Though he preferred to make significant roster additions through trades in years past, Alex Anthopoulos sees more opportunity in the free-agent market for the Toronto Blue Jays as he prepares for the annual general managers’ meetings which open Monday in Orlando, Fla.
Through his first four off-seasons, Anthopoulos dished out only two multi-year contracts to free agents, both last November—$16 million over two years for Melky Cabrera and $10 million over three years to Maicer Izturis—a pair of transactions that framed the transformative Miami Marlins blockbuster.
Once again needing to patch up holes after a season of underachievement—improving the starting rotation is the priority—Anthopoulos believes free agency is more open to him in the past.
“The information you get now is so preliminary in terms of the market, most free agents haven’t even gotten offers, or are just fielding calls from teams letting them know there’s interest,” he says in an interview. “Things change so quickly, but I’d say right now there’s a chance at both. It seems like with all the different things we’re looking to do, half of the scenarios are in free agency, half of the scenarios are in trade.”
All of which begs the question: exactly how much money do the Blue Jays have to spend?
Sources confirm free-agent starters Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco are seeking five-year contracts worth $100 million and $80 million respectively, as first reported by Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com. Regardless of whether Anthopoulos is interested in either (Santana would appear to be more of a fit), their asking prices reflect the expectations of the market, based on industry inflation, supply and demand, and the flood of increased revenue teams will be getting from the new national TV deals.
A trickle-down effect can be expected, even if teams balk at those dollars.
The Blue Jays already have $120 million committed to 16 players with an estimated $11 million more due to arbitration eligible players Colby Rasmus, J.P. Arencibia, Esmil Rogers and Brett Cecil. Factor in a generous $3 million for 0-3 service time players, and that would leave Anthopoulos at a payroll of about $134 million.
If his limit for 2014 is $140 million, that leaves him with very little wiggle room. Even $150 million isn’t likely to go very far in this market, especially with the club likely looking to add a couple of starters and perhaps a catcher and a second baseman.
So the Blue Jays may very well be looking to fill some of their needs through trades as well, perhaps moving some money to take on some money. They could also make a prospect-based deal, although they need to be careful of further stripping down their farm system after last year’s gutting through the deals with the Marlins and Mets.
Upper-level prospects, the kind with real value, sure to attract interest include Marcus Stroman (impressing in a big way in the Arizona Fall League) and Sean Nolin, along with Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek, who both have big-league experience and are recovered from their Tommy John surgeries.
Anthopoulos believes he can still deal from his farm system without mortgaging the future.
"We always keep an eye on what we have, and we know we have two high draft picks (ninth and 11th) coming up next year, that certainly helps,” he explains. “The other thing is we have some strength at the lower levels of the minor leagues, especially on the Bluefield team and in the Gulf Coast League. The prospects that are further away typically don’t carry as much value, rightfully so, but we’re pretty high on some of those guys. It takes a few years to build their value in the industry and those aren’t players that necessarily are going to be a centre-piece to a deal either way.”
Though there has been much consternation in the Blue Jays fan base about the prospects Anthopoulos dealt away last winter, he notes that such moves are part of managing “prospect capital.”
“The likelihood is some will become very good players, and some won’t pan out at all, and we’ve seen that with big-league players we’ve had aspirations for,” he adds. “They are capital because they can be used in trades.”
Still, the Blue Jays must be careful to not use up all their currency as they try to adequately support their payroll commitments this winter, which is why free agency may carry more appeal.
Adding to that incentive is the fact that by finishing among the 10 worst teams in baseball in 2013—they were 21st overall at 74-88—their first-round pick is protected in the event they want to pursue a qualified free agent, like Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez. The Blue Jays would surrender a second-round pick for signing such a player, which allows them to aim higher in the free agent market.
“That helps quite a bit,” says Anthopoulos. “When you have a chance to get multiple years of a free agent, and it’s a now big-league player. I think almost every team would do that. We’re not happy with the way the year went, but now in the off-season it’s to our advantage that we don’t have to surrender a first-round pick.”
Keep in mind it was last year at the GM meetings where the blockbusters with the Marlins and Mets first took root. Things may be about to get interesting for the Blue Jays and their general manager once again.