Blue Jays open to finding value with incentive-based deals

Barry Davis and Shi Davidi talk to Jays GM Tony LaCava about trade and free agent groundwork and the starting pitching on last day of GM meetings.

BOCA RATON, Fla. – The Toronto Blue Jays have rarely issued incentive-based contracts in recent years, but they’re increasingly open to the possibility under new president Mark Shapiro.

“We’re going to keep all our options open,” interim general manager Tony LaCava said Thursday. “Under Mark the thought is there aren’t any absolutes and we’d try to look at each guy case by case.”

So what kind of player might merit an incentive-laden deal?

“Certain guys that maybe are coming off of injuries and it’s tough to place a value on them, you might want to consider doing something like that,” LaCava said.

Former GM Alex Anthopoulos typically avoided incentive-laden deals until he signed left-hander Johan Santana to a contract with performance bonuses last spring. Santana was coming off consecutive injury-plagued seasons at the time, so giving him a guaranteed contract would’ve been a risk. At the same time, it’s considerably easier to obtain pitchers with real upside if you’re willing to talk incentives.

That’s not to say the Blue Jays are necessarily seeking that kind of deal, only that the possibility exists. At this stage, the Blue Jays remain in conversation with Marco Estrada’s agent in the hopes of bringing the right-hander back. They’ve also made contact with the representatives for a wide range of free agents and laid groundwork for a variety of trade possibilities.

Clearly, minor-league deals won’t be enough to replenish a Blue Jays rotation that could lose David Price, Mark Buehrle and Estrada to free agency. The Blue Jays are seeking two starters, maybe three.

If and when they do start looking at minor-league deals, they’ll be able to lean on Shapiro’s expertise. In recent years, the Cleveland Indians’ front office made up for misses such as Shaun Marcum and Daisuke Matsuzaka with successes such as Scott Kazmir, who thrived in Cleveland’s rotation in 2013 one year after pitching independent ball.

Should the Blue Jays look closely at candidates for incentive-laden deals, the following names could be considerations:

Rich Hill – Hill has hit free agency eight times in the last six years, but he hasn’t been this intriguing an option for a while. The left-hander posted a 1.55 ERA with 36 strikeouts in four starts for the Red Sox down the stretch.

Mat Latos – If Latos looks to rebuild value on a one-year deal, he could re-emerge as a top free agent starter a year from now. Teams are already showing interest in the right-hander, who doesn’t turn 28 until next month.

Joe Blanton – Blanton dominated in relief, posting a 2.04 ERA with 62 strikeouts and 12 walks in 57.1 innings. As Nick Ashbourne noted, that success makes him an intriguing buy-low candidate.

Trevor Cahill – Cahill’s another former Athletics starter who thrived in relief last year. The 27-year old posted a 2.12 ERA with 22 strikeouts in 17 innings for the Chicago Cubs.

It’s all just speculation for now, but at the very least those names illustrate that the possibilities are out there. The next step is the truly hard part: figuring out which players have the best chance of making good on those incentives.

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