TORONTO - Timing, as they say, is everything. So often in the last 20 years, the Toronto Blue Jays have been that team in the wrong place at the wrong time. But maybe not this time.
This is the story of a drug cheat trying to mend his tattered reputation and a Major League Baseball GM determined to look under every rock and down every blind alley for talent that can win a championship immediately, if not sooner.
Right now, Melky Cabrera and the Toronto Blue Jays are a perfect match. In many ways, you could see this signing coming a mile away. Alex Anthopoulos needed a left fielder. No secret. Cabrera, suspended 50 games after a drug test detected elevated levels of testosterone in a urine sample, needed a place to start over. No secret, either.
Last week, at the conclusion of the GM meetings in California, Anthopoulos suggested that the team’s left field needs might be moved to the back burner.
“With left field ... it’s more of a sit back and maybe let it come to us a little more,” said the GM.
A week later, he has made over the entire team, and its payroll, including left field.
He pulled off a massive 12-player deal that rocketed the Blue Jay payroll through the $100-million barrier and vaulted the team into a conversation reserved only for contenders.
Indeed, this whole week has been about Anthopoulos putting himself out there.
As Matt Sosnick, the agent for Josh Johnson, reflected earlier this week in a Fan 590 interview, “Alex is all in. This will be his legacy, one way or the other.”
When you’ve taken on $150-million in guaranteed money in one trade, what’s another $16-million to finish the outfield picture?
This is a perfect fit. Cabrera is a superb left fielder, with a stronger arm than most who play that position. His hit tool also sets him up as a No. 2 hitter to play behind new leadoff man Jose Reyes and ahead of the heavy artillery, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.
As a young player in New York, Cabrera was, by his own admission, enjoying the good life and was often cited for a lack of dedication to his craft or his conditioning. When he failed to live up to the high standards the Yankees demand, he was dealt to Atlanta.
After a discouraging 2010 season in Atlanta, Cabrera determined that things had to change. He spent the off-season in Miami instead of heading back to the Dominican Republic as was his custom, concentrating on fitness and diet with a personal trainer. It is not known when he started using testosterone to supplement his lifestyle changes, but his career certainly turned around after signing a one-year, $1.25-million contract with the Kansas City Royals in December of 2010.
Cabrera had a breakout season with the Royals in 2011, with 201 hits, 18 home runs and 87 RBI. When it was over, the Royals traded him for left-handed pitcher Jonathan Sanchez. Through the first four months of the 2012 season, Cabrera was on fire, more productive even than the man who would eventually be named the NL MVP, Buster Posey. When the news broke early in August that Cabrera had been suspended, he had played 113 games and was leading the league in hitting at .346 with 11 homers and a .906 OPS.
Indeed, had he allowed it to happen, Cabrera would have won the NL batting title with his .346 average. When it looked like he might, Cabrera asked that he be removed from consideration for the title.
Cabrera said in a statement he had “no wish to win an award that would be tainted,” and that “I believe it would be far better for someone more deserving to win.”
That someone turned out to be Posey, who finished at .333 and eventually also won the MVP award.
“I am grateful that the Players Association and MLB were able to honour my request,” Cabrera said in a statement. “I know that changing the rules mid-season can present problems, and I thank the Players Association and MLB for finding a way to grant my request.”
It’s hard to know how much of his success the past two seasons can be credited to drugs, over dedication or a different approach at the plate which had him on a pace for a career high in walks in 2012. The Blue Jays may discover he’s not the same player he was in KC or San Francisco. Then again, it’s unlikely that PEDs can make such a dramatic change on their own.
Most baseball people agreed Cabrera was headed for a huge payday as a free agent this offseason but the suspension ruined those hopes. Not that the $8-million per year the Jays will pay him is anything to sniff at, but had he not been detected as a drug cheat, Cabrera might have been in line for one of those five or six-year deals for $60- or $70-million.
But that’s timing for you. Sometimes it works against you and every once in a while it works for you.
SWITCHING IT UP
Already a potent offensive outfit, the Blue Jays have this week added the potential for four switch hitters to the lineup that was leading all of Major League Baseball in runs scored heading into August last season.
Injuries to Jose Bautista, Brett Lawrie and J.P. Arencibia sabotaged the Toronto offence through August and September. Now with Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera as table-setters at the top of the Toronto lineup, the Jays have become a formidable, well-balanced machine.
Both Reyes and Cabrera are switch-hitters. Cabrera absolutely mashed lefthanded pitching last season, hitting .395 with eight of his 11 homers coming off lefties. An interesting aspect of Cabrera’s production was that he did much of his best work on the road, away from pitcher-friendly AT&T Park. Cabrera’s OPS was .783 on the road, .720 at home.
Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are solid at No. 3 and No. 4, with Brett Lawrie expected to slip into the No. 5 spot. As the roster stands right now, either Colby Rasmus or Adam Lind, both lefthanded batters should slot in at No. 6, followed by Arencibia at No. 7 and either Lind or Rasmus at No. 8. Switch-hitting second baseman Maicer Izturis (or maybe Emilio Bonifacio, also a switch) figures to bat No. 9.
But that’s just this week. The way Alex Anthopoulos has been dealing, it could all change again before the snow flies.