Alex Anthopoulos says his Toronto Blue Jays are probably more than one player away, but he isn’t ruling out plugging those holes before next spring.
One day after his club wrapped up the 2011 season with a 81-81 record — good for fourth in the AL East — the Jays’ general manager said although he’s unsure whether his current roster is good enough to end Toronto’s 18-year playoff drought, his outlook could change in a hurry.
"From our standpoint, I don’t think we’re one player away, but maybe things change if there are trades that develop," Anthopoulos offered. "Your timeline and your calendar can change too depending on how the off-season goes."
What Anthopoulos does know is that if his club has any hopes of playing meaningful games next September, the team’s pitching will have to dramatically improve from 2011 when it finished 11th in AL team ERA at 4.32.
Anthopoulos said other than ace Ricky Romero, "everyone else in the rotation can stand to improve, or are capable of doing more, and that’s the hope." Behind Romero, the Jays’ current internal options for the 2012 rotation provide far more questions than answers.
Projected No. 2 starter Brandon Morrow closed out 2011 with three straight dominant outings to finish the year with over 200 strikeouts, but long stretches of inconsistency saw him average just 5.9 innings per start. As for the other candidates, no one knows whether Brett Cecil will regain the lost life on his fastball; Kyle Drabek was a complete bust in his rookie season; Dustin McGowan’s health remains an ongoing concern and Henderson Alvarez, although very impressive in a brief late-season look, remains just 21 years old.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Anthopoulos repeated his statement from last week that he believes the talented double-A foursome of Chad Jenkins, Deck McGuire, Drew Hutchison and Nestor Molina will "factor in" to the 2012 rotation at some point.
"More than anything else, hopefully we’re going to have some improvements internally in our rotation and if we can add someone from outside, that’d be great if it’s a mid-to-front end of rotation starter," he said.
As for where that external mound addition might come from, Anthopoulos repeated another refrain from last week — that he intends to seek it via the trade route.
"We’ll definitely go down that path, we’ll explore it, but I don’t know if certainly we’ll end up getting someone," he said. "We’re not going to try to force something that isn’t going to be there."
One year ago, the Milwaukee Brewers found themselves in a similar position.
The Brewers finished 2010 with a 77-85 record despite a strong offence and a talented core of young players. But thanks to a pair of shrewd off-season deals by GM Doug Melvin to acquire starters Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke the Brewers won 96 games in 2011 en route to their first division title since 1982.
When asked whether his club might be capable of pulling off something similar to what the Brewers achieved last winter, Anthopoulos said the pieces are in place.
"Certainly, I definitely think we are," he replied. "We have the prospects to try and line up and trade. Being able to do it is certainly harder, but we’re open-minded to that. If there’s a trade that can make us better, and we’re going to use our prospects to get better, we’re definitely going to do that."
Another intriguing — albeit expensive — possibility for the rotation is Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish. Anthopoulos went to see the 25-year-old pitcher for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters earlier in the year but speculation is it could take upwards of $100 million to gain the players’ release and sign him to a deal.
On Thursday, the Jays GM was mum on Dravish other than to say he expects to know by the end of the year whether his club intends to make him available.
As for the bullpen, with Shawn Camp, Jon Rauch incumbent closer Frank Francisco all possibilities to exit via free agency this off-season, Anthopoulos said it’s an area you can expect to see some new faces in 2012.
"We’re certainly going to have to go to the free agent route in the bullpen," he said. "I just don’t think we have the internal depth to try to overcome some of the challenges that we’ve had."
Anthopoulos may very well have been referring to the back of the bullpen, where the team blew an AL-high 25 saves.
"Blown saves can impact the team," he said. "It’s demoralizing across the board."
This year’s projected free agent class includes a number of big-name closers such as Heath Bell, Francisco Cordero, Ryan Madson, Jonathan Papelbon, Jose Valverde and Francisco Rodriguez.
"There’s a lot of options," said Anthopoulos. "You can find value at times, but getting someone who’s a little more elite, a little more bona fide is definitely more appealing. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. There’s value (in an elite closer) whether you’re contending or not."
Whether the Jays think they can contend in 2012 may largely come down to their efforts on the trade front early this off-season.
"If we made a few trades, that may change the landscape and that may change the way we go after free agency," said Anthopoulos. "It’s too early to tell, but there’s no question, one can impact the other, a free agent signing or a trade."
Anthopoulos impressed with Farrell, coaches:
Anthopoulos was pleased enough with the performance of his rookie manager and his coaching staff that he expects to see all of them return next season.
