$334 million doesn't go as far as it used to.
Last offseason, as most baseball teams refused to shell out big bucks for free agents, two teams — Toronto and Los Angeles — went for broke. The Blue Jays (2013 payroll: $118 million) and Dodgers ($226 million) made waves all winter, acquiring enough big-name players to turn their rosters into All-Star teams. The Jays took a team that finished fourth in the AL East with a mere 73 wins and added so much talent that analysts fell over themselves to crown Toronto the 2013 division champ. Los Angeles, meanwhile, added pieces to what was rapidly becoming baseball's biggest money pile; they, too, were expected to be postseason contenders.
But you know what they say about the best laid plans...
At 13-23, Toronto is dead last in the AL East, eight-and-a-half games behind Boston and Baltimore. The Blue Jays have the third worst record in the American League.
The Dodgers have it just as bad. They're 13-20, six games behind defending World Series champion San Francisco, and also have the third worst record in their league.
How did this happen? Every offseason move looked to be a winner for each team. In Toronto, the Jays made two huge go-for-it-now deals, acquiring All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes, one-time Marlins ace Josh Johnson, and reigning NL Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey to bolster a team that already had sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. With the Yankees hurting, the Red Sox mired in the post-Bobby Valentine quagmire, and the Orioles a good candidate for regression, it finally looked to be Toronto's year.
In Los Angeles, the Dodgers made free agency's biggest signing, nabbing former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke with a nine-figure deal, adding him to a rotation with fellow former Cy Young Clayton Kershaw and high-priced Korean import Hyun-Jin Ryu. The lineup was loaded with top hitters: Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier. And with an ownership group that had no problem tossing around money, the Dodgers could spend circles around the competition.
But there were warning signs, too. Players like Johnson and Reyes had never been the pictures of health: Both are now on the disabled list — Johnson with a triceps injury and Reyes with a fractured ankle that will keep him out until August. The Dodgers are without Greinke, who broke his collarbone during a brawl in a game against San Diego. Ramirez is on his second disabled list stint of the season already. And even those who aren't currently hurt seem to be carrying around scars from last season. Both Kemp and Gonzalez have dealt with shoulder issues that have sapped their power. Bautista lost a huge chunk of 2012 to a wrist injury that contributed to a slow start this year. Dickey, who threw a career-high 233 innings for the Mets last year, has battled neck and back pain in his first go-around with Toronto.
Depth has also been a major problem for both teams. Out west, the Dodgers have been forced to use bottom-of-the-barrel replacements like Luis Cruz (hitting .090 in 67 at-bats) and Juan Uribe (.220 in 50 at-bats) to pick up their stars' slack. The rotation pre-season was supposed to be eight deep, but a trade of Aaron Harang and injuries to perpetually hurt starters Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly have forced the Dodgers to reach deep into the Minor Leagues to cover.
In Toronto, a team that last season ran through starting pitchers like toilet paper is once again frantically casting about for anyone who can throw a ball. With most of the team's top Minor Leaguers traded out in the Reyes and Dickey deals, there's precious little help available to plug any holes. Top catching prospect Travis d'Arnaud, for example, is now Mets property, which means that the Jays have to live with J.P. Arencibia and his woeful .264 on-base percentage (and almost impossible-to-believe 45/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio) and shoddy defense behind the plate.
Building a contender from scratch has proven to be just about impossible for quite some time now. The last three World Series winners — San Francisco twice and St. Louis in between — benefited from a homegrown core supplemented judiciously with moderately priced or even bargain-basement free agents. The same is true of the 2008 Phillies, 2007 Red Sox, and 2006 Cardinals. The only recent team that's been able to produce a champion with big signings and trades was the 2009 Yankees — and that team benefited from arguably the greatest core of homegrown players in Major League history.
A winning team simply requires too many above-average parts to staff them all via trade or free agency. Even with all the moves Toronto made, they were still stuck with below average production at designated hitter, second base, center field, and the back half of the rotation. And neither the Blue Jays nor Dodgers had a farm system capable of filling holes: Baseball America ranked Los Angeles' organization 19th in baseball, and Toronto's 22nd, in terms of talent available in the minors. You can build in the center all you want, but unless you can support your team on the margins, things will fall apart in a hurry.
That's not to say everything is ruined in Toronto and Los Angeles. Injured players will return, early-season slumps will end, and things will begin to balance out. But the hole dug in April proves very tough to get out of as the months pass, and postseason dreams may have already been dashed. The Blue Jays and Dodgers thought they were building dynasties. Instead, they've given their fans high-priced busts.
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