Jays answer key questions as off-season opens

Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos and president and CEO Paul Beeston are pictured. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – Baseball’s free agency period opened at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday and the Toronto Blue Jays entered the crucial juncture having set themselves up internally on multiple fronts.

While the weekend’s trade of Adam Lind to the Milwaukee Brewers helped create some flexibility for general manager Alex Anthopoulos both financially and in terms of roster configuration, perhaps more important is that the lingering speculation about Paul Beeston can be put to rest.

The club president, whose contract is believed to have expired Oct. 31, will remain in his current role at least for the foreseeable future. Back in August, when there was some quiet jockeying for his position, that was no lock and there was plenty of industry chatter about his future.

Whether his stay extends beyond 2015 is unclear, but with Anthopoulos entering his sixth season on the job, playoffs or bust all around is a pretty reasonable assumption.

How that all impacts the Blue Jays in free agency will be interesting to watch, especially with the only guaranteed money on the books from 2016 onwards belonging to Jose Reyes, who is due $22 million in each of the next three years.

Importantly, the Blue Jays can take on guaranteed money beyond 2015, which allows them to either extend the current competitive window (Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and R.A. Dickey all have club options in 2016 that push the payroll commitment to $58 million), or add players that can help set up the next run.

The financial wiggle room beyond next year is also an intriguing asset for the Blue Jays, who have already integrated young and inexpensive starting pitchers Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman into the rotation with fellow youngsters Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin and Roberto Osuna coming.

They’re positioned very well to try and backload some money this winter, or to really swing for the fences in the premium free-agent crop next fall that may include David Price, Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, Hisashi Iwakuma and Jeff Samardzija.

As things stand now, if the Blue Jays’ payroll remains in the neighbourhood of the $140 million spent in 2014, Anthopoulos should have roughly $20-$30 million to work with, depending on how many of the club’s eight arbitration-eligible players are tendered contracts.

A bump to $145 or $150 million for 2015 would really bolster Anthopoulos’s spending power – Beeston said in an interview on Sportsnet The Fan 590 last month that the payroll would rise – or a trade of someone like J.A. Happ, whose $6.7 million option was exercised over the weekend, could also free up more dollars.

One primary target for the Blue Jays will be left-fielder Melky Cabrera, although right now the sides seem to have a significant difference of opinion on what he’s worth, with the open market slated to settle the matter. He was extended a $15.3 million qualifying offer Saturday and whether that impacts his earning power could be crucial.

Should Cabrera sign elsewhere, Nori Aoki presents an interesting fall-back, a left-handed No. 2 hitter who can play every day and provide multiple dimensions. That would plug one hole in the outfield and another name worth watching is Dexter Fowler, the walk-year centre-fielder the Blue Jays have tried to acquire from the Houston Astros in the past.

Still, as pressing as filling in the outfield is, the bigger concern might be repairing a bullpen increasingly facing blame for last season’s mess.

Anthopoulos has never spent more than $4.5 million on a reliever – on Francisco Cordero in 2012 – and free agent Casey Janssen is the only bullpen arm Anthopoulos ever gave a multi-year deal to (a $5.9-million, two-year deal that included a $4 million option for 2014). He also traded for Sergio Santos shortly after he’d signed a $7.5-million, three-year deal that included three club options, the first of which was declined Saturday.

Barring a sudden reversal, that approach means top relief free agents like David Robertson and Luke Gregerson will probably be out of bounds, while bounce-back candidates such as Jason Motte and Luke Hochevar could provide big-time value.

One advantage the Blue Jays have is that their closer vacancy makes them an appealing destination for free-agent relievers eager for the role to set themselves up for their next contract.

Then there’s their need for either a second or third baseman, with Brett Lawrie filling the other spot, and the options are limited on the open market.

Pablo Sandoval is by far the class of the group but with an asking price of $100 million over five years, it’s hard to see the Blue Jays blowing their resources on one player. Jed Lowrie and Asdrubal Cabrera, who performed well at second base for the Washington Nationals after his trade deadline acquisitions, would fit well at second but figure to be the most coveted shortstops on the market.

Rickie Weeks, who’s struggled offensively in recent years and isn’t a strong fielder, and Alberto Callaspo, who posted a .580 OPS last year, are potential buy-low candidates.

All that remains now is for the Blue Jays to put their master plans to work. The start of free agency (and the trade market) is what they’ve prepared for, and with Beeston still at the helm, it’s on them to make it happen.

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