Respectability -- No Waiting

Thursday, December 16 2004 @ 05:21 AM EST

Contributed by: Jordan

Remember the old, time-honoured tradition of slowly building a team up, from bad to less bad to mediocre to pretty good to great? Remember the Success Cycle, and how every team eventually finds itself on a wheel that spins from good to bad and back (hopefully, anyway) to good again? That tradition might always have been as much myth as reality in the free-agent era. But over the last couple of off-seasons, a few teams have been doing their level best to blow the entire legend to smithereens.

Recall, if you will, the 2003 Detroit Tigers, a team so truly dreadful that they employed the first 20-loss pitcher in 25 years and had to win five of their final six games to avoid tying the 1962 Mets' record of 120 losses. They actually had people feeling sorry for them, such that their final-day win was treated, in quite a pathetic fashion, like a victory for the ages. Not only that, their farm system was as barren as the moon. From all accounts, they would wander in the wilderness up to and including the end of the decade.

Then, after the season ended, the Tigers went to work, sort of. They hit the free-agent market and signed a series of known and uninteresting commodities like Rondell White, Fernando Vina and Jason Johnson. These moves were widely derided as patching the Titanic with band-aids -- except by a few observers who quietly pointed out that even these players, fit only to be backups on contending teams, would constitute marked improvements for this sorry club.

Then, in February 2004, the Tigers signed 2003 World Series MVP Ivan Rodriguez to a gut-wrenching four-year, $40 million contract. The move, to put it mildly, was panned. Rodriguez was widely perceived to have overplayed his hand, failing to get an arbitration offer from the Marlins and settling for a rich contract with a horrible franchise. The Tigers, in turn, were roundly condemned for this irresponsible vanity-plate investment. A foolish player and a foolish team: the perfect match, and a perfect end to an off-season of folly.

Then the Tigers went out and won 72 games. They posted a staggering 29-win improvement over 2003 -- and to put that in perspective, if the 2005 Jays could do that, they'd win 96 games next season. The Tigers started the year by whaling on Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay and sweeping the Blue Jays on the road. They were even briefly in contention for the AL Central title, leading to previously unfathomable talk that Detroit might actually be acquiring players down the stretch. This off-season, they've been hard at it again, signing former Angels closer Troy Percival to a rich contract and reportedly staying in serious contention for the services of J.D. Drew.

Now, if you don't think the rest of baseball -- in particular, the Arizona Diamondbacks, Seattle Mariners and New York Mets -- is closely watching the Tigers, you don't yet appreciate how the landscape out there has changed. For many teams, a 90-, 100- or even (shockingly, in Arizona) 110-loss season is not cause for despair, or even for a serious re-evaluation of how they're running their business. It's just a blip, a bump on the road, one that a lot of free-agent money can fix.

The Mets went 71-91 last season and finished 25 games out of the division lead. A fundamental problem? Nope, just a blip, one that can be patched up with a little Kris Benson here and a whole lot of Pedro Martinez there -- not to mention, in increasing likelihood, a healthy dollop of Carlos Delgado. The Mets don't have serious leadership problems and a divided front office. They're just a team that's about $100 million and a fresh coat of paint away from contention.

The Mariners went 63-99 last season and finished 29 games out of the division lead. A fundamental problem? Nope, just a blip, one that can be cured with a gold-plated pair of brand-new cornermen, Richie Sexson (coming off an injury-plagued season) and Adrian Beltre (his first good season, in his free-agent year) for about $100 million. This isn't a franchise that finally stopped being able to dodge bullets after losing three potential Hall-of-Famers in three years. This is a team that just needed to reload, with silver bullets.

The Diamondbacks went a mind-blowing 51-111 last season and finished 42 games out of the division lead. Rock bottom for a franchise that won the World Series three years ago by sinking itself neck-deep in debt? Nope, just a blip, one that can be fixed with $250 million worth of "new investors" and rich contracts to B-grade players like Troy Glaus, Russ Ortiz and Royce Clayton -- and maybe even Matt Clement. This franchise isn't actually the poster child for living irresponsibly and on the very edge of ruin. This is a team that says contention is just tens of millions of dollars away. And who's to say they're wrong?

Welcome to the new rebuilding. Last-place finishes (at least, those not caused by losing half your everyday roster to injuries) are no longer cause for a serious re-examination of how your franchise operates and a rededication to building from within. They're simply a slight detour on the way to success. Look at the Tigers, these teams say. They signed one great player and a bunch of supporting players and they roared back to respectability (and never mind that the dead-cat bounce -- or regression to the mean, if you prefer -- would have brought Detroit up to the 60-win neighbourhood anyway). Who needs a farm system? Who needs an organizational philosophy? I got your organizational philosophy right here, thanks -- and it doesn't have a credit limit.

It is still true, of course, that money alone can't buy you a championship -- but it is becoming increasingly clear that money alone can buy you a .500 record, a two-year extension of your GM contract, and a whole lot of favourable publicity in your local press. The Blue Jays aren't planning to contend right now, so it scarcely matters to them what the top teams are doing with their money. But it does matter -- it matters very much -- what the other last-place teams are doing with theirs. And right now, the Jays and these other teams are operating in two entirely different worlds.

The Jays and their owners at Rogers seem to be still committed to the old-fashioned, build-from-within approach to contention. And since that's an admirable, worthwhile and satisfying process, I support them in doing so. But looking around at the game's shattered fiscal landscape, where players can say they're "signing with a contender" that lost almost 100 games, I sometimes wonder if the Jays are playing a different game by themselves, one that the other teams are abandoning altogether to go start their own. If so, then Rogers will have to not only rethink their approach to the Blue Jays' payroll. They'll have to rethink whether they have any interest in playing this game at all.