|Jose Bautista is only one of a handful of Blue Jay players enjoying five-year deals. (Getty Images)|
The Blue Jays play in the fifth biggest market in North America, with an entire country to sell to. They have rich owners. They have a history that shows their fans will show up when they win.
And they have a strange, if admirable, policy when it comes to chasing free agents.
Five years. That's it.
You want more, go elsewhere.
And almost all the biggest free agents do, because they want to sign for more than five years.
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Meanwhile, the Blue Jays didn't sign a free agent to anything longer than a one-year contract.
Last winter, Carl Crawford got seven years from the Red Sox. Jayson Werth got seven years from the Nationals. Adrian Gonzalez wasn't a free agent, but his trade-and-sign deal with the Red Sox was for seven years, too.
Not all those deals will work out. Maybe none of them will.
But isn't it just as big a risk to try to win without even being in play for the biggest names out there?
Maybe it is, maybe it isn't.
The Rangers made it to the World Series each of the past two years without anyone signed for more than five years (although they've since signed Yu Darvish to a six-year deal). The Rays have Evan Longoria under a six-year contract signed when he was a rookie, but they stayed away from the biggest-name free agents because they can't afford them.
Plenty of teams talk about trying to keep deals short, but the great majority (24 of the 30 teams) have at least one player under a deal that runs for more than five years. Two of those players (Alex Rios of the White Sox and Vernon Wells of the Angels) were given those deals in Toronto, before the current policy went into place.
Meanwhile, the current Blue Jays are holding firm. At a State of the Franchise meeting with season-ticket holders last week, club president Paul Beeston said the Jays would "lose credibility with everyone you've talked to before then" if they changed course now.
Beeston also said the Blue Jays don't want to "tie our hands as to what we're doing in the future."
That's all understandable.
Bad long-term deals can tie a team up so much that they make it harder to win, not easier. The Cubs' problems now are worse because they have Alfonso Soriano signed through 2014, on what was an eight-year deal. The Twins are in serious trouble if Joe Mauer (signed through 2018) and Justin Morneau (through 2013) don't rebound.
If Pujols starts looking old in five years, can the Angels build a winning team while paying him $26 million-30 million a year between 2017-21?
It's safer to stay with shorter deals. We all know that.
We also all know that it's tougher to win -- particularly in the American League East -- without acquiring and keeping star players.
Beeston says it's not a matter of money. He says the Blue Jays gladly would have pursued Fielder on a one-year deal, a three-year deal or perhaps even a five-year deal. The Blue Jays gave Jose Bautista a five-year contract after his breakout 2010 season, and they signed pitcher Ricky Romero to a five-year deal last August.
Beeston has said in the past that the Jays could eventually have a $140-150 million payroll, which would put them near the top of the list, although they'll be decidedly middle of the pack this year at around $85 million.
And Beeston said that the Blue Jays expect to be in the playoffs in two or three of the next five years.
That sounds like a wildly optimistic goal, for a team that hasn't been to the postseason since winning back-to-back World Series in 1992-93. But 13 of the 30 teams in baseball have been to the playoffs at least two of the past five years, and with the addition of one wild-card team per league (either this year or next year), that number could even increase over the next five.
Besides, if Beeston and the Blue Jays are right, some of their competitors will be weighed down by then by the back end of some of these long-term contracts they've been handing out.
Or maybe the answer is that you can't win without adding (and keeping top talent), and that ultimately you can't do that without bowing to the pressures of the market and paying what the market demands.
For now, the market demands more than five years for almost all the top free agents, and the market often demands more than five years to keep your best potential free agents off the market (Matt Kemp's eight-year deal with the Dodgers, for example).
For now, the Blue Jays are sure that their way is right. They insist that they can win while sticking to it.
Good for them -- if it works.