Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Birds and the Fish


By

On the surface, the Cyanocitta Cristata and the Istiophoridae (more commonly known as the Blue Jay and the Marlin respectively) are two creatures that couldn't be more different from each other. When you look at the major league baseball teams that both of these animals represent though, it turns out they aren't so different after all.

Here are two completely different teams separated by completely different leagues, yet the Toronto Blue Jays and the Florida Marlins face the very same problem. They have the uphill battle of trying to compete with two juggernauts above them within their division where payroll never seems to be an issue.

For the Blue Jays, it's the challenge of trying to keep up with the Joneses - the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Just down the street in the National League, the Florida Marlins have a very similar dilemma ... trying to keep up with the Smiths' - the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets.

Some commenters raised some interesting points last week when the rough numbers were revealed for the Blue Jays 2010 payroll. I myself wondered if it was at all possible for the Toronto Blue Jays to employ the Florida Marlins strategy of buy low/sell high baseball to make it to the top of the American League East once again.

Not exactly being an expert when it comes to the National League, I decided to reach out to one of my fellow Baseball Bloggers Alliance members - Michael Jong of Marlin Maniac. Wanting to speak with someone knowledgeable on the fish, I asked Michael what his thoughts were on the similarities between the struggles for the Toronto Blue Jays and the Florida Marlins.
"I agree with you that our teams are in similar circumstances (as are the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals) in that our ballclubs have limited budgets and face teams that have significantly better spending power.

The solution when a team cannot spend to get talent is to provide surplus value through player development and shrewd contracts and trades. Unfortunately, this method of building a team is very difficult, as one can tell from the numerous small market teams that have difficulty punching through.

For every one Florida season in which we see great success, there are three seasons like the ones Oakland has witnessed the past few years where certain things do not pan out and the team bottoms out."

Michael raises some good points here. Just as J.P. Ricciardi attempted to apply the Moneyball model to the Toronto Blue Jays, other teams around the league look at clubs like the Florida Marlins and most recently the Tampa Bay Rays as examples where low payroll can lead to success.

For the Tampa Bay Rays, it took ten seasons of accumulating high draft picks to build a winner. Unfortunately, the Blue Jays don't have the luxury of being able to piss away another decade ... though some would argue that is exactly what they have done since 1994.

Compared to the Blue Jays, I think the bar has traditionally been set much lower for the Florida Marlins. It seemed like even after they won two World Series, the fish were never perennial favourites to repeat as champions, or even make the playoffs for that matter.

However, Marlins management was clever enough to realize that their star players would bog down the payroll once they were no longer under team control. Since 2006, they have not let spending get too carried away in a division that traditionally spends over $100 million dollars to field a playoff team.

Aside from adopting the "Tank Nation" mentality and hoping for high draft picks in the future, there aren't many other options in the short term for teams like the Blue Jays or the Florida Marlins. The best plan of attack for both of these teams is to stay the course and continue to develop young talent, while not getting too carried away by signing players to big money contracts. Michael also offers a few suggestions:
"The alternative is to do what teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals have done for years, which is to supplement their teams with average-costing free agent talent and never get anywhere.

As a small market team, if you want to succeed, you cannot go this route. So if there is a shot for teams like Florida and Toronto, it is in investing in player development and markets outside of free agency to build that future surplus value."

Although the Florida Marlins have not seen much success in the way of playoffs since their last World Series title, it seems like they always keep it interesting into the final months of the season. Seeing how the Blue Jays and the Marlins have similar struggles, I asked Michael whether he thinks the Blue Jays can achieve similar success to the Marlins by adopting a similar strategy.
"On the Blue Jays in particular, I do not know if they can employ the same strategy the Marlins have. Consider how lucky the Marlins have been this decade. The teams of the early 2000's were built from a massive fire sale in 1998. Of those trades, four or five players panned out as a solid, above average contributors. The 2006-present model got lucky on Hanley Ramirez and a couple of scrap heap pickups along with some developed talent.

The Jays finally traded Roy Halladay to get some talent into their minors system, but the odds of stumbling onto a Hanley Ramirez-type talent are very small. However, the alternative is so grim that if the Jays want to compete, they'll have no choice but to do this. In short, it is possible, but it's definitely an uphill climb, and being stuck to bad contracts from the past regime is not going to help."

As with any comparison, there are a lot of similarities between these teams but there are also quite a few differences too. What would be interesting to see is if the Blue Jays and Marlins swapped places, and how each team would fare respectively. Unless the new commissioner decides to really shake things up, I guess we'll never know.

For the time being, it's comforting to know that the Toronto Blue Jays aren't the only team in baseball that has to use alternative strategies to win against teams with $100+ million dollar payrolls.

Thanks again to Michael for his perspective from the Florida Marlins point of view. Make sure you check out his blog, Marlin Maniac.

7 comments:

  1. They always say that we have the money to spend and the market is big enough to support the team. So hopefully a management style like the marlins won't be implemented in Toronto.
    I don't think Toronto fans could take a strategy like the pirates or the royals.
    Idiots are already saying we are going the way of the expos, but I don't agree with that at all.

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  2. The Blue Jays need to adopt, and I think they are, a combination of the Marlins Philosophy and the Yankees philosophy.

    That is, while they are "Building", there is no point to spend big money on free agents, build the talent pool by trading off assests, making smart draft picks, and acquiring talent by any means necessary. However when they finally do become competitive, this is where the Jays philosophy should differ from the Marlins.

    At this point the Jays need to adopt the Yankees philosophy, suppliment your team by targeting the top 2 or 3 free agents and get those guys. What kills a team is spending medium to big money on anything less than the top players available.

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  3. Colt, the money is definitely there - no question. I think AA and Handsome Tony have to have to build a really strong team and farm system to justify bumping up the payroll. Right now, I don't see the point in going to Rogers and asking for more money because the Blue Jays aren't in a position to develop a solid contending team right now.

    Peter, my thoughts exactly. Back in November, I wrongfully accused the Yankees of not building "homegrown talent". Turns out it's actually the complete opposite - they do a great job of building the minor league talent. If the Blue Jays can build a winner, when the time comes I think they can justify spending big money on the best free agents available - not the bottom of the barrel.

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  4. My fear is that the money will only be there if they can get back to 1989-1994 attendance levels. I don't think that will ever happen again, it was the perfect storm, new stadium, great team, Toronto's it thing to do, etc.

    When the Jays do become a good team again, I think an average actual attendance of 30,000 - 35,000 is a realistic number.

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  6. @Peter D-I would like to think a contending Jays team would fill the stadium every night, but other than the playoff games I'm afraid your estimate is probably accurate.

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  7. Peter, you're right - that was a perfect storm where everything seemed to come together. I can't see that happening again in the near future, but stranger things have happened in the city of Toronto.

    Mattt, a winning team would undoubtedly pack the Rogers Centre. We know the fans are there in Toronto - unfortunately most of them don't come out of the woodwork unless the Yankees or BoSox are in town.

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