The failure to sign Ervin Santana is like the stain that the Blue Jays can’t wash out. Actually, maybe it’s more like a smell that won’t go away, no matter how much scented detergent Toronto and general manager Alex Anthopoulos attempt to apply.
Now that the 2014 season has started, you might think Santana is a subject the Blue Jays could move on from. But Toronto’s starting pitching has been poor in two of its first four games, reminding fans and media that things could have been better. Perhaps Blue Jays players feel the same way as well.
Did one or more of those players leak to Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal that several on the Toronto roster offered to defer parts of their salaries to clear room on the payroll for Santana? Rosenthal cites “major league sources,” but it seems likely that an agent or two — or an executive with a team that showed interest in Santana during the offseason — shared this revelation, rather than a player complaining directly to Rosenthal.
The Blue Jays and Anthopoulos already looked bad enough for losing Santana to the Braves. Losing a first-round draft pick was no reason to not sign Santana, as the team has the No. 9 and No. 11 selections this year. Toronto wasn’t going to lose either pick anyway, as the top 11 selections are protected under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement. So this must have been about money.
Rosenthal’s report calls into question whether ownership has clamped down on the team payroll. Toronto’s lack of activity during the offseason already made that rather clear. The only notable move the Blue Jays made was to sign catcher Dioner Navarro to a two-year, $8 million contract. Obviously, the players noticed that too. Have such restrictions alienated them, causing them to wonder if the Blue Jays’ corporate owners (Rogers Communications) care more about saving money than building a winning baseball club?
Exploring the possibility of Toronto players deferring salary that could be used for Santana shouldn’t get very far. As Rosenthal reports, the idea never got past the conversation stage — which might just mean someone it was suggested in desperation. Or delusion. An agent Rosenthal spoke with pointed out that the players union almost certainly wouldn’t have signed off on such a move. Players effectively lowering their salaries does nothing to serve the union’s overall interests. Sure, it arguably would’ve helped a member of the union sign with a team, but Santana’s $14.1 million contract was still attainable on the free agent market.
This sort of thing has happened occasionally in the NFL or NBA, but those sports operate under salary caps. Baseball teams are under no such restriction. That is, unless it’s self-imposed. It certainly appears that Rogers, for all intents and purposes, has placed a cap on the Blue Jays’ payroll.
On one hand, it could be argued that ownership opened up the budget last year, allowing Anthopoulos to make blockbuster trades with the Marlins and Mets that brought Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey to Toronto. (Josh Johnson, John Buck and Emilio Bonifacio were also included in the deal with Miami, but now play elsewhere.) Additionally, Melky Cabrera was signed to a two-year, $16 million contract. That pushed the Blue Jays’ opening day payroll from nearly $84 million in 2012 to $119 million last season.
What did adding all that payroll do for the Blue Jays? The team won 74 games, finishing last in the AL East. Spending more money didn’t prevent a variety of injuries — including Reyes and Johnson — from occurring. That’s proven true again this year, with Reyes suffering a hamstring injury in Toronto’s season opener. Going “all in” backfired in a big way.
However, the Blue Jays aren’t likely to compete in the AL East this year — and in future seasons — without spending money to improve the roster. The pitching staff will get some help when top prospects Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez are ready. But Toronto didn’t upgrade second base during the offseason, and doesn’t seem likely to do so with shortstop if Reyes’ injury keeps him sidelined for an extended period. The idea of signing Stephen Drew to replace Reyes seems laughable, given how little the Blue Jays have done to improve their roster over the past year.
Just discussing the possibility of deferring salary to help sign Santana shows how discouraged the Blue Jays’ clubhouse must be. How often do you hear about a major league player accepting less money (even if he’ll still get that money down the line)? Yet that’s how desperate Toronto players were to add a much-needed starting pitcher, one that could have improved the team’s chances of hanging with the Red Sox, Rays, Orioles and Yankees, along with any clubs contending for the AL’s two wild-card playoff bids.
Rosenthal wrote that it wasn’t clear whether the idea of deferring salaries to create payroll flexibility was proposed by Blue Jays players or by management. If Anthopoulos pitched this concept, it demonstrates how impetuous the front office has become under ownership’s budget restrictions. This comes off looking like an attempt to try anything to sign a player the team wasn’t allowed to afford.
What was already an embarrassing development for a club that has the resources to be one of MLB’s most successful has now become laughable. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, there’s nothing funny about that.