Blue Jays shifting focus in new direction

The MLB winter meetings came and went without the Blue Jays making any moves, but heading back to Toronto it seems Alex Anthopoulos may target trades as opposed to signing free agents.

SAN DIEGO – A flurry of moves set the winter meetings abuzz as baseball’s annual swapfest neared its conclusion Wednesday, and amid all the action the Toronto Blue Jays took a step back and began shifting their focus in a new direction.

The early morning signings of Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek – on the heels of deals for Andrew Miller and David Robertson – stripped the free agent market of its top relief options, and led GM Alex Anthopoulos to conclude that he’ll need to wheel and deal his way to a bullpen makeover.

"Those didn’t fit for us … for various reasons, financial commitment, years, things like that," Anthopoulos said of the foursome, each of whom the Blue Jays showed some interest in. "We’re exploring some trades right now that might make a little bit more sense for us."

With available payroll perhaps tighter than previously thought, his focal point right now appears to be relievers heading into their walk seasons. One school of thought is that the Blue Jays may be able to land a couple of arms without surrendering any of their on-the-cusp pitching prospects.

Tyler Clippard of the Washington Nationals is one prime option, as the $9.3 million he’s projected by MLB Trade Rumors to earn through arbitration certainly cuts into his trade value. Teams thought to be looking to free up salary such as the Arizona Diamondbacks (Brad Ziegler and Oliver Perez), Los Angeles Dodgers (J.P. Howell), Cincinnati Reds (Jonathan Broxton), and Atlanta Braves (James Russell) may also need to settle for a lower level prospect to get rid of the money.

Neftali Feliz of the Texas Rangers and Joaquin Benoit of the San Diego Padres also fit the mould but may be more difficult to acquire.

Dioner Navarro is the one surplus big-league asset the Blue Jays have, and Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart mentioned him as one possible trade candidate his team could pursue. And while young arms like Daniel Norris, Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro are essentially off the table – trading them "(is) not something we’re contemplating right now," said Anthopoulos – a pitcher from lower down the system such as Alberto Tirado or Jairo Labourt might get a deal done.

Another intriguing chip is catcher Max Pentecost, the 11th overall pick last summer whose path to the big-leagues is blocked by Russ Martin. The Blue Jays can’t trade him for one year from his signing date, but they could move him in mid-January as a player to be named later, a process that gives them six months to complete a trade.

Whichever route the Blue Jays take, Anthopoulos will need to tread carefully as he may not have as much money left to spend than has been publicly speculated (including in this space).

The Blue Jays have roughly $119 million in guaranteed salary and arbitration projections for 16 players in 2015, and a reasonable guess for total payroll is in the neighbourhood of $140 million.

But Anthopoulos also must account for the $5.6 million in potential buyouts on the 2016 options for Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Maicer Izturis, R.A. Dickey and Rickey Romero whether they’re exercised or not.

Factor in roughly $3 million more for 0-3 service time players plus another $3-4 million cushion to pay players called up to cover injuries, and the Blue Jays are suddenly in the neighbourhood of $131.5 million, perhaps leaving Anthopoulos with only $8.5 million to work with (a number that could be lower if reports that the Blue Jays are sending about $3 million to Seattle to equalize salaries between Michael Saunders and J.A. Happ are true).

The Blue Jays backloaded Martin’s five-year contract, but they probably can’t do that with someone else. Given how that deal is structured ($7 million, $15 million, $20 million, $20 million, and $20 million), they must be wary of constricting themselves too tightly in coming seasons.

Now, Navarro’s $5 million can be moved and that could create options, and there might be other ways for the Blue Jays to be creative, especially given that they have some interest in Japanese infielder Takashi Toritani, although nothing is active on that front at the moment.

Dan Evans, who covers the Pacific Rim for the Blue Jays, was seen scouting him during the Japan Series, so they’ve done some work on him. The 33-year-old has played in every game the past 10 seasons for the Hanshin Tigers, but he projects as a second baseman in the majors due to a lack of arm-strength.

"We’ve had discussions, yes," Toritani’s agent, Scott Boras, said of the Blue Jays.

Anthopoulos, speaking in general terms, said if the team did pursue a free agent second baseman, "the guys we’d be looking at would be more short term." Toritani probably fits that description. At this point Jed Lowrie doesn’t appear to be on their agenda.

Whatever the case, the Blue Jays are set to leave San Diego on Thursday armed with more information and little else. What they do with it is still to come.

Things you hear hanging in the lobby at the Manchester Grand Hyatt:

  • Aaron Sanchez may yet end up the Blue Jays’ closer if they find a way to add another starter. There’s logic to that approach as with Mark Buehrle a free agent after 2015, another veteran arm would buffer the kids in the rotation beyond next season. "That’s definitely a scenario that could happen," said Anthopoulos. "We still think of Sanchez as a long-term starter but if we feel there’s somebody out there to upgrade the rotation and that presents itself in trade of free agency, we know Aaron can go to the ‘pen."
  • Talk persists that the Houston Astros are looking to move centre-fielder Dexter Fowler, but the Blue Jays seem locked in staying in-house with Dalton Pompey, Kevin Pillar and Ezequiel Carrera. "Between those three I think we’ll be OK," said Anthopoulos. "Especially not counting on those guys (for offence), they’re going to be more bottom of the order bats, just want to make sure they play good defence in the outfield. There’s some offensive upside to all three."
  • The Blue Jays have expressed some interest in free agent reliever John Axford, who struggled with his command and his lost his job as closer in Cleveland before being claimed on waivers by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
  • The Blue Jays aren’t expected to take anyone in the Rule 5 draft Thursday but could lose a few players. Three names floated around as possibilities: flame-thrower Gregory Infante; righty John Stilson, who is coming off shoulder surgery; and left-hander Tyler Ybarra.
  • The acquisition of Justin Smoak drew plenty of praise in lobby talk. The consensus is a fresh start and move away from Safeco Field to a more hitter-friendly park will do wonders for the talented first baseman.
  • Taxes don’t necessarily keep free agents from signing with the Blue Jays, but they can make signing them more expensive. Gregerson’s $18.5 million guarantee over three years from Houston – there’s no income tax in Texas – may have translated into $21 million from the Blue Jays.
  • Scott Boras, stumping for free agent Max Scherzer among other things during his session with media, made this argument, among others, for teams to back up the truck: "For any team that wants to win a World Series you’re going to have to have about three starters, 45-50 wins, 600 innings and you’re probably going to have to have a No. 1 starter carry the load for about 230 innings during the season and post-season. There are a lot of teams that I think have the basis for providing the starters underneath that to do that. Signing Max Scherzer can make a dramatic difference in the outcome of many divisions."
  • Boras also offered this quote of the year candidate when asked about the Cubs spending $155 million over six years to get Jon Lester. "Much like swimming pools, when there’s too many kids in the pool it changes the colour of the water," he said. "You’ve got to make sure that combination is appropriate to win."