The Jays GM said Thursday each member of John Farrell’s staff will be offered a contract for 2012, but he will not prevent them from pursuing a better opportunity with another organization.
"I thought everyone did a good job with what they had available and it’s on us, the front office to improve the talent," said Anthopoulos.
As for his rookie skipper , Anthopoulos said he was particularly impressed with Farrell’s ability to recognize and learn from his mistakes.
"I think in life when you can self-evaluate and have the humility to make improvements, it just points to his upside and his intelligence. It’s not about his ego and that’s one of the great things about him.
"For not having managed, having gone through the adversity, the injuries, ups and downs, I thought he did a very good job, but I think he’s going to get better."
Anthopoulos on…whether he’ll be aggressive in free agency:
"I like to think I am and our staff is super aggressive all the time. I think that’s what we need in sports. It’s so competitive. With respect to big-name free agents, you get into ‘super aggressive’ chasing a free agent and you have to stay objective to be able to place values. I’ve said this before: When you start pursuing the player and say you have to have the player, is when you make a mistake. We’re going to be aggressive in improving the team.”
…On the possibility of moving players around the diamond:
"We’ll be open-minded to it. We like Brett Lawrie at third base, we like Jose Bautista in right field. That being said, the fact that they can play multiple positions, I guess there’s always a possibility. It’s not in our plans, it’s not something we’ve extensively talked about, but we’re going to continue to be open-minded about it and if there’s ways to improve the team. We’ll look at it, but right now our planning is going to focus on Jose in right and Brett and third."
On his impressions of Kelly Johnson:
"The encouraging thing is his ability to draw a walk. We’ve talked about that extensively as we try to improve our on-base percentage. I thought Kelly did a nice job and he’s definitely in the mix for us. In the coming weeks, we’ll certainly reach out to his agent, but it’s hard to characterize where any of that is going to go."
…On Colby Rasmus:
"Very talented player, very young player. Getting traded, obviously it’s been an up and down year for him. We’ll allow him to get back home, clear his head, start fresh and I think he’ll be a lot better. I think Yunel Escoabr was a lot comparable in the sense that he played well early for us last year when we acquired him, didn’t end the year on the best note, but this season you noticed, he felt a part of the team and had his best year in a long time. I think Colby’s going to be a lot better. There’s a lot of upside to him and defensively he stabilized that spot for us.”
…On the Rays September charge:
"I don’t know if I’m shocked. In the off-season and early in the season, we all felt Tampa Bay was going to be a very good team. They can still pitch. I think arguably, they’re the best run organization in sports and that’s across the board. They just do a great job. I don’t think it changes our challenge. We know that they’re not going away. They make a lot of good trades, they sign a lot of good free agents. They do everything right, with respect to the resources they have which makes you admire them even more."
…On the Jays off-season budget:
"Paul’s (Beeston) words to me always are ‘make your case,’ irrespective of who the player is. I remember my first off-season he constantly asked me about (Jason) Bay and (John) Lackey and whether we wanted to be players with them and I just felt, they’re good players, but it just wasn’t the time for us to delve into that. There’s a lot of good players out there in free agency, but again, it has to line up. We like a lot of players, but we like them at a certain price. There are times, the closer you are to contending, you might take if you want to call it a tax where it’s a year or two you might not get any productivity from the player, but I think if you’re going to go down that path, you better feel that you’re right there."
…On whether he ever thinks about fan frustration:
"I do. I know it’s there. I just think at the same time you can’t force it and not do what you believe is right. I know it’s not easy for the fans to hear that at times but I think long-term if you know what you’re doing is right for the organization and you’re not just trying to make a splash in the winter, and getting a slap on the back."
…On whether Adam Lind, is first-half Lind or second-half Lind?
"I think he’s the player we saw in the first half. He’s done what he did in the first half in past years. He’s been banged up this year, wrist, back, the workload at first base. I just think he got worn down. He’s too good a hitter."
…On 2012 options for left field:
"It’s going to be a competition. Eric (Thames) had a nice year for us and that’s going to weigh on our minds. We’re not going to hand anybody the job, so they’re going to have to compete. I don’t know what the off-season is going to bring. I don’t expect to go out and get an outfielder, but if there’s value and it makes sense, we’ll definitely explore it. The way Eric’s played, he’s put himself in a very good spot."
…On Travis Snider:
"We expected more, he expected more, we’re stating the obvious there. We were hoping he was going to put it all together this season start to finish. It didn’t work out that way. It’s what happens with young players. He needs to come in and compete again. He’s still young, he still has a world of talent, it’s still in there. Expect Travis to come in and compete. He knows where he’s at and needs to make this team."