Blue Jays Notebook: New-look AL East

Jacoby Ellsbury signed a $153 million contract with the New York Yankees (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Throughout the off-season, I’ll provide commentary and links related to the Toronto Blue Jays and MLB every weekend.

Even after a year that saw three National League Central teams reach the postseason, the American League East remains MLB’s least forgiving division.

While teams in other divisions sometimes sneak into the playoffs without 90 wins, that’s unrealistic in the AL East. Four of its teams won 85 games or more in 2013. The division has produced at least two 90-win clubs in each of the last seven seasons. None of the division’s teams have reached the playoffs with fewer than 90 wins since the 2000 New York Yankees.

The Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays make it pretty tough on each other, so when the off-season begins, each team’s general manager faces pressure to fortify his roster or be left behind.

In the two-plus months since the 2013-14 off-season began, the division’s five GMs have taken contrasting approaches to team building. The Yankees have spent hundreds of millions in free agency; the Red Sox and Rays have brought back key pieces from last year’s playoff teams; the Blue Jays and Orioles have played the waiting game despite their long lists of needs.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman has outspent the competition, committing $328 million to sign stars Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Hiroki Kuroda, Brian McCann and Derek Jeter plus role players Kelly Johnson, Brian Roberts, Brendan Ryan and Matt Thornton. The Yankees seem like a fit for Masahiro Tanaka, which means they may not be done just yet. While their starting rotation seems suspect, their lineup should be much improved.

The Red Sox and Rays have favoured more disciplined approaches, spending mainly to re-sign their own players. Andrew Friedman of the Rays re-signed James Loney, Jose Molina and David DeJesus, while Ben Cherington of the Red Sox re-signed Mike Napoli and brought in A.J. Pierzynski and Edward Mujica. Even after losing Ellsbury to the Yankees, the Red Sox have enviable depth. Like the Red Sox, the Rays seem poised to contend again in 2014 (and even if Friedman trades David Price, they’ll will remain competitive).

In comparison, the Blue Jays and Orioles have been quiet. Though Toronto added Dioner Navarro and Baltimore added Ryan Webb, their respective rosters and shopping lists have barely changed since October. The Blue Jays still need starting pitching and will consider upgrades at second base and on the bench. Baltimore won 85-plus games in each of the past two seasons, yet major needs still exist for Dan Duquette and his front office. The Orioles could still seek a closer, a starting pitcher and an impact bat.

After an 88-loss season, the Blue Jays must improve. Some of those upgrades will come internally and others could arrive later in the off-season if Alex Anthopoulos makes a move. In the meantime the Blue Jays have a potent lineup and enough promising pitching to dream on. The Blue Jays could compete, though it now looks as though they’d need many breaks for that to happen.

It’s no surprise that the Las Vegas oddsmakers who favoured the Blue Jays to win it all in 2013 aren’t so confident about the 2014 team. Given the competition within the AL East, it’ll be a challenge to surpass any one of their division rivals in 2014, let alone leapfrog many at once. They’re up against four teams that won 85 games last year, and three of those clubs have already added or retained considerable talent this winter. The Blue Jays will have to surprise the rest of the baseball world to end their postseason drought in 2014.

TANAKA BIDDING WAR: While starting pitchers such as Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez are still available, Tanaka is the consensus top arm. Blue Jays manager John Gibbons has said he expects a ‘bidding war’ for the Japanese ace.

There’s lots of industry speculation that the Japanese right-hander will surpass $100 million with his first MLB contract. Add on the $20 million release fee and you start eliminating many potential bidders due. The Blue Jays like Tanaka and have scouted his starts, as Gibbons acknowledged last month.

“This guy could be better than [Texas Rangers starter Yu] Darvish, which if that’s the case, that’s pretty darn good,” Gibbons said. “I know there are a lot of teams that would love to have him, us being one of them.  But whether that happens or not, I don’t know.”

We do know that Tanaka will cost a lot. Given the Blue Jays’ restraint to this point in the off-season it doesn’t appear likely that they’re about to get into the kind of bidding war that may be required to land the market’s top arm.

HITTER’S PARK: Rogers Centre may not be a friendly park for MLB pitchers, but some hitters do like the idea of playing in Toronto. For example, free agent infielder Yuniesky Betancourt has interest in playing for the Blue Jays in part because Rogers Centre is a hitter-friendly ballpark. Betancourt, who has drawn interest from at least five teams this winter, hit 13 home runs with a .212/.240/.355 batting line for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013.

BACK TO WORK: Many agents and team executives take an unofficial break that lasts through the first week of the year, but that quiet period will end soon. Agents expect the off-season activity to pick up Monday after a relatively quiet week.

There are still lots of free agents available, not to mention Tanaka or the upcoming deadline for exchanging arbitration submissions. Plus, the Blue Jays are starting up their winter tour a week from now. Add it up and January promises to be a busy month.

NOTES: Mike Cormack explained why these five prospects can impact the Blue Jays’ 2014 team… Catch up on what Blue Jays players have been up to this off-season with this piece by Scott Di Domenico… Making it to January is a good thing for John Gibbons… After so many waiver claims early on in 2013, the Blue Jays have been relatively quiet, nabbing Brent Morel and no one else… Lastly, this R.A. Dickey pitch looks pretty tough to hit.

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