INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Acquiring young and cheap relievers is beginning to seem like a new hobby for Alex Anthopoulos.
It started during this year’s trade deadline with the acquisitions of Brad Lincoln and Steve Delabar, and extended into the off-season with last week’s deal for Esmil Rogers. Then consider that of the six waiver claims made over the past month by the Blue Jays, four of them have been for relievers.
The most intriguing stab at an inexpensive power arm came Thursday at the GM meetings when Anthopoulos sent $20,000, the cost of a waiver wire pickup, to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Jeremy Jeffress, a thunder-armed righty who was caught three times and suspended twice for recreational drug use and is now with a third organization.
Unlike the other waiver claims on pitchers – incidentally, only Cory Wade remains on the 40-man roster after Jeffress’s addition led to Scott Maine’s being designated for assignment – there is huge potential in this roll of the dice if the Blue Jays can get the 25-year-old straightened out.
“You can’t escape the fact this a great athlete with a great arm,” said Seattle Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik, who drafted Jeffress as scouting director with the Milwaukee Brewers. “He threw 97, 98 as a high school kid and he still has that arm and I know he throws 100 on occasion.
“He’s stubbed his toes a few times and he’s paid the price for it. To take a chance on a kid that throws as hard as he throws and is still young is a nice move on Toronto’s part.”
The 16th-overall pick in 2006 entered pro ball with the type of electric stuff that makes scouts drool, but his progress was derailed by what he described as a problem with marijuana, first failing a test after he signed with the Brewers and before his 50-game suspension for a second failed test in August 2007.
He was suspended 100 games for a third violation in June 2009, and will be banned for life if he fails another test while not on the 40-man roster of a big-league club. Players on a 40-man roster are exempt from rules covering drugs of abuse governing minor-leaguers.
That’s one reason he was available so cheap, but so too is his unpolished game on the mound. Over seven minor-league seasons, he has a strikeouts per nine of 10.0, but also 5.4 walks per nine and a WHIP of 1.421. In 38.2 big-league innings covering 37 games over three seasons, he’s struck out 7.9 batters per nine, walked 7.0 per nine, with an unsightly WHIP of 1.784.
So in many ways he’s a significant project, but the base talent means Jeffress will get more chances to fail than others and is why the Blue Jays are so interested in giving him a look.
“There’s no downside,” said Anthopoulos, and he’s right since there’s no financial commitment to speak of.
If things click – Jeffress is out options and he must either make the team out of spring training or be exposed to the waiver wire – the Blue Jays will have added another cheap, controllable relief arm to their stable of power hurlers in a gamble with no risk and the potential for a huge payoff.
“Everybody has their own time frame, you never know,” said Zduriencik. “Some guys get it in a hurry, there have been some great arms that just take a little bit longer. In his case, there aren’t many people who throw 100 miles an hour. He happens to be one of them.”
Speaking of Blue Jays relievers, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said trading Rogers to the Blue Jays for infielder Mike Aviles and catcher Yan Gomes “was really difficult for us,” but was made possible by his team’s depth in the bullpen and need for infield help.
The Indians acquired Rogers from the Rockies for cash last year and after his acquisition he blossomed, allowing just 47 hits and 12 walks over 53 innings while striking out 54 batters.
“He simplified things a little bit,” said Antonetti. “He focused on narrowing down his pitches, he knew as a reliever he didn’t need to go through a lineup three or four times, he could just focus on getting those three, four, five hitters out and that was it. Instead of trying to throw all his pitches, he limited it to throwing his best pitches (fastball, slider, curve), and really was aggressive in attacking the strike zone.”
Aside from Cory Wade, the only other player of the six waiver claims to remain on the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster is catcher Bobby Wilson.
With starter J.P. Arencibia, backup Jeff Mathis and top prospect Travis d’Arnaud already in place, the arbitration-eligible Wilson would seem to be redundant because he is out of options, especially with Alex Anthopoulos saying, “I don’t see (Mathis and Wilson) both being on this team come opening day. I don’t foresee us going with a three-man group there.”
So why get him?
“He’s someone who we claimed for a flexibility standpoint, he’s arbitration-eligible, non-guaranteed contract, you don’t know what’s going to come up at any point in time,” Anthopoulos said before making this interesting statement: “It just gives us options if something was to come up. We’ll have a decision to make at the tender deadline with him.”
Now, given that Mathis will be on the team and that if d’Arnaud is traded for big-league help Wilson still wouldn’t be needed, that suggests J.P. Arencibia is in play on the trade market.
The Mets are among the teams known to like Arencibia, and the Blue Jays expressed interest in left-handed starter Jon Niese last winter, but that’s probably not a trade New York does unless the pot is sweetened given the premium on pitching.
The Texas Rangers may also need a catcher with Mike Napoli entering free agency, and could be another suitor for Arencibia.
Either way, what happens with Wilson by the Nov. 30 deadline, offering arbitration-eligible players a contract may very well indicate what the Blue Jays are doing behind the plate.
If Wilson gets an offer, it becomes easier to deal Arencibia since the Blue Jays would have the veteran duo of Mathis and Wilson behind the plate to open the season until d’Arnaud forces their hand at triple-A Buffalo. If he doesn’t, it’s likely a sign the Blue Jays plan to stay the course with Arencibia for the time being.
Alex Anthopoulos and his staff have been busy trying to gauge the free agent pitching market, talking “conceptually” about things like term and comparables with various player representatives.
“We’ve inquired on pretty much all of them and tried to get a price from the respective free agents,” said Anthopoulos. “I’ve got a pretty good sense of that. It’s still fluid and everyone is trying to distinguish everyone’s value and determine what the market is going to be. The off-season is just getting started.”
That being said, the Blue Jays will soon start to hone in on the more realistic targets.
“The players that we meet with, we have a pretty good sense of where the dollars could be and the contracts could be, and those are the ones we’ll spend time on,” said Anthopoulos. “If we think we don’t have a chance at a player because for whatever reason they just don’t fit, we won’t even make the phone call.”
Lastly, did the Blue Jays overpay in giving infielder Maicer Izturis a $9-million, three-year deal with a club option for $3million?
One prominent player agent felt the money might be a bit high, but added the Blue Jays would need to pay a premium if others were bidding on him.
Other teams were in play and Anthopoulos himself said “going to the third year was what got it done early.”
The willingness to go above and beyond is noteworthy since the Blue Jays will likely need to do that to land a free agent pitcher, too