2011 Organizational Rankings #8: Toronto

After that last assignment, I’m glad I got something that won’t get readers too worked up. A general manager with one full season… what could possibly go wrong?

Present Talent – 79.55 (13th)

Blue Jays Season Preview

Future Talent – 85.00 (t-5th)

Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects

Financial Resources – 81.67 (t-9th or t-12th, depending on how you think)
Baseball Operations – 85.91 (5th)

Overall Rating – 82.59 (8th)

While I feel pretty good about the Blue Jays’ future, I was surprised that they ranked this high overall. If you think that these rankings should either mirror last season’s standings or what we think they will be in the coming season, this ranking will be particularly baffling. But that’s not what we’re trying to do.

The Blue Jays current group isn’t bad, being ranked in the top half of baseball, but (among other things) with Shaun Marcum now in Milwaukee, Jose Bautista likely to regress to “only” 35 home runs or so, and the toughest division in baseball not getting any easier in 2011, contention is unlikely on the heels of 2010’s surprising 85-win season. So why are we so high on Toronto over the next few years? Part of it is that there is some relatively good young talent on the current team. The farm system (“Future Talent”) is also good — while it is mired in the big “blob” in fifth place in the rankings, Marc’s team-specific write-up places the Jays’ minor league system at third overall. But there are other reasons why the Jays’ outlook for the next few seasons seems brighter than it has for some time.

Along with a good farm system and decent major league talent, Toronto’s financial situation is favorable. Toronto is tied in our rankings with teams such as Atlanta, Minnesota, the White Sox, and just below San Francisco and just ahead of Colorado and Seattle. All of these teams probably rank higher overall than they might have because of the ownership and financial problems that the Dodgers and Mets are experiencing (and who knows, those might clear up in the next year or so). There are reasons one might be skeptical of the financial ranking given to the Jays. After all, Toronto ranked only 27th in Forbes‘ franchise valuations, and attendance has been less than impressive.

Nonetheless, from the standpoint of how the Jays might spend in order to compete in the near future, there are some positive signs. It isn’t as if the Blue Jays have had a Marlins-level payroll in recent seasons. Even before the Vernon Wells off-loading, Toronto had a lot of money coming off the books this offseason. Since then, they’ve extended Jose Bautista to a long-term deal, but even so, starting in 2012 they have only about $30 million guaranteed (although that doesn’t include likely arbitration awards). In 2009 and 2010, the Jays’ payroll was around $80 million, and was close to $100 million as recently as 2008. Of more interest is the aggressive tone set in offseason interviews with club president Paul Beeston and general manager Alex Anthopoulos. While both admit that it is tough to compete with the big payrolls of divisional rivals like Boston and New York, neither use that as an excuse. Beeston goes so far as to say that he thinks the Toronto area can support a payroll of $140 million or more, and Anthopoulos goes out of his way to say that “Rogers Communications is probably the wealthiest owner in MLB” (he also uses the word “synergies,” which is awesome in a Jack Donaghy kind of way). One one hand, the positivity may just reflect an attempt to encourage the fan base. On the other hand, it isn’t the sort of thing one would imagine club executives would say if they weren’t under the impression they would have more money to spend in the near future — to do otherwise would be to invite a public relations fiasco. Toronto isn’t swimming in income, but with no debt obligations, a wealthy ownership, and a confident set of executives, the team looks like it is going to be willing to put out the money when the time is right in the next couple of seasons. They won’t have the same margin of error as the Yankees and Red Sox, but an increased willingness to spend on the part of ownership combined with a relative lack of guaranteed money after 2011 will give the Jays a chance to make some moves.

It is always possible that they won’t spend the money properly, and that is why it is so important to have a good baseball operations staff. We have the Blue Jays ranked fifth in baseball operations, right behind Atlanta and right ahead of Oakland. That seems fitting — while the Blue Jays have clearly embraced a lot of “new” thinking about baseball, they also emphasis traditional methods (Anthopoulos has a background in scouting). This is clearly an aggressive rating for a team that just hired the current general manager in the fall of 2009, and it is understandable why some might find this a bit too high. I was far from the only “voter” who was impressed by the Jays front office, and even I was a little surprised. While I can’t speak for the others, I can give you some of the reasoning behind my rating.

While the Vernon Wells trade was obviously a great boon for the team, that played a relatively small part for me. Don’t get me wrong — it was a factor in the financial portion of this rating. But I also think that given the situation, most front offices in the league would have done what the Blue Jays did [INSERT {Team X} JOKE HERE]. I have been more impressed by other things, of which I’ll only list of few. In terms of “big picture” issues, the team has finally started spending more over slot in the draft after years of pretty much following MLB’s guidelines. They have also expanded their Latin American operations and significantly increased the size of their scouting staff.

In terms of individual moves, not every deal has to be Wells-level ripoff for it to be impressive. Indeed, there are few obvious ripoffs in trades. But so far Anthopoulos has improved the team’s long-term situation. The deal that brought Yunel Escobar wasn’t necessarily a total steal for Toronto, but it did capitalize on a sudden apparent asset (Alex Gonzalez) in order to get a younger, better shortstop to at least bridge the gap until the farm produces something without giving up too much. The team also did a good job of gauging which of their potential free agents would reject arbitration, and has accumulated picks for the stacked 2011 draft. The clever post-season trade for Miguel Olivo was the pinnacle of that kind of cleverness (they offered Olivo arbitration, which he rejected, netting the Jays Type B draft compensation), and one of the reasons why old friend and Rays fan R.J. Anderson has taken to calling Anthopoulos “Andrew Friedman’s Evil Twin.”

One less glamorous move drew my attention as a good sign: the Shaun Marcum-Brett Lawrie trade. It was far from a ripoff. Shaun Marcum is a good pitcher still in his arbitration years, and Lawrie, while a good prospect, isn’t a sure thing. What impressed me, however, was that it shows that Anthopoulos has a good idea of where the team is at, and that while Marcum is good now, he isn’t young and won’t be under club control by the time the team is ready to compete. Lawrie might not work out, but he’s more likely to be a contributor (and possibly a significant one) on the next contender in Toronto than Marcum. That might seem obvious to some of us, but we’ve also seen teams get “pulled in” by an surprising 85-win season and make mistakes that set them back a few years. The Jays don’t seem to be doing that, and that kind of perspective is important for a team in their situation.

The overall rating doesn’t reflect what the Jays will do in 2011. Personally, I think their 2011 record will take a step back from 2010. But for the reasons given above, I do think the “long-short term” is bright for Jays. The Jays aren’t blowing away the field in any one area, but they are above average in all four. While their current major league talent is only middling, they do have some bright young talent graduating this season from a strong minor league system, which will be restocked with a number of picks in the draft. Ownership appears to be willing to expand payroll in the next few seasons. Yes, they are still in the toughest division in baseball. However, while I hesitate to say “if the Rays can do it anyone can,” if the payroll goes over $100 million Anthopoulos doesn’t have as good as Andrew Friedman, he just has to be in the same general ballpark. It will be fun to watch him try.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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