Blue Jays seem serious about in-house options

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Drew Hutchison throws in the third inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Saturday, June 9, 2012, in Atlanta. (David Goldman/AP)

TORONTO – At this point in the off-season, perhaps it’s time to look at the possibility that the Toronto Blue Jays standing relatively pat is more than just negotiation posturing by Alex Anthopoulos.

Back in early November, when the general manager first started mentioning the number of in-house rotation options the team has for next season, it was easy to dismiss his comments as empty bluster aimed at reducing the expectations of rival executives and player agents. After all, who would have believed otherwise, especially with the GM meetings and winter meetings still to come?

Yet here we are, a week away from Christmas, with the signing of Dioner Navarro and non-tendering of J.P. Arencibia the only moves of consequence made so far by Anthopoulos. Right now there’s nothing sitting under the Blue Jays’ tree for the rotation other than a healthy Brandon Morrow and Drew Hutchison, and a more seasoned Marcus Stroman (plus a few other internal possibilities), with no promise of a last-minute shopping binge to fill things out.

That’s likely to make Blue Jays fans who are still frustrated by 2013’s meltdown mutter something like, “you’ve got to be kidding me” (we’ve edited out the profanities). But the Blue Jays are still trying to find external upgrades.

Anthopoulos very much remains engaged in trade talks but the asking prices continue to be far too high for his tastes. The Chicago Cubs, for instance, are looking for something like Stroman, fellow elite pitching prospect Aaron Sanchez, plus more for starter Jeff Samardzija, and the demands for David Price by the Tampa Bay Rays are even higher. There are said to be other pitchers available in trade who are not known publicly (forget Scott Boras’s mystery team, meet the mystery starter!), while headliners Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez remain on the free agent market.

Those three continue to seek a fortune, and their market will be affected by the Rakuten Golden Eagles’ decision on whether to post Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka could fetch a $100-million deal over and above the expected $20 million negotiating fee due to Rakuten, and one executive during the winter meetings said if a team had some money to spend, he’d be the guy to spend it on.

Regardless of what happens on any of those fronts, one thing Anthopoulos has pointed to over and over the past two months is how intent he is on getting the right value in any potential trade or free agent signing. The Blue Jays won’t make a move for the sake of making one, and the depth they have thanks to the recuperation of Morrow, Hutchison and Kyle Drabek, plus the gains made by Stroman, Sean Nolin and Aaron Sanchez, means they’re content to only go for the guy they want at their price, or not at all.

Staying in-house for the rotation is a risky proposition, no doubt, but then again, how well did the proven staff of 2013 fare? There are no guarantees, no matter the track record. Some draw parallels between Hutchison’s potential in 2014 and Shaun Marcum’s first season back from Tommy John surgery in 2010, when he went 13-8 with a 3.64 ERA over 195.1 innings, and Stroman’s path with that of Sonny Gray, the electric, 5-11 Oakland Athletics righty.

Both are intriguing but also represent best-case outcomes (which usually don’t happen for the Blue Jays). Factor in the volatility in relying on Morrow, who can dominate but is coming back from arm problems, and J.A. Happ, who’s solid as a fifth starter but has had all kinds of bad luck, and the rotation is stocked with as much risk as upside.

Things could, of course, also break right, and as long as they don’t go totally off the rails the Blue Jays theoretically have enough internal alternatives that they don’t have to overpay now, which is why Anthopoulos is playing the slow game, waiting for a price to be right.

The Blue Jays are taking the same approach at second base, and for now appear content to take Ryan Goins and his plus-defence in some sort of job-share arrangement with Maicer Izturis. They talked to the Rangers about Ian Kinsler before Texas shifted gears and traded him to the Detroit Tigers for Prince Fielder, and kept tabs on Omar Infante and Mark Ellis, both of whom would likely have needed a premium on what they signed for to head north.

As upsetting as the inactivity is to fans now, one player agent at the winter meetings said sometimes the right course of action is also the most unpopular one, and just because the Blue Jays haven’t made any upgrades doesn’t mean they won’t be better. In some ways, that’s fair.

Navarro, a healthy Melky Cabrera and an Izturis/Goins platoon at second combined with full seasons from Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus plus more of the same from Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind should give the Blue Jays a much more potent offence. And a rotation stocked with R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Morrow, Happ and Hutchison, with the others waiting in the wings, is sure to be better than second-worst in baseball.

But are the Blue Jays really counting on internal improvement to make up the 17-game gap between them and the playoffs? Either Anthopoulos is bluffing, or he’s far more optimistic about his team’s chances in 2014 than so many others.

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