The search for starting pitching will define the off-season of the Toronto Blue Jays, who must re-set quickly in anticipation of a busy winter after losing to the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS.
“The one thing we won’t do is get complacent,” GM Alex Anthopoulos said. “We’re always going to look two or three years out.”
As the search for improvements begins, the club must also resolve the contract status of Anthopoulos, whose current deal expires October 31. It adds up to a hectic off-season for the Blue Jays, who started initial 2016 plans weeks ago and now have until five days after the end of the World Series to finalize their to-do list.
Here’s a position-by-position look at the decisions facing the team…
Mark Shapiro replaces Paul Beeston as team president Nov. 1, the day after Anthopoulos’ contract expires. Shapiro will have to hit the ground running, and while Anthopoulos says he loves working for the Blue Jays, his future remains undetermined.
Anthopoulos says he hopes to keep the rest of his front office together if he returns.
Anthopoulos continued to back manager John Gibbons, pointing to his bullpen management and even-keeled demeanour as reasons for the Blue Jays’ success.
“I think John did a tremendous job,” Anthopoulos said.
Every Jan. 1, Gibbons’ contract becomes guaranteed for the following year, ensuring he’s never a lame-duck manager.
Russell Martin returns as the everyday backstop, Dioner Navarro hits free agency after a couple productive seasons in Toronto and the future of arbitration-eligible catcher Josh Thole may hinge on whether R.A. Dickey returns. Expect the Blue Jays to pursue backup catchers, including Navarro, in free agency.
Edwin Encarnacion was one of MLB’s most productive hitters down the stretch and he finished the season with 39 home runs, so you can pencil him in at first base or DH once the Blue Jays make the easiest decisions of their off-season and pick up team-friendly 2016 options on Encarnacion ($10 million) and Jose Bautista ($14 million).
The team should also approach both players about extensions in case middle ground exists, though those discussions would presumably take place later in the off-season. If Bautista and Encarnacion replicate their 2015 numbers, they could ask for nine-figure contracts a year from now. In the meantime, would a more modest deal appeal to both sides? Shapiro knows first-hand that investing in aging bats comes with risk (Travis Hafner proved that much beyond a doubt), but Bautista and Encarnacion are special talents.
Meanwhile, Chris Colabello and Justin Smoak combined for 33 home runs this year, and both can be controlled through 2016. Smoak offers more defensive value and the ability to switch-hit, but Colabello hit better in 2015 and has the advantage of being cheaper than Smoak. Those names could surface in trade talks.
“We’re in a good position in terms of depth,” Anthopoulos said.
If Anthopoulos decides to make another surprising move along the lines of his trades for Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki, don’t rule out first base (is it crazy to imagine someone like Joey Votto or Chris Davis on the Jays’ radar?). It’d be a logical spot to add a left-handed bat, something the Blue Jays would like to do all things being equal.
“It’s more of in a perfect world have a little bit more balance, but I don’t think there’s a left-handed hitting shortstop we want over Troy Tulowitzki or a left-handed hitting third baseman or right fielder or DH, or even Pillar in centre with what he brings,” Anthopoulos said.
In Ryan Goins and Devon Travis the Blue Jays have two skilled players who each handled everyday duties for extended stretches in 2015. The Blue Jays expect both players to compete for the starting job next spring.
We’re months away from any kind on decision, but starting Travis would allow the Blue Jays to maximize their offence while keeping Goins as a utility bench player and fill-in starter.
Tulowitzki will start at short. His cracked shoulder blade has plenty of time to heal between now and opening day.
Donaldson’s MVP-level season will lead to a massive raise through the arbitration process in the New Year, but regardless of how the case unfolds he’s slated to return for three more seasons.
Ben Revere played well in left field, and should even have some trade value after another productive season. The 27-year-old could earn close to $7 million,” according to MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitration projections.
Michael Saunders remains in the organization after a lost season and would earn approximately $2.9 million if tendered a contract. There’s also Dalton Pompey, who excelled in the upper minors down the stretch before earning a spot on Toronto’s playoff roster. There might not be room for all three on the 25-man roster, meaning the Blue Jays have some decisions to make.
“Knowing it’s an area of depth gives us some options,” Anthopoulos said of Toronto’s outfielders. “The one thing we do know though is players get hurt and you’re going to need that depth.”
Anthopoulos said the Blue Jays believe Saunders can be an impact player if healthy. “We think his upside is huge.”
Kevin Pillar has earned the everyday job.
Jose Bautista’s option will be exercised early in the off-season. Later on the Blue Jays could approach the star slugger about another long-term deal. This time there’s no doubt that Bautista’s bat is legit, but there’s no reason to expect a hometown discount just a year away from free agency.
Three-fifths of Toronto’s starting rotation will be eligible for free agency following the World Series: David Price, Marco Estrada and Mark Buehrle. Meanwhile, R.A. Dickey’s contract includes a $12 million option for 2016 that will likely be exercised given the difficulty of replacing his 200 innings. That leaves the Blue Jays with two proven starters, Marcus Stroman and Dickey, plus the arbitration eligible Drew Hutchison. It’s not enough.
Price may be the top free agent in baseball, but the going rate for frontline starters is seven years at $25-30 million per season and spending that aggressively on pitching has never been Anthopoulos’ style. Even so, the Blue Jays say they’ll be in on Price.
“I know he’s very open to being back here,” the GM said. “We’ll certainly be in the game.”
Mark Buehrle isn’t expected to return, which leaves Estrada, a borderline qualifying offer candidate. There’s mutual interest in a new deal, but Estrada won’t come cheap after a tremendous season and even better post-season. Perhaps the Blue Jays end up seeking alternatives in free agency or even on the trade market. Toronto’s deadline push for Indians right-hander Carlos Carrasco showed that Anthopoulos doesn’t hesitate to go off the board.
One way or another, the Blue Jays plan to seek out pitching. Otherwise they may find themselves asking both Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna to the rotation next spring as they attempt to defend their AL East title.
“There’s scenarios where that could happen,” Anthopoulos said. “Long-term we do view both of them as starters, but at the same time we’re in a position where we have the chance to win.”
Expect the Blue Jays to remain open-minded throughout the winter and confer with both players about potential role changes.
The club’s interest in relievers will depend in part on how many starting pitchers join the rotation. If the Blue Jays have trouble finding starters, the chances increase that Sanchez and Osuna arrive at spring training as strong rotation candidates. Otherwise, the 2015 bullpen could return intact with the exception of right-handers Mark Lowe, who’s a free agent, and LaTroy Hawkins, who’s retiring. Either way, Anthopoulos will have his eye on bullpen depth.
Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup will return, but the Blue Jays should target left-handed relief depth after a post-season in which they were scrambling for answers from the left side.