TORONTO — Give Alex Anthopoulos credit: He’s very, very good at staying on message, and saying a lot without saying much at all. In surveying the heaping pile of misery his Toronto Blue Jays served up to the masses in 2013, the general manager kept coming back over and over and over to one thing Sunday—the starting rotation.
“Just go back over the years, rotations will carry you,” he said during a wide-ranging 70-minute session with media. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to get into the playoffs, but they’ll certainly keep you competitive. The one certainty is if you’re toward the bottom rung in terms of starters ERA, you have no chance at all.”
Sure, the Blue Jays finished second-last in the majors on that front at 4.81—suck on that, Minnesota Twins—and that’s going to submarine any team’s playoff hopes, no matter how bold and promising the off-season buildup. But all that’s been painfully obvious to anyone who’s watched this 74-88 season—2,536,562 fans did so in person, an attendance increase of 436,899 over last year—and the Blue Jays aren’t simply a pair of starters away from playing September games that are meaningful to them, rather than their opponents.
It’s in the details, the finishing touches that are needed, where the notoriously tight-lipped GM was most evasive, dancing around, if not outright ignoring questions on how a team that was so slack in so many facets of the game cleans things up for 2014.
To be fair, it does start with the rotation, and if suitable complements for R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle aren’t found—factoring Brandon Morrow into the mix is a bad idea, better to let him be a healthy surprise next year—nothing else the Blue Jays do will matter much. Besides the other roster issues that need to be addressed—namely catcher and second-base—the sloppy fundamentals that plagued the Blue Jays through April and May and that ultimately sunk them, plus a defence that gave opponents too many free outs, must be tightened up.
On top of that, a dose of character and grit needs to be inserted into a clubhouse that didn’t really mesh. "I think we could be better as a unit and as a 25-man group, as a roster, and all kind of be pulling from the same rope, so to speak," said closer Casey Janssen. "Early we had guys that were hurt, guys that left for the WBC, we brought in quite a few new guys and there was a little bit of a feeling-out period for a lot of us as far going to a dinner, when to joke with somebody, who can and who you can’t joke with. When you have new guys you’re trying to learn not only the person, but also the personality, and everything that goes with it. We never really had the 25-man we were hoping to break with until a lot later in the year than we anticipated."
Veteran Mark DeRosa, whose $750,000 option for 2014 will be exercised by the team leaving him to decide if he wants to play another season, pointed to the Boston Red Sox’s additions of Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, David Ross and Jonny Gomes as crucial in their turnaround.
"It’s the character of the people that you put in the clubhouse," he said. "When you make a roster, you make it for a specific reason, and I feel like that’s what you should concentrate on.
The character of the guys plays a huge part in creating chemistry, but also in being accountable to his teammates, and being accountable to his coaches and manager. I don’t think this team lacked chemistry, I think we got along extremely well for as much turmoil and injuries as we had, we were able to keep this clubhouse pretty good for the most part."
That’s some of the nuanced work that will be most challenging for Anthopoulos, who acknowledged that he may in certain cases be willing to accept less talent in favour of better intangibles. Still, he made it clear that the club’s available resources will get poured into the rotation first this winter.
The Blue Jays still have prospects to deal after the system-ravaging trades made with the Marlins and Mets last winter, but whether it’s wise to further raid the farm is worth debating. The focus now must be on servicing the $110 million in payroll commitments Anthopoulos made to 13 players for next year lest that money go down the drain, too, and the free agent market isn’t graced with a bevy of options. (Although by virtue of their bottom-10 finish, the Blue Jays first-round pick will be protected next year. That means they can sign a top free agent without surrendering their first-rounder as compensation, and with the No. 11 choice for their failure to sign Phil Bickford this summer, they’ll have a chance to replenish in the draft.)
