TORONTO – A quiet off-season lacking in impact moves nearly played out vastly differently for the Toronto Blue Jays, who had separate trades for Ian Kinsler and Brett Anderson fall apart earlier this winter.
The near-misses, sources confirmed to Sportsnet, would have significantly revamped general manager Alex Anthopoulos’s last-place club and rekindled hope among a disappointed fan base.
Instead, the Blue Jays have been playing out the market as they pursue their Plan D, waiting for the price-points on free agent starters Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana or someone like potential trade candidate Jeff Samardzija to more closely align with their valuations.
That patient approach – one which may pay off with club-friendly terms but may also backfire if a surprise team jumps into the market – was met with a calm resignation from roughly 900 season-ticket holders attending Wednesday night’s State of the Franchise event at Rogers Centre.
Anthopoulos told fans he remains "very active and very involved" in the pursuit of pitching help, and intriguingly, he told reporters beforehand that "the prices have certainly changed from the start of the off-season to now," and that "free agency, it’s probably fair to say, has become a little more appealing."
Still, that doesn’t mean he’s spent the off-season sitting on his hands, as the failed attempts to acquire Kinsler and Anderson demonstrate.
Kinsler, traded from the Texas Rangers to Detroit Tigers for Prince Fielder in November, would have been a significant coup, given the upgrade he would have represented at second base and the dynamic tandem he would have formed with Jose Reyes up the middle.
But a potential deal was scuttled by the three-time all-star’s no-trade clause, leaving the Rangers to look elsewhere, and the Blue Jays to anoint rookie Ryan Goins as the front-runner at second base.
Anderson, dealt in December by the Oakland Athletics to Colorado Rockies for pitcher Drew Pomeranz and prospect Chris Jensen, nearly ended up with the Blue Jays in exchange for Sergio Santos. But those talks fell apart due to concern over Anderson’s injury risk.
As things stand now, the Blue Jays rotation is slated to include R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ and one of Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman, Kyle Drabek or Sean Nolin.
Jimenez and Santana are the free agent pitchers of primary interest to Anthopoulos. A.J. Burnett, whom recent reports suggest is now willing to pitch outside of Pittsburgh, would be on that list, too, although the belief is he wants to remain near his Maryland home if he doesn’t return to the Pirates.
Working in the Blue Jays’ favour is that their two first-round picks are both protected, meaning if they signed a free agent with compensation attached they would only surrender a second-round pick.
Teams have been reluctant to part with first-round picks for anything less than an elite free agent, largely because of the drop-off in talent between the first and second rounds, but also because of the damage forfeiting a pick does to their signing bonus pool.
While waiting so late into the off-season to try and make impact moves is far from ideal, Anthopoulos said the market this year is about a month behind its usual pace given the number of quality players still available.
He acknowledged the risks of playing things out so late, but noted, "for the most part, agents will circle back with all the clubs before they do something, unless something unbelievable falls into their lap and they have to close."
The slow pace may be leading to some downward pressure on free agent prices since spring training is only about three weeks away, and Anthopoulos mentioned he’s had talks with most of the prominent free agent position players. "If there’s a fit at the right dollars and right years we’re open to it."
Still, the priority remains upgrading the starting rotation and that’s where the Blue Jays most want to allocate their money.
The trade market holds little promise given the big asking prices for top pitchers – "It seems each year, getting those established big-league players is getting harder and harder," said Anthopoulos – leaving free agency the likeliest avenue to make those upgrades.
"I don’t know that we’re done, we haven’t stopped having dialogue. Where those discussions are going to lead?" said Anthopoulos, adding later: "We haven’t lined up yet on years and dollars. I can only assume that’s what other teams are going through as well."
So the game continues, the near-deals from earlier this winter creating opportunities for deals that may yet be.