The Toronto Blue Jays have a monumental offseason ahead of them. They must add to their core members, increase payroll and acknowledge fan’s patience with the team.
Whoops! I apologize; the previous paragraph was written before last year’s offseason started. Funny how the exact same thing applies this year? The Jay’s by all means had a lousy year. They lost 88 games while only winning 74. While this is not good by any means if you look at other divisions and what their basement teams did, it is not the end of the world. Too many injuries and key players having down years turned a very promising season, that had ESPN predict that they would be the World Series champs, into a disaster that will be talked about for quite some time. While a lot of people want to kick the team when they are down, there are many positives going into next year, one being that a team that talented will most assuredly not lose that many games again next year. I am going to list 8 points discussing reasons for optimism, pessimism and what we as fans should hope for in the terms of change.
- Payroll- Last year the team had a payroll of $120-million. That is a lot. That was 10th highest in all of baseball. The year prior they were only at $83-million, and even lower the previous two years. Most of the added payroll had to do with the huge trade with the Marlin’s, where Mark Buehrle and his 3 years $51-million dollars remain and Jose Reyes and his 5 years $92-million remaining were added. The team’s payroll currently projects to be around $130 million without any additions and assuming all arbitration eligible players receive raises. This means if they increase payroll to $150-million they only have about $15-$20 million to spend, and in today’s market that is not very much for top flight free agents.
- To Catch A Blue Jay- It has become frustratingly clear that JP Arencibia can not be the Blue Jay’s full time catcher anymore. While he has hit 64 home runs over a 4 year career with the Jay’s, which while is amazing power production from the catching position, he also put up 148 strikeouts and only 18 walks. That is terrible plate discipline. Combine that with the fact that his defense is not well regarded, is not a great game caller or pitch framer and you have an untenable situation. The good thing is, it is not hard to replace his .265 on-base percentage with even a league average catcher. There are plenty of intriguing free agents like Brian McCann, Mike Napoli, Dioner Navarro, AJ Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia along with teams like the Angels willing to deal one of their catchers (Hank Conger or Chris Iannetta). Navarro makes the most sense, since he will be reasonable cheap and is both an upgrade offensively and defensively. The Blue Jay’s only need a stop-gap C for the next 2 years or so to see what they have in top catching prospect AJ Jimenez.
- Why Getting To Second Base So Hard- Emilio Bonifacio, Maicer Izturis, Mark DeRosa, Ryan Goins, Kelly Johnson, John MacDonald, Chris Woodward and Omar Vizquel. These are all the illustrious players who have played 2B for the Jay’s since Aaron Hill was sent to Arizona for being terrible back in 2011. That is 9 total players (including Hill) to see action over the past 3 years. Robinson Cano is the top free agent, and also happens to be a second baseman. He would fill that hole wonderfully, except he will potentially cost between $200-$300 million for about a billion years. Goins, while a fine defender (probably the best we have seen in quite a while, which frankly isn’t saying much), does not get on base enough for a true contending team. The only real way to get a lot better at this position is through trades since the free agent market is thin for this position (top options are Kendrys Morales and Omar Infante). Goins is a very palatable option assuming two things, firstly the team can only have one black hole in the offensive lineup as long he is a plus defender (check) and secondly that means JP Arencibia or Izturis can not be playing every day (not check?). Sticking with Goins is fine if there are enough improvements elsewhere, plus it would give him a bit more time to show he can handle major league pitchers with more at bats.
