Between all the roster decisions big and small facing the Toronto Blue Jays in the weeks ahead, what looms largest is the more fundamental issue of how to augment their core without further mortgaging the future or locking into dubious contracts.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos must find a way to support the $110 million US already committed to 13 players for 2014 lest that money go to waste with another last-place finish, and operating under such need can often lead to poor choices.
Take the Los Angeles Angels last off-season: Having already unsuccessfully bulked up the previous winter with the hefty signings of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson (and adding Zack Greinke in a mid-season rental trade that further depleted their farm system), they were in a bind last winter when an 89-73 finish left them out of the post-season.
Looking to maintain their competitive window after Greinke signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Angels handed $125 million over five years to Josh Hamilton and $15 million over two years to Joe Blanton, while trading for Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson. Correcting a previous mistake, they also dealt Vernon Wells to the New York Yankees, paying them $28.1 million in 2013 and 2014 to accept him.
The end result: the Angels carry a 76-80 record through Monday’s play, and will again finish a distant and disappointing third in the American League West. But that’s not the worst part; far more troubling is that their system is largely barren and the back-loaded contracts of Pujols, Hamilton and Wilson are due to spike in the coming years, even as their play continues to decline.
Hamilton is due $32.4 million in both 2016 and 2017. Good luck with that.
The Angels aren’t alone as cautionary tales. The Philadelphia Phillies are in a somewhat similar boat with big money players on the ledger and, having raided their farm system to upgrade the big-league club, have few internal options right when the roster needs help most. To varying degrees, the New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants and Milwaukee Brewers are also facing similar problems.
All of which brings us back to the Blue Jays, Anthopoulos and their current predicament. The free agent market offers no sure-fire solutions to their area of greatest need -- starting pitching -- but there’s ample opportunity to spend good money after bad on risky arms that aren’t certain to offer substantial upgrades.
Matt Garza is probably the safest bet, although he may very well return to Texas, while Ervin Santana has been relatively steady in his career. Both will require big money, and Anthopoulos may be unwilling or unable to meet their demands.
Beyond them are interesting bounce-back candidates like Tim Lincecum and Roy Halladay, middle-of-the-road guys like Ricky Nolasco and Jason Vargas, and various other rolls of the dice.
Forget for a moment the challenges of getting a free agent past the typical biases against playing in Canada and to overlook the record -- finding someone willing and able to make an impact in the AL East will be very difficult.
At second base, Omar Infante is the only intriguing free-agent possibility but he may be too expensive, and luring him away from Detroit could be difficult, while a catcher’s market that includes Brian McCann (don’t hold your breath), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (not likely), Carlos Ruiz and A.J. Pierzynski (both interesting) offers some options should Anthopoulos want to move on from J.P. Arencibia.
Should the Blue Jays decline the $7-million option they hold on Adam Lind, they’ll also need a first base/DH type of player. James Loney would make a good fit.
But again, getting someone to sign won’t be easy and Anthopoulos isn’t drawing from a bottomless pit of money, which leaves him also trying to upgrade through trade and internal options.
The play of rookie Ryan Goins the past month leaves the Blue Jays with a solid and inexpensive defence-first option for second base, while prospect A.J. Jimenez was going to get a long look behind the plate during September before a nerve issue flared up in his elbow.
On the mound, Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, Sean Nolin and Marcus Stroman are all knocking on the door, but the Blue Jays would prefer to have them all open the 2014 season in triple-A Buffalo’s starting rotation, serving as the depth layer they lacked this year in the event of injuries and underperformance.
Some of them and other prospects could also be used in trades, but the Blue Jays must be careful about stripping down their system too far the way the Angels and Phillies have. Last season’s trades with Marlins, Mets and Astros cut into their stockpile and the gaps that created showed up this year.
Playing too many chips again this winter could end up preventing them from reloading incrementally in years to come. Anthopoulos also must manage the 40-man roster carefully, as he has a surplus of out-of-options bubble arms that he won’t want to lose for nothing. Among them are Todd Redmond, Brad Lincoln, Jeremy Jeffress and Luis Perez, who can’t all make the team out of spring next year.
Outfielder Moises Sierra is out of options, too, and the Blue Jays won’t be able to sneak him through waivers after the September he’s had, giving Anthopoulos another asset he must try and convert into something.
Exactly what on any front is an open question, and how they address the needed clubhouse adjustments at the same time makes the entire process all the more complicated. In some ways it’s similar to where they were last year -- except without the financial flexibility, leaving the Blue Jays much less room to manoeuvre, and making each mistake that much more painful.
Remember when a bigger payroll used to be the panacea? It’s like the Notorious B.I.G. song says: “The more money we come across, the more problems we see.”