Blue Jays will have to ante up through trade or free agency

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 are facing some difficult decisions now that they must turn the array of ideas gathered during baseball’s annual GM meetings into a concrete plan for the off-season, with no obvious ways to address their glaring needs.

One the one hand, getting the “two, and possibly three” starters interim general manager Tony LaCava says the AL East champions are hoping for could be accomplished by shopping in a robust free agent market, but doing so would mark a significant shift in recent organizational approach.

On the other hand, they could try to work out a trade and the Blue Jays spent a good amount of time over the past few days gauging what the market is like on that front.

Still, the challenge there is that their farm system probably lacks the type of upper-level inventory needed to pull off a deal for an impact starter, and subtracting from the big-league core probably doesn’t make much sense.

“There’s obviously interest in our offensive players, they’re very, very good and teams are interested in them, but we’d have to balance do we want to use that to get pitching. Probably not, because that diminishes from the current team,” LaCava said Thursday before departing the plush Boca Raton Resort and Spa. “Nothing is close, we haven’t really discussed anyone in particular, but there are always teams asking about that.”

While there’s always room for creativity, the way former GM Alex Anthopoulos built a package around a first-time arbitration eligible Brett Lawrie last November to land Josh Donaldson, pulling off such deals isn’t easy.

Then there’s the free agency track, and the Blue Jays haven’t given a free-agent starter a multi-year deal since former GM J.P. Ricciardi signed A.J. Burnett to a $55-million, five-year contract in December 2005. The only free-agent starters they’ve signed to major-league contracts since then are John Thomson, Tomo Ohka and Chien-Ming Wang, each a dice-roll reclamation project, so suddenly diving into that pool to snap up two or three pitchers would be a pretty radical jump.

Marco Estrada may very well end up breaking that streak, whether he completes the two-year deal the sides were working on late Thursday night, or accepts a $15.8 million qualifying offer ahead of Friday’s 5 p.m. ET deadline. Even if he returns he’s only part of the solution, but his status is a pivotal domino that needs to fall.

“[Friday] will tell us a lot more about what we’re doing one way or the other,” acknowledged LaCava. “That’s probably the first step, to see what happens there.”

The Blue Jays are largely bereft of internal options to bolster a rotation that currently includes Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey and Drew Hutchison, who ideally needs to force his way on to the roster.

Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna could be stretched out, but they don’t offer the certainty of an established the starter and transitioning them would weaken a bullpen also in need of help.

There’s also a matter of what a realistic workload for both would be.

Sanchez spent part of 2015 in the rotation, making 11 starts, and given that he’s logged 133.1 innings in 2014, 102 this past season, a workload in the 160-180 inning-range isn’t out of the question. Osuna, on the other hand, threw a career-high 69.2 innings in 2015, and logged just 23 innings in 2014 while coming off Tommy John surgery.

Thinking he can jump into the 150-inning range is probably wishful thinking.

“When you talk to the doctors that do this, they’re always going to tell you that once you get 30 or 40 innings above where you were the year before and you’ve never been there before, there’s always a concern,” super-agent Scott Boras said the previous day, speaking in general terms. “The percentages of it are that some are fine with it, and they weather it and go through it, and some are affected by it. The exactness of those percentages vary from doctor to doctor, but that’s certainly what they tell us.”

That leaves the Blue Jays in need of external pitching, a good amount of it, with only 14 pitchers on their 40-man roster at the moment.

Estrada is one piece, and an important one, but one way or another they’re going to have to ante up, either in free agency or in trade.

“Years of control and price – it comes down to that,” says LaCava. “You try to keep it within reason balancing today and tomorrow.”

The weighing really starts now.

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