Blue Jays options in post-Kershaw market

January 16, 2014, 10:13 AM

Congratulations to Clayton Kershaw on becoming the latest baseball player to become Oprah-rich. As pretty much the best pitcher on the planet, and with free agency merely one season away, the spectacular lefty was always sure to get cray-cray money from someone. The Los Angeles Dodgers barely blinked in putting up baseball’s highest ever annual average salary—$30.7 million, thanks to the seven-year, $215-million extension Kershaw scored—because, you know, that’s how they roll.

Elsewhere around the majors, even in this brave new world fuelled by billion-dollar TV deals, teams are more reluctant to throw their chequebooks in the air. It’s there that the ripples of Kershaw’s mega-deal, the richest ever for a pitcher, will be felt, and for clubs like the Toronto Blue Jays, there is much intrigue to be found in the fallout.

While it’s true that Kershaw is unique because he’s only 25 and the Dodgers were buying the two-time Cy Young Award—winner out of free agency and getting nothing but prime years, the ceiling for pitchers is higher now than it was before this deal. That will only embolden the demands of others, including Max Scherzer, Homer Bailey, James Shields and Jon Lester, who are eligible for free agency after the 2014 season, as well as David Price and Mat Latos who are bound for the open market after 2015.

So where does that leave the Blue Jays, who still have unspent 2014 money earmarked for starting pitching?

First, it should increase the reluctance to trade from their stable of young arms on the verge of breaking through, because while Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez may not offer any guarantees, any hopes for a sustained run of success depends on prospects like them emerging and sticking.

Second, and this relates to the first point, they should now have more incentive to sign one of Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Matt Garza, because the cost of acquiring mid-to-upper range arms isn’t getting cheaper, and the Blue Jays need the boost any one of them would give the staff.

Another spinoff of the Kershaw deal is that it may make Masahiro Tanaka even more attractive, since the Japanese right-hander has front-line starter talent, and his final tally (expected to be in the $100-plus million range) may end up below market rather quickly if he fulfills that potential. Santana, Jimenez and Garza are more or less what they are—solid pitchers with notable flaws—so a compelling argument can be made that if you’re going to sign only one guy, Tanaka should be the one.

The Blue Jays have looked into Tanaka but right now landing him appears to be a long shot for several reasons, chief among them the aggressive push expected from the New York Yankees, perhaps still the Dodgers, and maybe the Chicago Cubs and Seattle Mariners. Markets with larger Japanese populations may also hold more appeal for Tanaka, and let’s face it, the Blue Jays can’t exactly sell him on joining a surefire winner. Upside isn’t much of a carrot.

So that leaves Santana, Jimenez and Garza as the Blue Jays’ sole free-agent targets, and if one of their price tags moves closer to $15 million from $20 million annually over three or four years, the conversation becomes a lot more realistic.

Plugging any of the three into the rotation buys more developmental time for the Blue Jays’ youngsters and provides another asset for the organization to work with. If any of the kids makes a push to steal a job, the Blue Jays would actually have a good problem to solve. How refreshing would that be?

Regardless, the off-season is moving toward its end game, as Tanaka has until Jan. 24 to sign a contract. Once that happens, the real action begins on Santana, Jimenez and Garza. Kershaw, meanwhile, is signed, sealed and delivered for the Dodgers, who as a franchise continue to make the waves, not react to them.

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