DUNEDIN, Fla. – Back in December when indications of the Toronto Blue Jays’ willingness to stand pat with their pitching staff first began to surface, a player agent who liked the idea made the point to me that unpopular decisions aren’t necessarily unwise ones.
“Sometimes,” he said, “what’s hard is what’s best.”
In essentially giving his 74-win team from a year ago a mulligan, Alex Anthopoulos is intent on putting that notion to the test during the 2014 season, perhaps even risking his job on the return to health and internal development of his pitching staff.
The general manager’s pronouncements Thursday during a 33-minute session with media that “we’d like to do (add a starter) but we’re not going to do it at all costs,” and that an addition “is unlikely at this point, we’re getting so late into spring training,” certainly wasn’t well received by a restive fan-base.
Bad feelings from last year’s failure linger (my Twitter feed is a grim place), and with Ervin Santana sitting on the open market and the Blue Jays well positioned to sign him, the club’s relative inactivity this winter has shaken some of the public’s confidence in Anthopoulos. Ubaldo Jimenez’s signing with the Baltimore Orioles for $50 million over four years made things worse, and Santana may yet end up with another AL East team, too.
Just imagine the venom if that happens.
The question now is whether Anthopoulos’s faith in the upside of Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ, Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman and Kyle Drabek will be rewarded, and that given this second chance, this time with a layer of supporting pitchers lacking in 2013, the Blue Jays can get things right.
“We wanted to add to the rotation, to add depth,” said Anthopoulos. “But where some of the price points were, whether it was years or dollars or some of the acquisition costs in trades, I wouldn’t have felt good standing in a scrum and saying, ‘We didn’t believe in the acquisition cost, we just did it but we don’t feel good about it.’ You need to feel good about those moves.”
Still, someone like Santana or Jimenez would certainly have mitigated some of the risk in banking on health and upside, buying time for the youngsters to develop further, additional insurance should someone falter or get injured while providing an additional asset.
A mid-season trade is possible – if the Phillies, Indians and Royals fall out of contention early in the season starters like Cliff Lee, Justin Masterson and James Shields may become available, while Jeff Samardzija remains unsettled with the Cubs – but the Blue Jays must first perform well enough to make one worthwhile.
“We have some of the prospect capital to get something done in-season,” said Anthopoulos. “We have the payroll flexibility to do that as well. But we don’t want to force a deal, give someone a four or five-year deal if we don’t believe in it, just because you feel the need to add a starter. We’d like to, but it’s not just about adding a guy regardless of the cost. But in-season things can absolutely come up.”
That line of thinking applies to upgrading at second base, too.
Stephen Drew and fellow shortstop Aledmys Diaz (the Cuban who worked out privately for the Blue Jays last weekend, an industry source told Sportsnet) are both available and can shift over, but asked if he might be able to upgrade the position, Anthopoulos replied, “right now through free agency, I’d say no.”
“I would think it’s unlikely that we add someone there but I would say that we’ll still continue to have some dialogue trade-wise, see if we can bring someone else in,” Anthopoulos added. “Our target has been more a younger guy that has upside that has a chance to be a long-term piece.”
An ideal fit in that regard is Nick Franklin, pushed out of his spot in Seattle when the Mariners locked up Cano. But given that the 22-year-old has options remaining and less than a full year of service time, the Mariners are under no pressure to move him and exact a high price.
So, again, the Blue Jays will go with what they have for now, counting on Ryan Goins’ sterling defence – he’s “as good defensively as we've had here since Orlando Hudson,” Anthopoulos said – to carry his bat, with Maicer Izturis and Chris Getz, among others, in the mix.
Free agents like Omar Infante or Mark Ellis might have helped (Cano’s reps spoke to Anthopoulos, but were told they’d have to be willing to accept five years), but again the prices moved beyond the Blue Jays’ comfort level.
Only in replacing J.A. Arencibia did Anthopoulos go beyond the internal evaluations to sign a free agent.
“Dioner Navarro has a chance to have a really good year for us and has a lot of up-side, but I would have preferred to do one year and lower dollars but we really felt we needed to make a change there,” he said. “We stretched. We went two years and we went more money than we wanted to per year because we felt we had to make a change.”
Everywhere else Anthopoulos looked at what the Blue Jays had, and decided that as bad things went last year, things can just as easily play out in the opposite way this year. He better be right.