- Why The Pitching Was So Terrible- Last year the rotation was the envy of every other team not named the San Francisco Giants. They acquired Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle to join Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ. Except Johnson got hurt early after a fantastic spring and only made 16 starts all year. Johnson was expected to be a potential Cy Young candidate and would have been the top free agent pitcher this year. He didn’t even get a one year qualifying offer from the team that paid a hefty price to have him for a single year. While it looked like he would re-up with the Jay’s it now appears as he will sign elsewhere. Dickey, the reigning National League Cy Young winning knuckleballer, was brought in to lead this rotation. He has a (very small sample size) of dominating in indoor stadiums which looked like why the Jay’s traded so much for him and immediately signed him to a 3 year extension. Other than a short stint on the DL, he was terrible through the first half of the year. His numbers really picked up over the second half which made him look just average on the long haul, not something you expect from a dominant pitcher. Mark Buehrle gave 203 innings of solid but not spectacular baseball. Proving to be the iron man he has a reputation for, Buehrle was the “ace” of the staff this year. Even though his back-loaded contract seems crazy ($20 million for a 36 year old in 2015 is definitely crazy), it will probably be very palatable with the increasing salaries and more money from regional TV networks flooding the game. Morrow was expecting to be the true Ace of the staff this year as every year he seems to get better and better. While unfairly labeled injury prone, Morrow unfortunately suffered a entrapped radial nerve in his right forearm which caused him to make only 10 starts all year. Hopefully next year is his year. Happ, was expected only to be a solid number 5 starter until players like Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison were ready to come back after Tommy John surgeries (recovery time is a full calendar year). However in a freak accident on May 7th Happ was hit with a line drive off his head causing him to miss a significant portion of the season and only made 18 starts. This is nothing to say about the disaster that has become Ricky Romero, the once leader of the staff was relegated to the minors and only made 4 appearances (2 starts) all season.
- How To Fix Said Terrible Pitching- Since it seems like Johnson will not return for next year the rotation currently looks like the following; Dickey, Morrow, Buehrle, Hutchison and Happ. The Jays have a glut of back end starters, some which of will not be with the team next year (either due to trades, being released or being sent down to AAA), including Ricky Romero, Kyle Drabek, Dustin McGowan, Sean Nolin, Todd Redmond and pitching prospect Marcus Stroman. Happ currently has the most value of a pitcher that the Jays might be willing to trade. He is under contract for only 3 more seasons with a total salary of $9.1-million owed and he a very solid 4 or 5 starter. The Jays no matter what need to add at least one more top end starter (either a 1 or a 2). This is the time to augment the core with a free agent addition. Reasonable targets include Ubaldo Jimenez, Bronson Arroyo, Ervin Santana or making a bid for Japanese starter Masahiro Tanaka, who is expected to be posted by his team, open for any MLB team to make a silent bid to negotiate exclusively with him. Realistically the Jays should open with Dickey, new number 2, Morrow, new number 4 and Buehrle. As the first injury hits, the club can bring up Hutchison or Stroman. GM Alex Anthopoulos prefers the trade route and to fill out the back end of the rotation we may see him get creative with his prospect capital and redundant major league pieces.
- All In With Trade Chips- After the two blockbuster trades with the Mets and Marlins most people wonder how the Jays will be able to still make trades to augment their core. During most of last year the team had what seemed like a 20 man bullpen (really 8, most teams only have 7 relief arms), and it was the most successful part of the team. Casey Janssen’s value last year was at an all-time high, though a bit less now, as he only has one year left under contract. Still for a team that values a remarkably consistent closer and is willing to give up something, Janssen would be a great fit. Steve Delabar and his success of going from a high school coach back to the majors in a few short years was a great storyline. Delabar has 4 years remaining before becoming a free agent and has closer potential. Or Sergio Santos with all his potential, or Brett Cecil the lefty killer, or Esmil Rogers as a longman or spot starter. Really anyone from the bullpen should be expendable if the right trade comes around. Outside of the bullpen they have to figure out what to do with Moises Sierra as he is out of options and doesn’t project to crack the team. He’s still under team control for several more years. The Jays have two options at CF with Colby Rasmus and Anthony Gose. Rasmus provides so much value just by being slightly above average at every facet of the game. Gose gets his value from being one of the fastest players in the game, which makes his base running, and routes to flyballs look remarkably easy. Gose doesn’t have to hit much to be a first division starter. While no one will probably covet Izturis, if the Jays take on a salary dump trade with another team he could be someone going the other way.
