Anthopoulos targeting trades to bolster rotation

They may need to either make a trade – Chicago Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija is believed to be one target – or pony up for a free agent starter like Matt Garza, Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez (the representatives for the latter checked in with Anthopoulos on Monday) to take a real step forward. (Jim Prisching/AP)

TORONTO – So Alex Anthopoulos, how many starting pitchers do you have targeted heading into the winter meetings next week in Orlando?

“One … two … three … threeish … four?” he says, flipping through the player files in his mind before finally settling on a number. “Three. Now, how realistic some of them are?”

That, of course, is the crux of the matter, but the rare moment of candour from the virtuoso of vague underlines the narrowing of focus for the Toronto Blue Jays general manager as the baseball off-season heads toward its end-game.

The starters on his wish list are not free agents – “I don’t know if I’m optimistic on that front, just with who’s out there and what it looks like the terms need to be today,” he explains – which means Anthopoulos will be pushing hard to swing a deal next week.

Given that the Blue Jays have pursued him in the past, it’s reasonable to expect that Jeff Samardzija of the Chicago Cubs is one of his marks. As for the other two, David Price is expected to be traded but Anthopoulos says there are names in play the public is not aware of, so baseball fans start your speculating.

A word of caution, however, before you let your imaginations run wild. While the Blue Jays are very much trying to add one starter, they won’t do it at all costs, and they wouldn’t see going into the 2014 season with the arms they currently have in place as a failure.

“If we can upgrade we will certainly look to do that,” says Anthopoulos, speaking Wednesday during a meeting with the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. “One (starter) is a clear fit, but that’s not to say we wouldn’t add a second if it did present itself, and sometimes there’s another starter going the other way in trade. Anybody that improves the rotation one way or another – we have a lot of room to improve.”

There’s no need to revisit the starting staff’s horror show numbers from 2013, but Anthopoulos sees enough potential internal gains from a healthy five of R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ and, say, Drew Hutchison to help alter the team’s fortunes.

Morrow, in particular, changes the dynamic significantly, with Anthopoulos insisting that “there’s definitely a strong confidence that Brandon is totally over his issues.” The right-hander with ace potential struggled through nerve issues in his arm last season, but has thrown multiple bullpens and a simulated game at 100 per cent.

Hutchison’s performance in the Arizona Fall League also drew raves from the GM and his name came up over and over again. “I think he’s going to make it very hard on us in spring training,” says Anthopoulos.

And unlike this past season, there are real options with upside behind those five in Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Sean Nolin, Marcus Stroman (who was nearly a September callup, Anthopoulos revealed), Kyle Drabek and Chad Jenkins.

The Blue Jays also aren’t likely to hand roughly 30 starts to pitchers with ERAs of 6.00 or higher – Josh Johnson, Chien-Ming Wang and Ramon Ortiz among them – again next year. “That’s what ends up killing you, when you’re giving that many starts to those guys,” says Anthopoulos. “Now if it ends up being Stroman, Drew, Nolin, Redmond, guys like that, that should improve us significantly.”

Still, standing pat may not be the wisest course of action with the New York Yankees building back up, the Boston Red Sox defending World Series champions, the Tampa Bay Rays still armed and dangerous and the Baltimore Orioles strong enough to be a factor.

One potential twist comes in reports out of Japan suggesting a deal with Major League Baseball on a new posting system for players in Nippon Professional Baseball that features a maximum bid of $20 million. If finalized, the cap might make a run at Masahiro Tanaka more palatable to the Blue Jays, but worth noting is that equal bids may grant the player a chance to choose his suitor, which complicates things.

Regardless, if Tanaka is in play, the market may be negatively impacted for free agents like Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez, particularly if the Yankees end up getting the Japanese sensation. Hence, Anthopoulos won’t rule out a free-agent pitching addition, although at this point it doesn’t seem likely.

“Again, as the prices in free agency sit today, I’m not optimistic,” says Anthopoulos. “But that can change, too, coming out of the meetings, January, things like that.”

First things first, the Blue Jays have their current list of targets to play out, and things are about to get interesting.

Some other highlights from Anthopoulos’s conversation with the Toronto chapter of the BBWAA, plus other news and notes:

  • The Blue Jays were never given the chance to enter trade talks with the Tigers for Doug Fister, who was dealt to the Washington Nationals earlier this week. “I don’t think we lined up with Detroit,” says Anthopoulos. “I can’t speak for Detroit and Dave Dombrowski has got as good a track record as GM as you’re going to find. It seems like it was a better fit with the Nationals than it was with us. … Every team would love to have him, but you can’t force something that isn’t there. It was Detroit’s asset to have and they felt they lined up better with the Washington Nationals and I’d never question Dave Dombrowski.”
  • Potential landing spots for the non-tendered J.P. Arencibia include the Texas Rangers – who tried to trade for the catcher before he was cut but only if he agreed to a pre-tender deal, which he did not – and the Minnesota Twins. Arencibia was projected to earn between $2.5-$2.8 million in arbitration, and may be trying to match that now that he’s a free agent.
  • The current plan for top pitching prospect Aaron Sanchez is for the right-hander to open the 2014 season at double-A New Hampshire and ideally give him a full season there. But, “at any point in time if he really accelerates and does well and he can force his way onto the roster we wouldn’t rule it out,” says Anthopoulos. “I would expect him to spend the year in the minors unless he decides to change our minds with the way he performs.”
  • The Blue Jays are exploring acquiring a right-handed bat to platoon with Adam Lind. Moises Sierra, who’s making progress while taking balls at first base, is an internal possibility. Sierra is out of options, and that may give him a leg up on Anthony Gose for the fourth outfield spot.
  • Erik Kratz, acquired Tuesday from the Philadelphia Phillies in the Brad Lincoln deal, caught knuckleballers Charlie Zink and Eddie Bonine briefly in the minors and that should help him acclimate to Dickey. “Obviously the quality of that pitch with those guys isn’t the same as R.A., but he’s not completely foreign to it,” says Anthopoulos. Kratz will compete with Josh Thole for the backup job, and the plan is to also give Dioner Navarro a chance to catch Dickey during the spring too, simply to give the Blue Jays more options in the event of an injury.
  • The addition of Kratz may mean that top catching prospect A.J. Jimenez will start the season at double-A.
  • The Blue Jays would like to “add some competition and some depth” at second base, where Ryan Goins is currently slated to share duties with Maicer Izturis. “We have talked about some guys that could upgrade us there,” says Anthopoulos. “Defensively we feel great with a guy like Goins, he’s as good defensively as we’ve had here in a long time, question is the bat, and how much is he going to hit. He has options and I’d love to have more competition for him.” Two potential names to keep in mind: Mark Ellis and Jamey Carroll.
  • Goins is planning to visit with new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer in Kansas City before spring training to do some extra work.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.