HOUSTON – The setting was an upscale restaurant along Dunedin's pristine waterfront. It was the end of the six-week spring training grind. The 25 men who would comprise the Blue Jays' opening day roster gathered with coaches, management and high-level members of the ownership hierarchy for the annual start-of-the-season dinner, held this year just prior to the departure to Montreal for two exhibition games.
It was at this dinner that Blue Jays president Paul Beeston addressed the club and, according to multiple sources within the organization, pledged to the players that additional money would be made available to acquire assets in-season if they produced a winner.
Playing well of late and with a record of 60-50, good for a three-game lead over the Mariners for the American League's second wild card spot, if this isn't a winner then it's at least the closest the franchise has fielded since the heady days of the early 1990s.
Yet, there was nothing at the deadline. Nothing unless you count right-handed hitting infielder Danny Valencia, acquired from the Royals for Erik Kratz and Liam Hendriks on Monday. While Jon Lester (Oakland), David Price (Detroit), Martin Prado (Yankees) and reliever Andrew Miller (Baltimore) changed addresses, the Blue Jays stood pat but the general manager said it wasn't because of budget restrictions.
“We absolutely had the financial resources to add at this trade deadline. If we had a deal, obviously we were in dialogue with (president) Paul (Beeston) all the time and certainly he's keeping ownership up to date, any deal that we felt was a good baseball deal, the finances were certainly there for us,” said Alex Anthopoulos. “That has never been a problem and it was just one of those things that we couldn't find a baseball deal that made sense for us and that's really what it came down to.”
It's hard to imagine, looking at the deals the Yankees made for Prado and Chase Headley (earlier this month), that finances didn't play a role in the Blue Jays losing out on both.
Prado was acquired for Peter O'Brien, a former second round pick who was playing at Double-A. Maybe the Jays were scared off by Prado's .686 OPS in his age 30 season, a number well off Prado's career .764 OPS, suggesting the start of a decline. There's no doubt the two years and $22-million left on Prado's deal would be worrisome, even though he'd be an upgrade at second base.
Headley was acquired for Yangervis Solarte – considered by the Yankees to be one of those “Quad-A” players, a strong Triple-A player but not someone who can put it together long enough at the big league level – and Rafael De Paula, a 23-year-old pitcher who hasn't sniffed higher than Single-A. Headley has only the prorated amount of his $10.5-million 2014 salary owed. The Jays took a pass.
Lester, Price and John Lackey (St. Louis) were each swapped in deals involving big league players going both ways. Anthopoulos wasn't willing to delete from his current roster.
A lack of positional prospect depth, rendering the Jays with little to offer other than what's off the big league roster, surely contributed to the quiet day. Dalton Pompey, an outfielder from Mississauga, is the only position player prospect of any consequence playing at Double-A or higher. He currently toils for New Hampshire, having been promoted from Single-A Dunedin earlier this season.
You can find reasons – money, contract term, what you'd give up, the type of season a guy's having, attitude – that would prevent a ballclub from acquiring anyone at anytime. It seems Anthopoulos found them.
His top players, including one of the game's best, Jose Bautista, and the longest tenured Blue Jay, Casey Janssen, expressed dismay the club wasn't improved.
“I just think from an overall perspective of all these teams getting better, we know it's going to be a tough time for us,” said Janssen. “One that isn't impossible but we're going to have to do everything right. Obviously, we value our prospects, we value our players, I'm sure the other teams do as well. Maybe they just value the player or the opportunity to get into the playoffs more. It takes something to get something and congratulations to those teams that got those guys.
Bautista addressed the media, spent about six minutes with the assembled horde, and used a variation of the word “disappointed” four times.
“Of course it's a little disappointing that we somehow weren't able to get anything done but everybody around us that's in contention, and even some teams that aren't in contention like the Red Sox, somehow figured it out,” said Bautista. “There's still time to get stuff done. It'll be a little more difficult having to put people through the waiver process but it's not impossible.”
Bautista believed different players would have different reactions. Approached for comment, Mark Buehrle said he didn't know enough about the state of the franchise's finances or the depth of its minor league system to offer an educated opinion. He was glad Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez remained in the fold, two potential face-of-the-franchise guys who are as much contributors to the present as they will be in the future.
Another player, who will remain nameless, shrugged and muttered an expletive loosely related to bovine excrement.
If other teams improved and the Blue Jays didn't the club will have to await the returns of Brett Lawrie, Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind and hope those reinforcements are enough to propel the team to the playoffs.
What happens to this team if one of its starting pitchers gets injured is another matter. Todd Redmond could backfill. Then who? Brad Mills?
The rotation has held up reasonably well but remember it is trotting out a couple of 23-year-olds (Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman) who are entering unchartered territory.
“We've heard '92, 93 and I think we're tired of hearing it,” said Janssen. “We want to put our on stamp on Toronto and across baseball. For me in my eight years here, I've never been this close, never had such an opportunity to make it into the playoffs and I think that's where this excitement level for this trade deadline was. It's finally our time, it's finally beating down the door and we wanted to come on the scene as strong as we can. Like I said, it didn't happen, we just have to regroup and go about our business again.”
Anthopoulos worked the phones.
“We were open minded, you definitely want to hear what other clubs have to say and what ideas they might have to say, but when you start to look at your 25-man, and you're trading some of your best players, to address an area of what might be a weakness, or a need, and you're ultimately creating another weakness, create a hole, it wouldn't make any sense for us,” he said. “We definitely talked to clubs and had dialogue and all that, just didn't find anything that made the club better.”
Turning 34 in October, Bautista wants to be afforded the best opportunity to win. Now. If not, well, it seems uncertain what would become of this team in the offseason.
“All I can say is it gets to a point for everybody's situation and everybody's job that trying and excuses are not good enough,” said Bautista. “For everybody's sake I hope we all play great from now until the end of the season and I'm one of those guys who really wants to win. I've been playing for a long time and never experienced it.”
Colby Rasmus was originally in Thursday night's starting lineup but, about an hour before the game, he was replaced by Nolan Reimold.
The official line was an “internal team decision.”
After the game, a 6-5 win over the Astros, manager John Gibbons wouldn't say why Rasmus was benched.
The player offered up the reason: tardiness.
“I was late getting here to the field,” said Rasmus. “I wasn't here when I was supposed to be here and they punished me as they should have.”
Rasmus' wife and daughter are with him in Houston. He said he was having lunch with them and then got caught in traffic on his way to Minute Maid Park.