Indecisive off-season comes back to bite Jays

March 12, 2014, 6:35 PM

Go ahead and kick something. Whip something against the wall. Or yell at your computer screen. Just let out all the frustrations over this winter of inactivity by the Toronto Blue Jays, cool off, and then let’s take a more sober look at things.

Yeah, this whole Ervin Santana business is pretty ugly, and not just because the Atlanta Braves swooped in at the 11th hour once Kris Medlen’s elbow blew up, and snatched him away in a deal announced early Wednesday morning. And not just because general manager Alex Anthopoulos is again depending on the starters he has to carry the load, even as the question marks linger.

The truth is the Blue Jays thought they had a $14-million, one-year deal essentially done with the free-agent right-hander, only to watch sands shift quickly over the weekend, have other suitors jump in, and ultimately come up empty-handed when a more favourable situation, for almost identical dollars, presented itself.

So hate on Anthopoulos if you must.

But you can’t argue that trying to build value for another run at free agency next fall, as Santana and new agent Jay Alou plan to do, makes a bazillion times more sense in the spacious ballparks and thinner lineups of the NL East, than in the homer-friendly AL East meat grinder. As Anthopoulos explained to Jeff Blair on Sportsnet 590 The Fan, “From what I was told, we couldn’t compete with being in the National League.”

Still, more intriguing is what Anthopoulos didn’t say while speaking with reporters in Dunedin, Fla., when asked if he thought Santana planned to sign with some team over the weekend. “I’d probably rather not say,” he replied after a long pause, a grin crossing his face. Asked immediately afterwards if he was surprised that Santana didn’t end up with the Blue Jays, Anthopoulos smiled wider and answered: “I’d probably rather not say on that one as well.”

The if-you-can’t-say-anything-nice-don’t-say-anything-at-all answers were clear attempts by Anthopoulos to take the high road, and suggest the process with Alou left him feeling hard done by. Remember that it was just late last week that Alou broke off from the Proformance agency he had worked for, taking Santana and Jose Bautista with him.

This negotiation was a test for Alou, and is as much about positioning Santana to cash in big next winter as about finding him a place to work this season. The Blue Jays were only the right landing spot until something better came along.

Still, that’s part of the risk Anthopoulos took when he refused to engage Santana’s reps earlier, jumping in only once Alou opened the door to a one-year deal worth something similar to the $14.1 million qualifying offer the Kansas City Royals had extended.

Either way, there’s always an element of unpredictability in free agency, which is why looking back on the off-season with the gift of hindsight, the decision to cut Josh Johnson loose back in November looks a lot different now.

Knowing the challenges the Blue Jays would face in either signing a starter at a price they felt was fair (Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, who got $50 million over four years from the Baltimore Orioles) or trading for one at a reasonable cost (the Chicago Cubs wanted Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez for Jeff Samardzija), perhaps swallowing hard and qualifying Johnson at $14.1 million might have made sense.

A dreadful 2-8 with a 6.20 earned-run average in 16 starts last year before elbow discomfort – leading to clean up surgery in October – shut him down, the 30-year-old right-hander ended up signing a one-year deal for $8 million, plus up to $1.25 million more in incentives, with the San Diego Padres.

The same deal would likely have cost the Blue Jays something in the range of a $12 million base – call it the AL East tax – so in a sense, the qualifying offer would have been a $2 million overpay to eliminate the competition.

That’s still a very pricey gamble on a healthy year from Johnson, but is it a better roll of the dice than betting on 180 innings from J.A. Happ, who is due $5.2 million? Perhaps.

Johnson has made two starts so far this spring, allowing three runs over five innings with five strikeouts and just one walk. Happ has resumed throwing after recovering from a back issue.

And if not Johnson, perhaps the Blue Jays should have taken their chances with Brett Anderson, whom they were ready to deal reliever Sergio Santos for until the left-hander’s medicals scared them off.

Anderson was eventually dealt by the Oakland Athletics to the Colorado Rockies for reliever Drew Pomeranz and minor-leaguer Chris Jensen, and in two starts so far this spring, has allowed one run over five innings with a walk and three strikeouts.

Now the Blue Jays really are left with what they have in-house, and if their internal assessments on youngsters like Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman and Kyle Drabek are off the mark, or if Brandon Morrow can’t stay healthy, this team is going to be in big, big trouble.

There may yet be opportunities to make trades as the season plays on – Samardzija’s situation is far from certain in Chicago, Cliff Lee might be available if the Phillies stumble, James Shields could be sold off if the Royals disappoint – but first R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Morrow and Co., must keep their team relevant long enough to make such an endeavour worthwhile.

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