1. What do you expect the Blue Jays to do about their rotation this winter?
Nicholson-Smith: Put it this way: the rotation will look considerably different on opening day 2014. Expect the Blue Jays to direct cash and trade chips toward starting pitchers and address their biggest off-season need with one or two arms. The decision to let Josh Johnson walk without a qualifying offer reflects the team’s desire to have a healthy staff in 2014. Expect the Blue Jays to prioritize starters who offer durability. If Anthopoulos turns to the trade market, arms that can be retained beyond 2014 figure to be a priority.
Zwelling: This is probably an unpopular opinion, but I don’t think the Blue Jays will sign a top-tier free agent pitcher. I could see the team very quickly getting priced – or more likely termed – out of the sweepstakes for Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, et al. Instead, I could see Anthopoulos using some of his current capital to either fill holes from within or create a trade package for a younger, more affordable and controllable pitcher. One thing you know Anthopoulos will do this winter is build pitching depth with veterans on inexpensive, short-term contracts, filling out the Buffalo Bisons roster with the Ramon Ortiz’s and Chien-Ming Wang’s of the world so that when major league pitchers inevitably get hurt (*COUGH* Brandon Morrow *COUGH*) there is someone decent to fill in.
Davidi: I expect the Blue Jays to add two experienced starters, one of whom would be considered higher-end. They need to improve their starting depth, and in an ideal world guys like Hutchison, Drabek, Stroman and Nolin are at triple-A waiting for an injury or someone to falter.
Wilner: I’m pretty sure they’ll look to add multiple starters from outside the organization, either through free agency or trade. Free agent Ubaldo Jimenez and Oakland lefty Brett Anderson have long been the apples of Alex Anthoupoulos’ eye. They may not be able to get more than one, and certainly after what happened this past season there are no guarantees no matter who you pick up. I’m thinking that we’ll see significant contributions from in-house arms like Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, Sean Nolin and Marcus Stroman in 2014, though.
2.If the Blue Jays decide to upgrade at catcher, who do you see them ending up with?
Nicholson-Smith: Personally I don’t see the Blue Jays landing Brian McCann or Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the top two free agent catchers available. Instead, they might gravitate toward veterans such as Carlos Ruiz. The 34-year-old had a down year at the plate, but he has a history of getting on base with doubles power and won’t be linked to draft pick compensation. At his age, a long-term deal seems unlikely, so the Blue Jays might be able to land him on a relatively modest two-year deal and keep most of their cash for other needs — especially the rotation.
Zwelling: It’s tough to speculate about who is and is not available via trade, but it seems that Anthopoulos has kicked the tires on the L.A. Angels duo of Chris Iannetta and Hank Conger, along with Washington Nationals backstop Wilson Ramos. Any of those players would be a definite upgrade and could possibly be had in exchange for some combination of the Blue Jays depth in the outfield and pitching. The options available in free agency are less than tantalizing but one name that stands out is Carlos Ruiz. He’s coming off a weird season that never really got off the ground following a suspension for Adderall use and a hamstring injury. That could lower his value and allow the Blue Jays to snatch up a dependable defensive catcher who triple-slashed .325/.395/.540 as recently as 2012, at a bargain. Now, we must acknowledge that Ruiz is going to be 35 and certainly can’t log the nearly daily work that J.P. Arencibia did in 2012. But two years of Chooch at $8 million per season would be a nice band-aid over the position until Anthopoulos can figure out a more permanent solution.
Davidi: This depends largely on how much in terms of either prospects or cash or both acquiring starters costs them. Everyone from Carlos Ruiz to Jarrod Saltalamacchia to A.J. Pierzynski makes some sense. Kurt Suzuki is an interesting guy.
Wilner: No clue. Word is they’ve talked to Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s agent, but how much of an upgrade is he? Similar on-base percentages to J.P. Arencibia in 2011 and ’12, he’s a power-hitting catcher who doesn’t get on much, strikes out a lot and isn’t a star defensively. Free agents A.J. Pierzynski, Jose Molina and Carlos Ruiz will all be on the wrong side of 35 come Opening Day. I think this might well be a trade scenario.
3. Who’s one free agent the Blue Jays should avoid?
Nicholson-Smith: The Blue Jays should avoid Bronson Arroyo. The right-hander has established himself as a reliable 200-inning pitcher, and he will be well-compensated in free agency this winter. But Arroyo allowed more home runs than any MLB pitcher from 2011-13, so asking him to start 30 games in the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre would be problematic. Better options exist for the Blue Jays.
