Chemistry experiment: Talent isn't always the answer
Addition of big-name players by Blue Jays, Dodgers will put their theories to the test
There are at least six reasons why Toronto is a chic pick to win it all this season, even though Spring Training hasn't even begun: R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Melky Cabrera and Emilio Bonifacio.
Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos radically remade his roster with headline-grabbing trades for Johnson, Reyes, Buehrle, Bonifacio and Dickey, last year's National League Cy Young Award winner, and the free-agent signing of Cabrera. And it may well turn out that, sometime in late October, a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since winning its second straight World Series in 1993 will have another trophy to show for it.
The only guarantee, of course, is that there are no guarantees. In fact, for the Blue Jays to succeed, they'll have to overcome not only their opponents, but a good deal of recent baseball history.
After adding All-Stars Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to their roster, the 2011 Red Sox looked to be loaded. They ended up finishing third. Manager Terry Francona's option was not picked up and general manager Theo Epstein left for the Cubs. The 2012 Marlins had a new stadium and celebrated the occasion by signing Reyes, Buehrle and closer Heath Bell and hiring Ozzie Guillen to manage the talented roster. The Fish finished last, and all four are no longer with the organization.
The Dodgers were two games out of first place last August when they pulled off a blockbuster with the Red Sox that brought Gonzalez and Crawford, along with Josh Beckett, from Boston. They ended the season eight games behind the eventual World Series-champion Giants, even though they had already picked up Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton in the month before.
General manager Ned Colletti said that the deal was made as much with an eye to the future as competing in 2012 and that he remains confident Los Angeles will reap benefits, but he conceded that there's a risk to a sudden influx of big-name players.
"There's no doubt," Colletti said. "Not every All-Star team wins. You're going to see teams in the World Baseball Classic that are loaded with talent. But it's really how they play together and their familiarity together. Talent alone is not a winning component. I never believed that."
But why? Baseball is a team sport built on one-on-one matchups. Logic suggests that the more good players a team has, the better its chances of winning.
"It's a little bit different, say, from basketball or hockey, where you've got a lot of teamwork as far as passing and being in a certain place. Football, the same thing," Colletti said. "But in baseball, the part where it does play a role is the season. Because the season is so long and there's so much that can go in inside the room. The personalities are probably more important than the individual talents.
"Where in the other sports, it might be talent and then personality, because of the way the sports are played, I just think baseball's got a little bit different dynamic to it. A team concept is no less important. You still have to have that in baseball. But it's still different from other sports when it comes to that."
Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski won a World Series with the Marlins in 1997 when then-owner Wayne Huizenga gave him the go-ahead to spend what it took to get sluggers Bobby Bonilla and Moises Alou and pitcher Alex Fernandez. But the Marlins didn't run away with their division. In fact, they made the playoffs as the NL Wild Card after finishing nine games behind the Braves. And they relied heavily on late moves that brought in catcher Darren Daulton and infielder Craig Counsell.
"[Daulton] stepped up and was a vocal leader," Dombrowski said. "He stood up and basically said, 'You're a very talented group. Let's get our act together and focus on what we need to focus on. This isn't going to be easy.' And then we got a guy like [Counsell] who was a good, solid player for us. Sometimes you can have too many stars and not enough guys who get their uniforms dirty. And he was one of those guys who did the little things. Not that stars don't also get their uniforms dirty, but they make their mark in a different way."
Dombrowski believes there are several reasons why simply aggregating talent doesn't always have the immediate impact that might be expected.
"There are probably a few factors behind that," he said. "First of all, it's not easy to win no matter who you bring in. Because there are a lot of talented players around baseball. So you bring guys in and it basically doesn't guarantee anything. Secondly, sometimes it takes people time to gel together as a team. I think that sometimes people think that's really easy. But it's not just on the field. It's the overall chemistry aspect of it, guys feeling their way. Just that little bit extra missing. Not that they're not quality players or quality people. It's just that team aspect of it that can take time to gel.
"One thing that comes to mind is that sometimes when guys come over, they don't perform quite up to the same standards right off the bat. And a lot of that is due not to the fact that they don't try as hard. In fact, they try too hard sometimes. There are pressures attached to guys performing [for a new team]. Sometimes that first year, they just struggle a little bit more."
Sometimes, the departure of established stars allows younger players to step forward. Sometimes, bringing in the older players can have the opposite effect.
"Maybe guys are a little more cautious at times," Dombrowski said. "Maybe they're not quite as aggressive. Somebody else takes a step back when a new guy joins them -- 'We'll depend on him to drive in more runs or win more games.' And it takes that little extra edge away from them. It's just the overall aspect. It's not that guys don't get along. It's a matter of just sort of clicking together where they all start to feel comfortable."
All that helps explain why MLB Network analyst Mitch Williams, who pitched in the big leagues for 11 seasons, won't be picking the Blue Jays to win the American League East this year.
"I've always said, 'You can buy players, but you can't buy a team,'" Williams said. "They've got to show me they can play together as a team. There has to be a chemistry in that clubhouse. When you go out and get a bunch of high-priced guys, a lot of times they're fighting over who gets the headlines, and there's jealousy and envy and all that. In order to have success, you have to have everybody put their egos aside and have 25 guys who are all pulling on one end of the rope, going in the same direction. In my 11 years, I was on one team that did that."
That was the 1993 Phillies.
"We were nowhere near the most-talented team," Williams said. "We were just too stupid to ever quit."
The Blue Jays have plenty of talent. Anthopoulos has done his job. Now it's up to the players to come together and play up to their abilities.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.