On the field, the Toronto Blue Jays' season evolved quickly into a multifaceted disaster and, yet, the team managed to magnetize a large group of previously apathetic fans.
Attendance at Rogers Centre is expected to broach 2.5 million in 2013, representing the largest year-over-year increase in baseball. Most encouragingly for the American League franchise, a surge of fans from the young-adult demographic brought strong walk-up numbers and emotional energy to a stadium reputed, generously, as staid.
The challenge facing the club's executive entering the off-season is to fix the on-field problems in order to maintain off-field momentum. Alex Anthopoulos, in his fourth season as general manager, has compiled a 309-329 record entering Friday's game in Boston against the Red Sox, with three seasons of regression from his single winning year, 2010 (85-77, 81-81, 73-89, 70-82). The club's record is moving in inverse proportion to the size of its payroll.
When the season ends Sept. 29, seven regular position players will have missed a total of 328 games, with 60 per cent of the original pitching rotation having bowed out for long periods because of injuries. Right-handers Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow combined for four victories, whereas 25 were easily expected.
Realistically, given better health, the Jays could return largely intact and improve their record significantly in 2014. However, season-ticket and other advance sales depend on the populace being convinced the team has a chance to win. Club president and chief executive officer Paul Beeston acknowledges the status quo won't do.
Changes need to be made, especially to obtain a top-of-the-line starting pitcher and a catcher – and here's where it gets murky for a club with a unique ownership structure.
Who makes the decisions?
The great majority of teams in baseball, and in all North American sports for that matter, are owned by an individual and partners. They are able to make decisions quickly and sometimes emotionally, disregarding business sense in their drive to win.
In Toronto, Rogers Communications Inc., through media unit Rogers Media, owns the Blue Jays along with its television partner, Rogers Sportsnet, and the team's radio network. While Rogers Media president Keith Pelley describes the situation as "enviable," the company is responsible to shareholders.
"We don't really have a board meeting," Beeston said in an interview. "We have a moving three-year plan, so we will continue to do it that way. We run this as a business; this is not a charity. The goal is to make money or at least to break even and plow the money back into the team. So we'll look and see where the salaries and revenues are, and if there's some delta between the two, we'll take it to [Rogers] and say: 'This is what we have to do.'"
Pelley defers to Beeston on club operations. "The decision regarding payroll was not last year, and will not this year, be made in isolation," Pelley said in a telephone conversation, adding the transition of the parent company's leadership from Nadir Mohamed to incoming CEO/president Guy Laurence should not affect the off-season process. "We will congregate as a group with Paul and Alex and listen to them shortly after the season."
Observers expect the Jays to seek ownership's approval on a payroll increase of $20-million to $25-million – up from about $127.8-million (U.S.) this year – without raising ticket prices. For 2014, Anthopoulos has committed almost $110-million to just 12 players on the present 25-man roster. Further, centre fielder Colby Rasmus is eligible for arbitration after earning $4.67-million this year, and the Jays must decide whether to pick up DH Adam Lind's $7-million option or pay a $2-million buyout.
For the 2013 season, payroll jumped more than 50 per cent from $83.8-million year-over-year in order to finance two major trades and the free-agent acquisitions of Melky Cabrera and Maicer Izturis. Rogers, in exchange, will be looking for a quantum turnaround in the club's performance, which will make 2014 a pivotal year for Anthopoulos.
Shortstop Jose Reyes said: "We need to get better in everything – pitching, defence, hitting. We cannot blame everything on injuries. We did not play at the level we were supposed to play at. When we had everybody on the field, we were not able to do anything [to get in the playoff race]."
Greg MacDonald, managing director, equity research of Macquarie Securities, said an added $25-million is irrelevant to Rogers investors on a per-share basis. Most important, he said, is the value of Blue Jays content as a driver of Rogers enterprises ranging from hand-operated devices to Internet services to cable television subscriptions.
"We all have opinions on what content makes sense for distribution platforms like wireless or broadband, and I'm firmly in the sports camp, especially for males," he said. "Sports makes a lot of sense, news a little, and everything else no sense as far as synergies down road are concerned."
Last winter, Pelley confidently projected television audiences of one million per game, but the team started slowly out of the gate and that momentum never did build. In an interview, Pelley said the Jays represented 162 days of "solid programming."
But the numbers fluctuate with wins and losses. With the Jays out of contention this September, how does Rogers Media act?
Pelley said only that: "Sometimes, it takes time to build a championship team and we are prepared to invest the time and the dollars."
Beeston said the relationship between the club and Rogers Media is based on communication and no surprises.
"There will be risk," he said. "There was risk last year, and Nadir was prepared to take the risk. It is fine for me to tell them that I think we're going to monetize this risk because we're going to … to win and draw three million [fans], and it will all balance out. However, we didn't; we'll draw 2.5 [million]."
2014 SALARY COMMITMENTS
Sergio Santos $3.75-million
*Casey Janssen $4-million
J.A. Happ $5.2-million
Ricky Romero $7.75-million
Brandon Morrow $8-million
R.A. Dickey $12-million
Mark Buehrle $19-million
Dustin McGowan $1.5-million
Maicer Izturis $3-million
Melky Cabrera $8-million
Edwin Encarnacion $9-million
Jose Bautista $14-million
Jose Reyes $16-million
Josh Thole $1.25-million
* - Assumes team option is exercised; Source: baseballprospectus.com; All figures in U.S. dollars