Should Blue Jays prefer free agency to trades?

Marcus Stroman (Jim R. Bounds/AP)
December 10, 2013, 7:57 PM

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Toronto Blue Jays could make things simpler on themselves, goes one line of thinking in the winter meetings lobby, by abandoning attempts at trading for a starting pitcher, holding their nose, and paying a price they don’t like for a free-agent hurler.

In doing so, their precious inventory of pitching depth would go untouched, the painful sacrifice of a top prospect like Aaron Sanchez or Marcus Stroman – whom most potential trade partners ask about – can be avoided, and the rotation benefits (at least in theory) from the steadiness of another proven arm.

So, Alex Anthopoulos, why not go that route? Why insist on trying to make a trade?

“The mid (rotation) guy, we’d consider that, the back-end guy, that’s where our depth lies,” Anthopoulos said Tuesday when another day of yakking didn’t lead to any transactions. “We have a bunch of guys who can be back-end currently and have some upside to be better than that. So there’s just no reason, especially when they’re minimum salary guys, to go and pour in money.

“If there’s someone out there – and there are – who are mid guys and maybe have the upside to be better than that, we’ll definitely look at that. They’re still on the board because we’re not the only ones who aren’t prepared to pay the price, and that’s not to say we won’t at some point. My position has been that as we sit here today, the trade market seems more viable, and that’s not to say that won’t change a week from now, two weeks from now, as the prices for free agents change.”

Intriguingly, Anthopoulos said the prices for free agents are changing, “some are going down,” he said, and it sounds like going down that road is suddenly a bit more palatable. But at this point it’s unclear if that applies to the pitching market.

If anything, there’s reason for prices to at least hold steady with Brett Anderson coming off the market, dealt by the Oakland Athletics to the Colorado Rockies despite his health concerns, and Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs ending up with the Angels in a three-team deal that sent Mark Trumbo to Arizona and Adam Eaton to the White Sox.

But the idea that teams are balking at the prices for the likes of Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez when Ricky Nolasco signed for $49 million over four years, Jason Vargas $32 million over four and Phil Hughes $24 million over three, is an interesting one.

To paraphrase the analogy made by Anthopoulos, what if they’re like an overpriced house that sits on the market so long the owners end up dropping the price? At that point, “they’ll hold an open house again and we’ll all jump in and take a look,” said Anthopoulos.

“I can’t sit here and say that we’re going to sign a free agent starter,” he continued, “I just know right now we’re having much more productive dialogue on the trade front than we are on the free-agent front. But that could change and I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re close to anything.”

Still, the risk inherent to the slow-play is that they could be left empty-handed if they get outbid in the end, a possibility that provides incentive for acting quickly. Another motivation for that approach would be prospect preservation, particularly when it comes to Sanchez and Stroman.

Sanchez, viewed by some as a potential No. 1, was the one arm the Blue Jays resisted moving last winter, preferring to sacrifice Noah Syndergaard and Justin Nicolino (the other two members of what was once the organization’s Big Three) in the blockbusters with the Marlins and Mets.

Their cupboard much more bare now, most of their conversations for a starting pitcher end with an ask for him or Stroman, the electric right-hander who may break through this season.

“If you’re trying to get a controllable starter, everyone would prefer to get the talent level that’s closest (to the majors),” said Anthopoulos. “That always carries the most value. There’s less risk, you know about the player, etc. Talking about Sanchez, Stroman, guys like that, they come up in probably every trade talk that we have.”

His reaction?

“I want to hear teams out,” replied Anthopoulos. “I’m open-minded, but again, you do factor in how many years of control you’re going to have the player for, how much better is that player (than what you have), do you have potential to extend the player, can you get a window. All those types of things are part of the equation.”

To illustrate the point, Anthopoulos pointed to the acquisition of R.A. Dickey last year, which sent Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud the Mets in return. The Blue Jays wouldn’t have considered that deal without a window to negotiate a three-year extension with the knuckleballer, giving them four years of control on the player.

The practical application for the moment is that how much they’re willing to pay for a starter, like Chicago Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija perhaps, largely depends on whether they get only the two years of control he has left before hitting free agency, or whether he’s willing to sign an extension.

That’s why a trade can get so complicated and that the Blue Jays might be better off simply signing a free agent, even if the actual price and the performance value doesn’t align.

Much like the club’s policy on not signing contracts longer than five years (read colleague Ben Nicholson-Smith’s smart piece about that here), sometimes the overpay is simply the cost of doing business.

And if the deal stinks at the back-end and some money has to be eaten to release a player, well that’s the price you sometimes have to pay to compete.

“That’s certainly a choice, and some clubs would choose to do that. We’ve obviously chosen not to do that,” said Anthopoulos. “At the end of the day if you do that, if you’re eating the last two years of a deal or the last three years of a deal, if you’re really representing the contract appropriately to the ball club and ownership, you better say, these last two or three years don’t mean anything, bump those into the first three or four, and that’s ultimately what you’re paying the player. Just go shorter and pay him, just dump in the money, it’s the same thing. If you’re going to go seven times 10, or go five times 14, it balances out at the end of the day.”

There are pros and cons to that argument, but how the dollars get allocated is less important than the debate over what hurts a team longer: a bad contract, or a bad trade? Trading someone like Sanchez or Stroman is awfully risky after last year’s farm-system stripping, especially when other alternatives, unpalatably pricy as they may be, are available.

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