Zwelling: Brian McCann. This is a soon-to-be 30-year-old catcher who has put his body through more than 8,800 innings behind the plate in the last nine years. That’s a massive amount of wear and tear. Durability has to be a major concern and as long as Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion remain in the fold, it doesn’t look like the Blue Jays will have a ton of designated hitter or first base at-bats to spare. That’s not to mention McCann’s numbers against lefties which have been getting progressively worse in recent seasons (.231/.279/.337 in 2013) and are bordering on unplayable.
Davidi: Matt Garza. He’s got tremendous appeal because of his track record in the AL East and potential to dominate, but he’s thrown just 259 innings the past two seasons, spending time on the DL with a stress fracture in his elbow and a lat strain, and the last thing the Blue Jays need is more potential health risks in the rotation. If they’re going to spend big, bet on stability, even if the ceiling is lower.
Wilner: Alfredo Aceves. If you don’t believe me, ask Larry Walker.
4. Name one under-the-radar player that should appeal to the Blue Jays this winter?
Nicholson-Smith: I’ll go off the board here and suggest Eric O’Flaherty, the left-handed reliever who excelled with the Atlanta Braves before undergoing Tommy John surgery last May. He’s not expected to contribute much in the first half of the 2014 season, and the Blue Jays already have lefties Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup, so O’Flaherty shouldn’t rank high on the team’s priority list. But there are lots of reasons to like a 28-year-old left-handed reliever who generates ground balls and limits home runs.
Zwelling: What if you could sign an unheralded free agent who’s put up 8.2 WAR (per FanGraphs) over the past four seasons to play every day? That’d be nice. He’s not a sexy name, but Omar Infante would correct a lot of problems with this team and be relatively inexpensive (likely somewhere in the neighbourhood of three years, $24 million), freeing up other money to spend elsewhere. Infante is a sound defender, he makes solid contact, he limits strikeouts, he could easily fill in at any other position on the diamond and he’s proven to be durable into his early thirties. Hell, if the Blue Jays can just have a functioning human being with a pulse at second base putting up league average numbers everyday it would solve an awful lot of headaches, wouldn’t it? And if they can do it with a guy like Infante who comes cheap and with a decent amount of upside? Do it.
Davidi: Not sure how under the radar he is, but Mark Ellis could be a nice fit at second base without blowing the salary structure apart. A right-handed bat who posted a .674 OPS last year for the Dodgers, he could be a nice complement to Ryan Goins while providing another mature, veteran presence. He’s also been to the playoffs four times, so he knows how play on a winner.
Wilner: The Blue Jays can fill their vacant fourth outfield spot (caused by the impending departure of free agent Rajai Davis) with Anthony Gose if they like, but if they want Gose to get everyday at-bats in Buffalo, an under-the-radar sign could be Rogearvin Bernadina. First of all, he has a great name. Secondly, he began his pro career in the Expos organization. Beyond that, he’s going to be a cheap sign coming off a terrible year, but he hit .291/.372/.405 in 2012 and before last year’s awflitude, and stole 48 bases in 56 tries as a bench player from 2010-’12.
5. Will Jose Bautista still be a Toronto Blue Jay on Opening Day 2014?
Nicholson-Smith: Yes — but not until you’ve heard his name in one trade rumour after another. Don’t forget that Bautista is an excellent player. He gets on base at a rate that’s well above league average and he’s an annual threat to hit 35 home runs. The Blue Jays can keep him for $14 million per season through 2016, which makes him a relative bargain in today’s game. Trading him would create a hole in the Blue Jays’ outfield and in their lineup. Plus, even though teams covet right-handed power bats, they may hesitate to surrender top players for someone whose past two seasons ended on the disabled list.
Zwelling: Oh boy am I ever conflicted about this question–so let me hedge for a minute. Personally, I don’t think the time to trade Bautista is now. I think you absolutely explore it this coming July if the team is once again below .500 and dead in the water. But today? This is a player coming off an injury-hampered, below-his-standards year who still managed 4.2 wins above replacement in 528 plate appearances. I just don’t see any possible return helping the Blue Jays win in 2014 more than Jose Bautista himself would. But it’s getting hard to ignore some of the murmurs about his availability in trade talks and he does have one hell of a team-friendly contract for a player of his ability. That’s worth something to a lot of teams. My gut says Bautista is starting in right field and batting third for the Toronto Blue Jays on Opening Day 2014. But we now exist in a world where it wouldn’t be a massive shock if Bautista was traded. And man, is that ever strange.
Davidi: Yes. I think it’s possible he gets dealt, but the return would have to be so great I think it’s very unlikely to happen.