As keen-eyed observers of the transaction wire may have noticed, the Toronto Blue Jays have made frequent use of waiver claims since the end of the 2012 season. In fact, per a MLB Trade Rumors post from last Wednesday, over the previous calendar year, the Blue Jays have led the majors with 22 waiver claims or 17 percent of the 133 listed on MLBTR's Transaction Tracker over the same span, and because they have also lost 13 players, many of them the same players, by trying to subsequently sneak them through waivers to outright them to the minor leagues, the Jays have been involved in a whopping 26 percent of all waiver transactions over that 12-month period. Conforming to that statistic, the Blue Jays have made one of the five waiver claims in the major leagues since that post was published, bringing their total number of waiver claims since October 17 to 20.
What's going on here? As first reported by the New York Times' Tyler Kepner on twitter on Tuesday, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos is doing it for the benefit of his Triple-A team. As Ken Rosenthal explained in a piece for Fox Sports on Thursday, it all dates back to the Blue Jays losing their 30-year affiliation with the International League's Syracuse Chiefs after the 2008 season because they failed to provide Syracuse with a winning roster (a side-effect of the lousy player development of the J.P. Ricciardi administration). From 2009 to 2012, the period during which Anthopoulos became GM, the Blue Jays' Triple-A affiliate was the Las Vegas 51s, but that was problematic due to the distance between Las Vegas and Toronto. This year, however, the Blue Jays began a two-year contract with the Buffalo Bisons, who dumped the Mets at the end of last year for the same reason that Syracuse dumped the Jays. Buffalo is the closest possible Triple-A affiliate to Toronto, just a hour and 40 minutes by car even with Lake Ontario in the way, and Anthopoulos doesn't intend to lose it.
The Jays signed their new deal with Buffalo in late September of last year. However, Anthopoulos spent the winter trading away his best prospects, including catcher Travis d'Arnaud, who opened the season, ironically, in Las Vegas, the Triple-A affiliate of his new team, the Mets. As a result, Anthopoulos has attempted to assemble a winning Triple-A club by delivering to Buffalo the 41st best major leaguer from every other organization in baseball. That is, players with major league experience who were placed on waivers because their teams didn't have room for them on their 40-man rosters.
So far, it appears to be working. After going 67-76 and finishing last in the International League's North Division last year as a Mets affiliate, the Bisons (who pluralize about as well as Toronto's own Maple Leafs) have opened the 2013 season by going 14-5, giving them the best winning percentage in their league. Among Buffalo's best players in the early going has been first baseman Mauro Gomez, who has hit .349/.491/.791 since being claimed off waivers in early April from the Red Sox, whose Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket is currently two games behind Buffalo in the North.
"He's on waivers," Anthopoulos told Rosenthal, "and he was the International League MVP last year. How can we look at the Bisons ownership and say, ‘We're going to pass on the MVP?'"
Photo credit: J. Meric
Still, some other teams have begun to squawk over the Jays' waiver-happy ways and have proposed a rule change that would require teams to keep claimed players on their 40-man roster for some minimum period of time, perhaps 30 days, rather than instantly trying to pass them through waivers again as the Jays often do. Rosenthal quotes one "rival executive" as stating emphatically that "waivers, for players without options are for major league jobs." The idea being that the waiver system was put in place for the same reason as the Rule 5 draft and minor league free agency, to allow players not receiving ample opportunity in their current organization to find a new organization that could make better use of them.
I fail to see how Anthopoulos is preventing that system from working. In order to outright these players off the 40-man roster, the Jays still have to get them to clear waivers, and have lost seven of those last 20 waiver claims to subsequent claims by other teams in doing so. The system works. What's more, there's reason to believe that the Jays' might ultimately slow their pace.
Buffalo is winning, and Gomez is helping, as is righty-handed reliever and fellow waiver-claim Mickey Storey, who posted a 3.86 ERA in 26 games for the Astros last year. However, the Jays have thus far been far more successful in providing the Bisons with productive players via minor-league free agency than the waiver wire. Looking at the Bisons' roster, third baseman Andy LaRoche (.276/.343/.500), second baseman Jim Negrych (.460/.526/.720), left fielder Ryan Langerhans (.304/.439/.587), starting pitchers David Bush (2-1, 1.65 ERA) and Claudio Vargas (2-0, 1.59 ERA), closer Neil Wagner (2.70 ERA, 5 SV), and left-handed relievers Juan Perez (1.42 ERA) and Alex Hinshaw (2.70 ERA) were all signed over the off-season as minor-league free agents.
Meanwhile, of the 20 waiver claims the Blue Jays have made since October 17, only nine of those players remain in the organization, only five of those nine have been successfully outrighted to the minors after passing through waivers again, and of those five, just two are on Buffalo's active roster: Storey and right-handed starter Edgar Gonzalez, who has a 7.71 ERA after two starts this season. Gomez is still occupying a spot on the 40-man roster.
So, as it turns out, for all of their action on the waiver wire, and the $400,000 they've spent on waiver claims since mid-October (at $20,000 a pop), the Jays and the Bisons have precious little to show for it. Gomez and Storey are nice players for Buffalo to have, but the real reason the Bisons are winning is that crop of minor-league free agents above. What's more, Anthopoulos greatly improved the quality of players in the Jays' farm system almost immediately upon becoming general manager in late 2009, and as those players filter up to Buffalo, his reliance on both waiver claims and minor-league free agents will wane. So, maybe this waiver thing is just a phase, though, I'm sure Anthopoulos will wait until more than 18 games before agreeing.
If anything, the Jays' recent flurry of waiver activity serves as a reminder that minor-league teams are affiliated with major-league clubs but not owned by them. Those minor-league teams still have an obligation to their fans and their ownership to field a good team and turn a profit, yet their player personnel decisions are largely made at the major-league level. As a result, major-league clubs have a significant obligation to their minor-league clubs. Once again, it all comes back to player development, which in this case is the rising tide that lifts all boats, while waiver claims are just a drop in the bucket.