TORONTO – Alex Anthopoulos is past the point of saying everything is going to be OK with his bullpen, that it’s early, that things are going to get better. His comments last week about trying to add a reliever made that clear, and with the draft now over, the Toronto Blue Jays GM knows very well it’s time to act.
After all, his team’s current eight-game win streak may have undone much of May’s mess – props to the offence and rotation for the cleanup in Aisle 2 – and set the stage for a real run at the New York Yankees atop the AL East. But an underlying cause of those previous struggles remains unresolved, and the internal options have been pretty much exhausted.
To that end, the Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies recently rekindled trade talks on Jonathan Papelbon, as first reported by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports and confirmed by Sportsnet, although they made little headway, and nothing is going on right now.
The teams essentially remain at the same impasse they’ve been at since the off-season, with the Blue Jays wanting the Phillies to heavily subsidize the remainder of the $13 million owed to Papelbon this year plus the $13 million he’d be owed for next year if his 2016 option vests. That remains a non-starter for the Phillies although they’ve softened their stance and are now willing to eat at least some money.
Beyond that player compensation is an issue, and the Blue Jays won’t part with any high or mid-level prospects for a reliever, especially one with a limited market like Papelbon (the Chicago Cubs are also said to be in the mix, but it’s unclear if their signing of Rafael Soriano this week changes things). The Phillies, looking to restock their farm system, have been scouting the Blue Jays’ affiliates, as well as those of other clubs, trying to identify some targets.
In many ways, Papelbon looks like an ideal fit – he could take over the ninth, pushing Brett Cecil back to the eighth, with Roberto Osuna, Aaron Loup and Liam Hendriks able to share bridge duties in the sixth and seventh – but it’s very far from a certainty the sides will match up.
With a limited amount of available payroll – at the beginning of the season the Blue Jays were thought to have $5-8 million free depending on how much DL money they’d need, and right now it looks like they’ll be on the lower end of the spectrum – there are no mulligans here for Anthopoulos.
In an ideal world, the Blue Jays love to add two relievers, a righty and a lefty (although an audition for Phil Coke that begins Friday might take care of that), and if possible an outfielder, given the uncertainty about what type of workload Michael Saunders’ surgically repaired knee will allow once he returns.
A starter is a possibility, too, but they’d have to get someone significantly better than Aaron Sanchez in order to feel good about moving the young right-hander back to the bullpen. Otherwise, there’s little point in subtracting from one area to add to another.
Besides, the Blue Jays will be very reluctant to move premium trade chips like Daniel Norris and Jeff Hoffman, unless it’s for an elite player who comes with a significant amount of contractual control (like Josh Donaldson, R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle all did). Another potential asset is Dioner Navarro, although the Blue Jays like him on the roster and would need value back to move him (coincidence or not, their winning streak began once he was activated from the DL).
Put all together, the reason for the Blue Jays’ caution is understandable; in all likelihood they have one, maybe two moves in them, so they can ill-afford a costly roll of the dice, which is why they were reluctant to take any fliers on reclamation projects during the off-season.
That’s also part of the reason they couldn’t match the pro-rated $4.1-million deal with a potential $4 million more in incentives Soriano got from the Cubs. Besides the fact that the right-hander has a history with manager Joe Maddon from their time together in Tampa Bay and share the same agent in Alan Nero, the Blue Jays would have had to outbid the $6-million-plus he can earn.
If Anthopoulos is to do all his spending in one place, would Soriano have been the right guy to do it on? Or, for that matter, is Papelbon? The GM can’t afford to flush away any money on a mistake.
Other options are due to open up as teams take long hard looks at where they are at and decide whether to sell. The Oakland Athletics are worth keeping an eye on, given the trade history between Anthopoulos and Billy Beane, while the Milwaukee Brewers, Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds might also be tempted to start shedding assets.
Papelbon won’t be the only answer, so the Blue Jays have no reason to make a panicked buy. But with a bullpen that ranks 12th in the AL with a 3.70 ERA, has blown a league-leading 10 save chances (one in the ninth, four in the eighth, three in the seventh, two in the sixth) in 16 chances, and has generally struggled in close and late situations, the sooner it can be fortified, the better.