For those of us like myself, for whom the sport of team building is as fascinating as the actual baseball played on the field, Major League Baseball really has no "off" season. The off-season is just another act in the continuing drama. In fact, if you really break it down, MLB consists of six distinct "phases" throughout the year. Spring training, the first half of the regular season, the post all star break trade season and stretch run, the post season, and the off-season - divided neatly into two "Acts."
With the close of the winter Meetings and the passing of the non-tender deadline, we have moved from Off-Season Act I, to Off-Season Act II.
The big names have begun to fall into place, even those unsigned mostly have narrowed the field of contenders. For the next two months then, the not so fortunate teams and players begin to see how they can patch together some sort of positive outcome from the off-season. Good but not great players like Braden Looper and Brandon Lyon and Sean Casey and Mark Kotsay have their agents trying furiously to find a match for the best deal, while coming to the realization that this year especially, the mid-market price is not going to be as high as they might have hoped.
Mid-to-low income teams like the Twins and D'Backs and Jays have to figure out how to balance competitiveness with cost . . . and that's to say nothing of teams like the Padres for whom cutting payroll is the only goal.
The Jays' task is made no more pleasant by the continual challenge of the free spending Yankees and Red Sox. The debate seems eternal among Jays fans concerning to what extent we blame our predicament on the relative budgets of the teams in the AL East. Certainly it IS possible to be a Rich Fool and still fail to find success (the Orioles of a few years back being the most obvious of examples) but there is no fool in Boston and even though Cashman in NY is no genius, the Yankees have so much money that they can afford quite a few errors, though Mr. Cashman seems determined to test that proposition this winter in signing a 300 pound pitcher to a very long and expensive deal and following that with five guaranteed years to the fragile AJ Burnett.
So, where do the Jays go from here? What course of actions balances realism with hope with the budget on hand? Probably that question cannot be fully answered until Furcal makes his decesion. The reports indicate that he spurned Oakland only out of a desire to give the dodgers every chance to retain him - that would seem to make the Jays, at best, a third option. Still, whether you think it's wise or not that the Jays target him, all their eggs are in that basket at the moment. There are a lot of other possibilities to speculate about, since so many players remain unsigned, but with a payroll so much lower than last year, they can't really move until Furcal comes off the board. At least not on major league deals.
Still, we can go ahead and note that most everyone concedes that 2009 is going to be a season in which the best we can hope for is to be the Dark Horse. I've said since the end of the regular season that I don't think 2009 should be written off as hopeless - there are a lot of things that can go right yet and I think the Jays owe it to their fans to take reasonable steps to maximize their chance of success. But obviously, this is not the year we'll be signing Manny or anyone else so pricey.
So, to move the previous question: What now? Well, the Clement signing is a sign the Jays will flirt with other veteran starters who might be had on a minor leage deal, but that will likely come late in January (and for those who predictably drone "Okha/Zambrano/Thomson" I remind you that Thomson never even pitched for the Jays and Zambrano barely did and none of them cost us anything of any significance....why is repeating such a low-risk gamble a bad move?). Their interest in Michael Barret is a good sign they will try to find a veteran reserve catcher in the same fashion.
Beyond that, I think it's the trade market that will produce the most results. There are a few young players blocked on other teams around the league who could be just what the Jays need. I can't do them justice here given the length of this post but next time I'll probably offer up a list of the players I would target that, I think, would do wonders for the Jays in 2009 and beyond.
The point is - there are other ways to improve your team than by throwing big stinking piles of cash at questionable investments. For most fans, the mantra will be "JP sucks because he hasn't signed anyone!!" but in my opinion, the smartest play any GM could have made for the Jays this offseason was to NOT get tied into an expensive long term deal for a player at a position where you don't have a long term problem. I don't think the Jays ever seriously intended to bring back AJ but if they had, THAT would have been something to criticize. Committing yourself to $60 million or more over 4 years in order to sole a one-year problem would have been insane.
And if you are NOT one of those teams who chase the mega-stars in Act I, then the sensible thing to do is to keep your ears open and your powder dry and wait for the lower tier market to develop - which is exactly what the Jays seem to be doing. To decide, by mid-December, that the Jays offseason sucks is to fundamentally fail to understand how the process works. There's plenty of time to bitch and moan in early February - but it's not time to yet.