Less Is Better Sometimes

December 6, 2012, 5:44 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The lasting, unforgettable memory of these Winter Meetings will be the sheer and utter elation of Day Three, when it was announced that Tom Cheek had won the Ford C. Frick Award for Broadcasting Excellence. Cheek will take his rightful place among the game’s immortals on July 27th, while the Blue Jays that he loved so dearly play host to the Houston Astros.

It will be the third straight year that there will be a strong Blue Jayic component to Hall of Fame weekend in Cooperstown. Two years ago, Pat Gillick and Roberto Alomar were inducted, with longtime Expos broadcaster and Tom Cheek mentor Dave Van Horne winning the Frick. Last year, Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for excellence in baseball writing.
Cheek’s win alone makes this the best Winter Meetings I have ever attended, without the shadow of a doubt.
As far as the 2013 Blue Jays are concerned, though, the meetings went by without them making a trade for the first time in a while.

The last time the Meetings were here in Nashville, the Jays didn’t exactly make a splash, trading Justin James to the Reds for Buck Coats, who had six whole plate appearances for the Blue Jays the next season before fading into baseball oblivion. Before that, it was 2002 and the Jays were part of a four-team deal with Cincinnati, Oakland and Arizona in which they gave up Felipe Lopez and picked up Jason Arnold and, eventually, John-Ford Griffin.
In hindsight, maybe it’s a good thing the Blue Jays didn’t make any moves here, beyond picking up back-up catcher Eli Whiteside on a waiver claim and signing former Expo Claudio (Circus) Vargas to a minor-league deal to provide depth and big-league experience at Buffalo. Nashville doesn’t seem like the best place for Toronto Winter Meetings success.
But Alex Anthopoulos did his heavy lifting long before we all came down to Music City, USA, and while there is still room to improve the depth of the starting rotation and add to the bullpen and bench, if the Blue Jays have to go into Spring Training as currently constituted, it wouldn’t be all that terrible.

The Jays’ braintrust leaves Nashville with a rumour of their interest in reliever Jason Grilli flitting about. They also have a trade proposal, or probably moreso a concept, out there to one team on which they’re waiting to hear back, but Anthopoulos doesn’t expect anything to materialize out of it.

He said the Jays may well wait until the end of Spring Training to fill the last spot on a bench that is currently occupied by Emilio Bonifacio, John Buck and Rajai Davis. They could wind up sifting through the Fred Lewis and Jayson Nix types – players who are out of options and not making their teams for one reason or another – and take their pick from there. Whoever the 25th man on the roster is going to be is not likely to get many at-bats, so his ability behind the scenes, in the clubhouse, may carry more weight than his ability on the field.

The 40-man roster was full heading into Thursday morning’s Rule 5 draft, so they couldn’t select anyone in the swap meet that has previously seen the Jays pick up such luminaries as George Bell, Kelly Gruber and Manuel Lee. But they didn’t lose anyone, either, with only 15 players in total being chosen in the major-league phase.
In the minor-league phase, the Blue Jays picked outfielder Sawyer Carroll from the Padres (26 year-old with a .737 OPS in Tucson in his first taste of AAA last season), righty Alvido Jimenez from the Cubs (21 year-old who has never pitched above rookie ball) and lefty Efrain Nieves from the Tigers (23 year-old who moved down a couple of levels to short-season A-ball in 2012 and dominated). The Jays lost third baseman Mark Sobolewski to the Twins (.718 OPS in AA/AAA last season).

Players chosen in the minor-league phase of the Rule 5 draft are free to play at any level of the minors, it’s basically just a straight $12,000 purchase.
While the Blue Jays didn’t exactly get the transaction wire all shook up here in Nashville, two of their A.L. East competitors were busy.

The Tampa Bay Rays signed first baseman James Loney and traded for former Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar, while the Boston Red Sox threw money at catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli and outfielder Shane Victorino.
All those moves are confusing for one reason or another.

The Rays value defense, which is why they like Loney, who has a great glove, but his offense has been sorely lacking the last couple of seasons. He’s a terrific defensive first baseman who doesn’t hit for power and has only had two seasons in the last six with an on-base percentage over .340. You kind of want your first baseman to either hit home runs or get on a lot. Loney is a step back from last season’s starter, free agent Carlos Pena.

Escobar is a good gamble for the Rays to take. He had a disappointing season with the Jays in 2012, but was terrific in 2011 and has gone good-year, bad-year for a while now. The confusing thing about T-Bay being interested in him is the fact that he had so much trouble late this past season with turning the double play. It seemed that on most of the feeds Escobar got from Kelly Johnson over the last two months of the year, he would veer away from the second-base bag and fire a relay throw that wound up nowhere near first base. If he can fix that, he’ll be an asset for the Rays until the point in time at which he steals one too many infield pop-ups from Evan Longoria.

As far as the Red Sox, they’re bringing in Napoli to play first and catch only occasionally, when his bat plays so much better behind the plate if he’s going to hit like he did in 2009, 2010 and 2012. If he puts up the 1.046 OPS that he did in 2011, then he’s an asset no matter where you put him, but that season is starting to look a little bit like an outlier.
Victorino is nice, but as a corner outfielder? And does he really do that much more than Ryan Sweeney and name-your-lefty-killer beyond the base-stealing? The Sox failed to tender Sweeney a contract last month. It seems as though the money Boston saved in its huge salary-dump trade with the Dodgers in August is burning a hole in its pocket.

The Yankees didn’t do anything except reveal that Alex Rodriguez will be lost until the all-star break, and they say they have no money to spend, though that’s hard to believe. They didn’t put in a bid on Jeff Keppinger and couldn’t keep Eric Chavez from defecting to Arizona, though word is they’re trying very hard to bring in former Oriole Mark Reynolds, who had a 1.214 OPS against the Bronx Bombers last season, with seven home runs in 15 games. Apparently, they also have a one-year, $12 million offer on Kevin Youkilis’ table. Told you the no-money thing was hard to believe.

The Orioles? Bupkes – except for re-signing the fluky-looking Nate McLouth to a cheap one-year deal. It’s early yet, but a common mistake teams make after having success out of nowhere is to keep the same group together into the next season with the idea that they’ll be able to repeat or improve upon the past year’s success. It says here that there is no way the Orioles win 76% of their one-run games in 2013, or 16 extra-inning games in a row.
The Blue Jays made their huge splashes long before they got to Nashville – and how good does the Melky Cabrera contract look now with the deals that Napoli, Victorino and Marco Scutaro signed, along with that Youkilis offer? – and the rest of the division still has a couple of months of off-season to catch up.

But the Red Sox haven’t improved appreciably, if at all, the Rays have replaced Pena and B.J. Upton in their line-up with Loney and Escobar, the Yankees got outbid by the freaking Pirates for Russell Martin and lost Alex Rodriguez for at least half the season and the Orioles seem to be holding steady.
As everyone clears out of Nashville, the American League East is looking very Blue – for the first time in a long, long while.

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