A recent story on MLB.com purports to reveal the reason why John Buck continued to start for the Jays, even after J.P. Arencibia had been summoned from the minors, even when it was clear that Buck was not in the Jays’ long-term plans. According to AA, "When John Buck was signed to a one-year deal, the promise was made to him that he was going to be an everyday player from start to finish.”
You may recall last September that Cito drew harsh criticism from all fronts (included from yours truly) when he indicated that Buck would continue to get the bulk of the workload, at least until he reached 20 home runs. It made little sense to anyone at the time to continue playing Buck at the expense of Arencibia, who had just completed a monster year in AAA and appeared to be the Jays catcher of the future.
There are two issues here: first, is AA’s explanation even true, and second, if it is true, then was making the promise and/or keeping the promise a reasonable course of action.
Dealing with the truth of AA’s assertion, before this explanation was made public, not only did the idea of starting Buck late into the season make little sense at the time, but it also significantly called into question either AA’s judgment (if he was going along with the plan) or his strength in the organization (if he wasn’t on board). Since from all appearances, AA has both exquisite judgment and the full support of ownership, the decision to start Buck completely defied logical explanation until this information about the promise to Buck was made public.
Over at Drunk Jays Fans, Stoeten is more than a little bit skeptical of the explanation from Anthopoulos. Call me naïve, but I respectfully disagree. Although AA can certainly be cagey when asked about something in the works (and what a refreshing change that is from his predecessor), I can't recall him ever being dishonest in any way. Since the "promise" could easily be refuted by Buck or his agent at this point, and since AA has never given me any reason to doubt his integrity, I'll take him at his word on this one.
Now, assuming that AA was being truthful about the promise, the question remains as to whether or not this was a wise course of action. The downside is pretty obvious – Arencibia lost out on probably 60-70 plate appearances and roughly 20-25 games behind the plate. Certainly it would have been nice to give him that exposure and push him along that much further. But if you believe the Jays are focused on 2012 and beyond for competing in the AL East (and therefore accept that they will not compete for the division in 2011), then in the long-term, how much of a difference would these 60-70 plate appearances have made? Arencibia is going to be the starting catcher for the Jays this year, and if he hasn’t shown himself to be a capable everyday catcher by the end of this season, can you reasonably expect the missed opportunity from last September would have made any quantifiable difference in his progression? I find that to be a bit of a stretch.
But even if the downside is fairly minimal, what is the upside? The MLB article quotes AA as saying the promise to play Buck everyday start to finish made the difference in his signing with the Jays. AA goes on to add "When we give our word to someone ... that's part of our brand”. Obviously, the idea here is to create a reputation throughout the league that AA and his team are men of their word, thus making Toronto a more attractive destination for free agents. Will it work? Hard to say, and it’s not really something that can be measured objectively. It won’t likely work on its own, but if the team continues in the right direction, the opportunity to play with a very good young team for an organization that keeps its promise might well be a very attractive proposition.
The difficulty with this kind of promise, as Stoeten correctly points out, is what happens when the organization makes a promise to a player that stinks the joint out? And what happens if that promise is made in a year when the team is expecting to compete?
Part of the answer has to do with timing. Looking again at Buck’s situation, the promise was made to a player signed to a one year deal, in a year that Jays knew they were not going to compete. Even if Buck had played poorly, the worst case scenario was he would cost the team a couple of wins in a season in which they ultimately finished 10 games out of the wild-card race, plus the delayed development of Arencibia. It’s open to debate how much Arencibia’s development would be advanced (if at all) by having more playing time last season, but again, I don’t think this sets him back at all if you’re looking at 2012.
Another part of the answer is making good decisions about to whom these promises are made. Although nobody I knew was the least bit excited about John Buck when he was signed last offseason, clearly AA and his team of advisors saw something the rest of us missed. Certainly this was a gamble, but it paid off. As long as AA continues to gamble wisely, there is no issue.
But what happens if a promise is made in a year the Jays are competing, to a player who, for whatever reason, just doesn’t perform well enough to warrant continued playing time? There really is no easy answer (other than avoiding making such promises in years you expect to compete), but even if the situation does arise, I would argue that implicit in such a promise is a caveat – “we promise you will play every day, start to finish, unless you play terribly”. Would the player see it that way (assuming it wasn’t explicitly stated)? Probably not. But if Buck had been hitting .220 by the end of August with only a few home runs, promise or no promise, who would listen to him complain if the Jays sat him?
I’m going to stop myself before this gets too hypothetical. All we can do at this point is evaluate this particular promise made to John Buck. Did he play well? Yes. Will the Buck promise help the Jays reputation with future free agents? Maybe. Is there any long-term cost (i.e. to Arencibia’s development)? Perhaps, but not much.
In the end, I think this arrangement worked out quite nicely. As for whether similar deals are made in the future, I’ll leave that to the sound judgment of AA.