"Our farm system is still deep, obviously not as deep as it was, but at the same time when you have prospects you know going in, as highly ranked as they can be, they’re not all going to make it, they’re not all going to perform, and how many big-league players, let alone stars, are going to be realized from that," said Anthopoulos. "You’d be amazed sometimes at some of the fits you have, and that’s why you have big-league players as well that might fit in terms of trades and things like that.
"From a payroll standpoint, everything that we did, we understood the commitments. It’s not like anyone under contract for 14 or 15 we didn’t know about it, we didn’t plan. We always do projections, arbitration, things like that, so were certainly prepared for it. I still think we have quite a bit of flexibility, overall."
That last comment is intriguing, since with Colby Rasmus, Brett Cecil, J.P. Arencibia and Esmil Rogers bound for arbitration, plus the club options on DeRosa, Janssen and Adam Lind that Anthopoulos all but confirmed the Blue Jays will be picking up, the club payroll quickly ends up in the $130 million range. If the team’s payroll is headed for $140 million that would provide the GM some flexibility to make some interesting things happen. Right-hander Masahiro Tanaka is expected to be posted by his Japan League team Rakuten, and the Blue Jays have scouted him.
"If it’s trade, if it’s free agency, it’s what makes the most sense from a value standpoint," Anthopoulos said of how the team looks to improve. "In terms of the Asian market, we’ve definitely done our homework there, scouted, but again, it comes down to if you do have to post, financially is it going to make sense?"
The team will also look to either bring in a second baseman to compete with impressive rookie Ryan Goins for the starting job, or add an established player at the position. They will closely examine the catching market after J.P. Arencibia’s stunning offensive regression from the .720 OPS player he must be to start for the Blue Jays, and while Anthopoulos was careful in his statements, it wasn’t hard to read between the lines.
"We would look at all free agents in all areas where we could improve," he said in response to a question about Arencibia. "It’s all about alternatives and if we can’t do better, we’ll do what we can to improve the players on the roster." Anthopoulos said prospect A.J. Jimenez might be ready to contribute next April, but he wasn’t certain whether the catcher would be given a chance to compete for a job or not. Jimenez would have been up in September if not for a nerve issue in his surgically repaired right elbow.
Other notable topics mentioned by Anthopoulos:
- "The club’s surplus of relievers is one area of depth we might have that could be attractive to other teams. We were asked about a lot of our guys in July and I don’t know how the off-season’s going to go, but it will not surprise me if maybe we use some of that depth to help the club in some other areas."
- Brett Lawrie is all but locked in at the hot corner, with a switch to second not in the plans unless Anthopoulos can get a third baseman "who is established and it’s a great player, you’d look at it."
- Stadium staff are looking at installing a new artificial turf within the next two years or so as a stop-gap before the Toronto Argonauts leave and natural grass can be put in for 2018, as hoped. The operations people are also trying to find ways to keep the rug from compressing while rolled up, allowing it to have more give.
- The Blue Jays may become more conservative in taking on players with past health issues as a way to reduce the risk of injuries derailing a season. They led the majors with 1,380 games lost to injury, according to Stats Inc., and were second with 28 DL stints.
- The front office needs to account more for defence on turf rather than judging a player based on his performance on grass. "If we view someone as an average defender on some other team, maybe we need to adjust internally and look for those above average defenders because of those challenges of playing on turf," he said.
- Munenori Kawasaki has a $1 million option for next season that if declined, will make the popular infielder a free agent. Anthopoulos expects to make a decision soon.
Really, the work is just beginning for the Blue Jays, who will start making decisions on their coaching staff next week, with a change or two unwarranted but expected. After that, the focus turns to fixing the on-field product that was so filled with promise but flopped so badly.
"We’ll start at the rotation and find any way we can help them, whether it’s players, the defence and so on, and then from there work our way through some of the positions," Anthopoulos said. Last off-season, the GM swung big and missed. This winter, he’s facing a much tougher at-bat, and the possibility of no more trips to the plate if he whiffs again.