Several sources have identified the Toronto Blue Jays as the team that cast the winning bid in the Yu Darvish posting process. If true, it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise because the Blue Jays have gradually increased their focus on international signings, including the much heralded acquisition of short stop Adeiny Hechavaria in 2010.
For much of the last decade, the Blue Jays have been mired in mediocrity, hovering around the .500 mark in the rough and tumble A.L. East. Although the team hasn’t made much of a dent in the standings during this period, the organization has gradually taken steps that could soon allow it to stand up against the big boys. In addition to being aggressive in the international free agent market, the team has also been adept at cultivating draft picks and making astute acquisitions of both talented cast offs (Yunel Escobar, Colby Rasmus and Jose Bautista come to mind) and prospects with high potential. However, some of the most important moves made by the Blue Jays have been subtractions, not additions.
Although the rebuilding process began under the previous regime, former GM J.P. Ricciardi did take several steps back before finally moving the ball forward. In particular, two albatross contracts to Álex Ríos and Vernon Wells threatened to stunt any chance at near-term improvement, but, almost miraculously, the team has already extricated itself from each deal. The first escape was a gift from the White Sox, who inexplicably claimed Rios off waivers in 2009, but the real Houdini act was turned in by new GM Alex Anthopoulos when he traded Vernon Wells to the Anaheim Angels, saving Toronto over $80 million in the process, which, perhaps not coincidentally, could wind up being the team’s total outlay for Darvish.
As constituted, the Blue Jays have all the makings of a potential contender. In addition to Bautista, arguably the best offensive player in the game, the team’s lineup also includes a core of talented young players at prime defensive positions, including Brett Lawrie at 3B, Escobar at SS, Colby Rasmus in CF, and J.P. Arencibia behind the plate. Even Kelly Johnson should be a significant upgrade over Aaron Hill at 2B, while Adam Lind and Travis Snider each have the potential to be middle of the order threats (although the clock is running out on both underachievers). If only the team had kept Mike Napoli after acquiring him in the Wells trade, the Jays’ lineup would really be foreboding, but the decision to flip him to the Rangers stands out as a rare miscalculation on the part of Anthopolous.
If Darvish does wind up north of the border, he’ll join Ricky Romero, who has established himself as one of the game’s best left handers, as part of a promising one-two punch. Although the rest of the rotation is relatively thin, the trio of Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil and Kyle Drabek offer plenty of potential. The bullpen depth is also lacking, but the addition of Sergio Santos, who recorded 30 saves with a SO/9 rate of 13.1 in 2011, should solidify the closer role.
Filling in the Blue Jays’ gradually burgeoning major league roster is a minor league system considered by many to be among the strongest in the game (Keith Law ranked it fourth before the 2011 season and John Sickels recently lauded its depth). If the team continues to draft well, and can adapt its international focus to the rules of the new CBA, the Blue Jays could develop a prospect pipeline similar to the Rays in its ability to replenish major league talent when it gets too expensive.
With estimated revenues of $168 million, according to Forbes, the Blue Jays will never be able to outspend their mistakes. However, if Anthopoulos continues to avoid making them, there’s no reason why the Blue Jays can’t join the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays as legitimate playoff contenders. Of course, therein lies the rub with Darvish. At a potential total cost of $80-100 million, the Japanese right hander won’t come cheap, so, while the reward could be great, the risk is just as daunting. If Darvish lives up to the hype, the Blue Jays could almost immediately take the next step. On the other hand, if he proves to be a bust, the financial fallout could bury the team’s progress.
Anthopolous probably wouldn’t even consider spending around $100 million on a pitcher if he didn’t believe his Blue Jays were on the verge of contention. With the Yankees and Red Sox standing pat, it’s easy to see why the Toronto GM would be willing to take such a big risk. It’s finally time for the Blue Jays to leave the nest, and with Darvish, they just might be able to fly.