- Minor League Trade Options- A common criticism after the trades of last year was that the farm system was depleted so much that there is next to nothing of value remaining. While it is true they are no longer a top three overall system, they still have a lot of intriguing players albeit at the lower levels. The farm pegs to be valued at around a top 15 system, which is impressive considering they gave up Travis d’Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino, Yan Gomes, Wuilmer Becerra, Henderson Alvarez and Adeiny Hechavarria in various trades over the offseason. If the Jays decide to pry a top tier starter it will cost similar prospects, the difference is instead of players that might be able to make an immediate impact, their top chips are minimum two years away, some being even more. Some names to pay attention to include 2012 top draft pick Marcus Stroman who looks to be called up sometime this year or Aaron Sanchez who projects to be a number 2 starter in the majors (scouts never call a player a number 1 starter since it is so rare, so saying a number 2 is insanely high praise). Sanchez should be ready sometime in 2015 or later depending on how this year shapes up. Roberto Osuna who was signed at 16 out of Mexico is a big righty who will only turn 19 in February. Frankly the Jays are loaded with young stud pitchers like Matt Smoral, Sean Nolin, Daniel Norris and Adonys Cardona, all of whom project to be at minimum back of the rotation starters. Non-pitching wise the Jays still have SS Franklin Barreto, OF Anthony Alford and C AJ Jimenez. Anthopoulos stated when he was hired that the goal was to stock pile high upside minor leaguers as trade chips and to cash in to add on-field talent, so no one should have been shocked after the moves last year and if he does it again this year.
- Looking Forward To The Draft- The 2014 Rule 5 Amateur Draft is going to be a very important date on the Jays calendar next June. The team possesses two protected draft picks in the first round. When you finish in the bottom third of the standings you receive what is called a protected pick, so if you sign a player who has rejected a one year $14-million qualifying offer (there are 13 such players this year) you do not forfeit your first round pick (it becomes your second rounder you have to give up). The Jays finished with the 22nd best record in baseball so they will draft 9th overall. They get a second pick for failing to sign last years first rounder Phil Bickford. In the past if you failed to sign your first rounder you got your pick back the next year, one spot lower then what you took. The Jays drafted Bickford 10th overall, so this year they get to pick 11th. 2013 was the second straight year the team did not sign their top draft pick, for very different reasons. In 2012 the Jays failed to sign Tyler Beede, a high school pitcher, because the team and Beede’s advisors disagreed on his medicals and Beede would not take a smaller signing bonus. Since teams have had to stick to stricter draft pool allowances, the Jays have found a way to game the system. They pick a player in the first round that will command less money then they should cost, and use the savings to draft a player who slipped to the later rounds due to college commitments. Bickford demanded too much, more then the Jays were willing to offer and the team was willing to punt the pick to get an extra one in 2014. The reason was simple, the 2014 draft class is supposed to be one of the deepest drafts in recent history and an 11th overall pick is worth way more this year then in years previous. If they fail to sign their first rounders this year there is no do-over next year, so you can guarantee that Anthopoulos will sign both players.
The Toronto Blue Jays managed to be historically bad last year, and they really ought to be a lot better in 2014. By banking on return to forms from players who were either injured or under performed, they should at least be a wild card contending team. If they add one or two players to their impressive batting core of Brett Lawrie, Edwin Encarnation, Jose Bautista, Colby Rasmus and Melky Cabrera they will be deadly to face. If they manage to add a starter or two, there will not be an “easy” game for our opponents. Be optimistic and trust that Anthopoulos and his team know what they are doing. They still have two more years of basically the same team before almost all players come off the books, which by then if they have not won a World Series, expect the reset button to be hit. If they are successful, look forward to Toronto to become to premier option for free agent players as winning is the best tool to sell. Is it spring training yet?