- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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The Toronto Blue Jays are taking this "build a contender" idea pretty seriously. On the heels of the multiplayer blockbuster trade with the Marlins, they signed outfielder Melky Cabrera to a two-year, $16 million contract. Cabrera, of course, comes with the baggage of his 50-game PED suspension in August, but he also comes with a .322/.360/.489 batting line over the past two seasons with the Royals and Giants.
Cabrera doesn't have to hit .346 again to make this deal worthwhile. Even if that offensive boost was testosterone-enhanced, he's a terrific signing at a low-risk $8 million per season, and I wouldn't be surprised if he turns into the best free-agent signing this offseason. But what I like most about the moves Alex Anthopoulos and ownership made this week: The Jays are finally acting like a big-market franchise. Despite a metro population of more than 6 million -- the sixth-largest among major league cities -- the Blue Jays have spent the past decade acting like a lower-tier midmarket club. Here are Opening Day payrolls from USA Today and the Blue Jays' rank among all 30 teams:
2012: $75.5 million (23rd)
2011: $62.6 million (23rd)
2010: $62.2 million (22nd)
2009: $80.5 million (16th)
2008: $97.8 million (13th)
2007: $81.9 million (16th)
2006: $71.9 million (16th)
2005: $45.7 million (25th)
2004: $50.0 million (21st)
2003: $51.3 million (21st)
Playing in baseball's toughest division, the Jays were actually competitive most of those 10 years -- six winning seasons, one at .500, one at a game under. Their 73-89 record in 2012 was their worst since 2004 and second-worst since 1995. But the Jays haven't made the postseason since their back-to-back World Series triumphs in 1992 and 1993, and the once-fevered fan base has deteriorated. The Blue Jays drew more than 4 million fans each year from 1991 to 1993, but that dwindled to just under 1.5 million by 2010 (despite a team that won 85 games). The attendance was back up over 2 million in 2012, giving some hope that the Jays can reclaim their fan base. With more fans comes the ability to spend more money.
With the NHL lockout, the decline of the Red Sox and the potential aging of the Yankees, now was the perfect time for Anthopoulos to strike and stir up interest in his club. I'm not sure these moves are a sign that the Jays suddenly view themselves as a team willing to spend in that tier below the Yankees. Before this week, only Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Sergio Santos and recent free-agent signee Maicer Izturis were signed through or past 2014. And only Bautista is making more than $10 million, so it's more a sign of Anthopoulos' taking advantage of payroll flexibility.
Still, the Cabrera signing will push Toronto's payroll well past $100 million. It also gives Toronto a lineup that could potentially look like this:
Man, that's a fun team, especially if Romero can bounce back and Johnson and Morrow can stay healthy. With young starters Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison on the mend from Tommy John surgery and Toronto's top pitching prospects a couple of years away, I could see the Jays signing a lower-tier free-agent starter to provide rotation depth and hedge against Romero's return to success and the fragility of Johnson and Morrow. Then again, if you've gone this far, why not make the plunge for one more guy -- not Zack Greinke, but what about Edwin Jackson or Ryan Dempster?
Either way, Blue Jays fans should be populating the Rogers Centre this year. They'll have a team worth watching.