LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – A wry observation by one agent in the lobby at the winter meetings: “Maybe we should have another one of these for the position players.”
Umm, let’s not, but fair point. Relievers, late-inning, non-closer types on the open market, did do rather well this week at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin resort, with nine deals either agreed to or completed worth some $160 million.
The action on position players, meanwhile, where the Toronto Blue Jays are largely focused at the moment, has yet to generate the same type of yield, although there’s a sense things will soon start coming to fruition. “I think a lot of things happen for a lot of teams, not just us, in the next week,” general manager Ross Atkins said after a busy Wednesday helped him push things a little closer to the finish line.
Their possibilities no longer include outfielder Marcell Ozuna, an up-market target they inquired about but weren’t close on, whom the Miami Marlins sent to the St. Louis Cardinals for a solid package of four prospects (the price for Christian Yelich is sure to be far, far higher, so don’t get your hopes up). But it’s possible that in the next week and a half or so the Blue Jays land their infielder, an outfielder and perhaps a pitcher, with CC Sabathia an intriguing possibility.
Atkins and president and CEO Mark Shapiro both declined to confirm or deny a meeting with the veteran left-hander, but they were both more than willing to heap praise on a pitcher they have deep ties to from their days together in Cleveland.
“Leadership. Big-game ability. Big-game pitching. He’s not going to back down from any challenge. Strike-thrower on the biggest stages,” Atkins said in listing the qualities Sabathia brings to the table. “And he’s proven that he’s still more than effective.”
So, yeah, they like him, a lot, but the New York Yankees are still seen as the front-runners to re-sign him and Sabathia could also be tempted to pitch in his home state of California with the Angels. One rival agent pegged those two teams as the favourites to land him, and suggested where he ends up is holding up the rest of the market for veteran starters.
Now, if the Yankees turn away from Sabathia – they’ve been linked to Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke – then maybe there’s a truer path to the Blue Jays. But if he does go back to the Bronx, the Blue Jays will likely have at least made it more expensive for their division rivals and, even incrementally, nudged them a little closer to the luxury-tax threshold.
As that plays out, the middle-infielder market may shake out and perhaps they can use some of their cost-effective relief depth – an area Atkins has pointed to many times as possible trade capital, now made more valuable by the big dollars being spent in free agency – to land the support piece they need.
The players thought to be among their targets include Milwaukee’s Jonathan Villar, Philadelphia’s Cesar Hernandez and Freddy Galvis and San Diego’s Yangervis Solarte and Cory Spangenberg, and a team like the Brewers that lost Anthony Swarzak to a $14-million, two-year deal from the New York Mets, might want some cheap relief help.
Free agency offers some opportunities for the outfield, but there are possibilities on the trade market as well. The Cardinals have lots of surplus in the outfield and are thought to be seeking some relief help, and while the Oakland Athletics are said to be locked in on Stephen Piscotty, according to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Blue Jays could look at Randal Grichuk.
Cincinnati Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams told reporters earlier this week that he’d like to add some relief help, and they’re said to have drawn the interest of other clubs not only in speedy centre-fielder Billy Hamilton, but also in Adam Duvall, who’d make some sense for the Blue Jays.
The less Atkins spends of the roughly $25 million he’s believed to have available on the infield/outfield components, the more he can allocate to pitching.
Asked if the price of relievers meant the Blue Jays will be largely limited to value-play, bounce-back bullpen types, Atkins said, “we’ll see, it kind of depends what happens infield/outfield-wise.”
The priority is on “infield/outfield,” help, he added, since, “we feel pretty good about our bullpen as it stands right now. Because of Aledmys Diaz we feel pretty good about our infield, but would like to add to our infield/outfield and add to our position-player roster, see if we can increase versatility, increase base-running ability, speed, base-stealing ability, and then positional coverage at several positions would be a priority over the bullpen.”
If Aaron Sanchez is healthy and the Blue Jays also add a starter, Joe Biagini could give manager John Gibbons the multiple-inning leverage reliever he’d love to have, too, and deepen the bullpen. Sanchez’s blister is “completely gone,” said Atkins. “Now the question is how do we ensure that it doesn’t resurface and if it does, managing that better than we did last year.”
A healthy Sanchez is probably the place where the Blue Jays can find the most potential upside on their current roster. The difference he can make is substantial. But it can’t only be on him to make gains, and in that regard Atkins sees two other internal possibilities for improved productivity.
“Health and triple-A – finding ways to put guys in better positions to be healthier and then we’re in a better position in the event that we aren’t,” he said, “because of the development and acquisition of Teoscar Hernandez, the development of Anthony Alford, getting Dalton Pompey back healthy, having the development of Reese McGuire and Dan Jansen, the development of Richard Urena, the acquisition and development of Lourdes Gurriel in the Arizona Fall League, another year of experience in Rowdy Tellez.
“That’s where we feel we have some upside, it’s in triple-A. That’s not taking anything away from guys that are on our major-league team. The biggest piece that comes to mind on our major-league team is Aaron Sanchez.”
The Rule 5 draft goes Thursday morning, the Blue Jays select in the 12th spot and may very well make a pick for the third straight year. That player may be all they come home with from the winter meetings. But other moves are coming, for them and for their rivals, too.