December 01, 2012

The Problem with the Blue Jays-Marlins Trade

It has been a couple of weeks since the massive 12-player swap between the Miami Marlins and the Toronto Blue Jays, so we baseball junkies have had time to go through the full of emotions.

For Marlins fans, there was really only one sentiment. But we won’t go there…

On the other side of the coin, in Toronto and across Canada, Blue Jays fans have been through a wild ride since that week in November. It was disbelief to begin with, which quickly turned to delirious joy. Then there was the Melky Cabrera signing, which put Canadians back in too-good-to-be-true mode.
Mere minutes later came the surreal, out-of-body realization that the Blue Jays were back in business.

Of course, there was nervousness that Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig would overturn the trade, pulling the relevance from under our feet. Gladly, after a weekend of sweating it out, the deal was finally made official, and Blue Jays fans were faced with the painful realization that Opening Day was still in fact four months away.

With so much time on their hands, everyone surrounding the team has since mulled over what 2013 will bring. Scouring over potential lineups, projected rotations, even what the bench will look like in the coming season. They have stormed through every newspaper, television, even blogs to find any little insignificant tidbit to get their baseball fix during the long winter.

So what exactly have they discovered in their trek through baseball media? Most notably, there have been articles written warning the people of Toronto to temper their expectations. They stick out like a dent in your new car. A simple online search of “Toronto Blue Jays” will bring you all the opinions of these buzz kills so eager to tell you anything and everything that could go wrong.

This has led to the next emotion on the rollercoaster: worry. What if it doesn’t work out? What if we get another nightmare injury rampage through our pitching staff? What if Reyes and Cabrera turn out to be busts? What if Hechevarria turns into a superstar?

It has become too easy for fans to feed their angst. They search for every flaw in their home team; most are the silliest concerns over stuff like pit bulls and income tax, reports you normally see on the slowest of news days.

But in this mess of irrelevant information, there have admittedly been some serious questions raised over the future of the Toronto Blue Jays. The most worrisome problem is that of Josh Johnson. The 27-year-old has for many the prize of the entire Marlins trade. The young starter is among the most coveted assets in baseball.

He is one of three or four pitchers in baseball who are on every general manager’s wish list. There are talented young starters, and then there is Josh Johnson. He is not the pitcher Toronto has grown accustomed to taking in, a “B” or “C+” type talent who is a serviceable alternative to the real deal. Josh Johnson is the real deal. He is the “A” level talent on the mound the Jays have been missing since Roy Halladay left.

So what’s the catch?

It is not his injury history that keeps the Toronto front office awake at night; health issues are anything but new to GM Alex Anthopoulos. The problem is his contract.

Johnson’s issue is the “Reverse-Jose Reyes.” His deal isn’t too long, it’s too short. Johnson is only locked up for one more season; this time next year the Blue Jays could lose his to free agency, where Johnson’s agent has suggested he might attract the richest contract ever signed by a pitcher.

Now of course, Johnson would realistically sell for a lot less that his agent would have us believe. This is simply standard hype building in hopes of raising his value.

These comments are not meant to say Johnson has no interest in signing an extension with the Blue Jays. He has, in fact, told the media he would be happy to entertain such negotiations whenever Anthopoulos wishes.

But let’s not read too much into the cookie-cutter statements the involved parties are expected to make. Obviously the media is the last place Johnson would reveal his true intentions.

The reality of the situation is that Johnson will cost the Blue Jays a pretty penny to keep long term, anyone of his calibre would. Besides, let’s face it; Toronto is not where most baseball players would choose to spend their career. To keep Johnson from testing free agency, it will cost the Blue Jays will have to pay a premium, likely close to $18 million per year. With Reyes’ contract ballooning to $22 million in 2014 that is not an easy pill to swallow.

With no guarantees ownership will spend that kind of money, or even that Johnson would stay if he was offered that contract, Alex Anthopoulos is faced with a real dilemma. There is a serious chance he could lose the centrepiece of the Marlins trade after only one year with the Blue Jays.

Talk about a tough pill to swallow. Josh Johnson is not the kind of player you want to slip through your fingers. He is the guy you want anchoring your staff for years to come, the last thing you want to see is Johnson doing just that in another city.

If that ominous vision comes to life, if Johnson does end up leaving Toronto at the end of the season, where does that leave the Blue Jays? They want to become a contending ball club this year; they have made that abundantly clear. In fact, they plan on remaining a factor for the foreseeable future.

Suppose the Blue Jays end the 2013 season as an up and coming club, a step away from going over the top and challenging for a World Championship. Losing Josh Johnson would put management in a tough spot. They would have to improve the quality of the club over the offseason, but they would now have to fill a blaring hole in the rotation first.

The Blue Jays know they cannot find all their help through free agency. Yes, ownership did spend a ton of cash recently. Don’t expect this kind of bonanza every offseason. With the payroll rising almost $50 million in the blink of an eye, Rogers is probably not willing to spend much more. With all the back-loaded contracts from Miami starting to kick in, Toronto will not have the budget space or the appeal to land the big fish.

The only other route to acquire talent is the trade market, where Anthopoulos has proved himself to be quite effective. But knowing the Jays GM, he will likely be apprehensive about decimating his minor league system further.

So if you can’t trade and you can’t sign a starter, what do you do? Basically, Toronto would be stuck with the same rotation they have now, minus the best pitcher of the five. That’s not progress, that’s a setback.

If the Blue Jays want to become perennial contenders, a setback is not what they need. Unfortunately, even if Anthopoulos puts forth his best effort to lure Josh Johnson back long-term, you would be hard-pressed to bet on an extension being signed.

But hey, maybe we will be proved wrong. Maybe Johnson falls in love with Toronto, and decides that this is where he wants to spend the rest of his career. If somehow, someway the stars align and he signs that deal, the next emotion down the line might be one Blue Jays fans haven't experienced since the 90's

Boy, this is going to be a long winter.