2013, could they become like the 1997 Florida Marlins? Those Marlins spent an excessive amount of money and tore the team apart (and alienated its fan base) in the following offseason.
In increasing over $50 million worth of contracts, this is a game of high stakes poker. A few years ago, the franchise gambled on A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan, and it was a disaster. With the Boston Red Sox in decline and the Baltimore Orioles no longer in an underdog position, the upcoming season does represent the best chance that the Blue Jays have to make some noise.
Although it is exciting for Blue Jays fans to see the franchise going for it, the brain trust of Anthopoulos and popular president Paul Beeston needs to be prepared for what happens should the postseason goals not be reached.
Since the last baseball strike, the Blue Jays, Royals and Pirates are the only franchises to have not qualified for the postseason. Had the Blue Jays played in any other division, they could have made the playoffs more than once.
With the frustration of the Yankees' dominance lingering for almost two decades, it is all too hard for the Blue Jays not to feel an obligation to their fans to give it their best try. For the current generation of Blue Jays fans, this is truly the most exciting offseason the Jays have had in a long time. Said fans need to borrow a page from Orioles fans and Dodgers faithful and understand that there are no guarantees.