Worrying outfield shortage looming for Jays

With Jose Bautista the only big-league outfielder under club control beyond 2014, the Blue Jays have an organizational hole that could be a major concern a year from now.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The focus at the moment for the Toronto Blue Jays is on their need for starting pitching, but a worrying gap in the organization’s stock of outfielders looms a year from now.

Jose Bautista is the club’s only big-league outfielder under club control beyond 2014, a fact not lost on general manager Alex Anthopoulos and his staff. Anthony Gose, Moises Sierra and Kevin Pillar are in the system but have yet to establish themselves in the majors and can’t necessarily be counted on to replace Colby Rasmus and Melky Cabrera, both eligible for free agency after the coming season.

They must either extend those two or find some help soon, since the club’s top outfield prospect, 2012 first-rounder D.J. Davis, is still years away and Kenny Wilson is probably the only other person on the farm who might be ready to factor into 2015.

The potentially crushing drop-off in production that may result is being factored into their planning.

“We’re not concerned, but we definitely have our eye on it and you’re always trying to balance the short-term and the long-term,” Anthopoulos said Wednesday after quashing a round of trade rumours surrounding Rasmus. “It’s easier to fill left field, guys come available, centre would probably be more the area, but we’re aware who’s on the free agent market.

“We obviously have Colby under control and wouldn’t rule out him being here long term. And we do have depth at the position, at least with guys like Pillar and Gose who can play there.”

None of that inspires much certainty, although the way Gose, Pillar and Sierra develop this season may certainly change the conversation.

The Blue Jays have to this point have made no moves toward extending Rasmus, something that could potentially happen during spring training or the all-star break, if Anthopoulos was so inclined.

While there’s risk in waiting because the price for Rasmus may climb as he nears free agency, “we don’t mind paying a little more to have more information,” said Anthopoulos.

Cabrera is more of a question mark given the questions about how he recovers from the tumour on his spine that hampered his play in 2013, underlying how thin their current outfield is.

Trying to replace or upgrade in next year’s free agent class is unlikely, too, as the crop is thin and Rasmus may very well be the best player available.

Brett Gardner, a 36-year-old Michael Cuddyer and a 39-year-old Torii Hunter are a few of the other big names potentially to be had, while club options on Nick Markakis, Alex Rios, Denard Span and Ryan Ludwick could expand the list.

Still, trying to plug two outfield holes on the open market when the Blue Jays already have US$93.75 million committed to eight players for 2015 – not including club options on Brandon Morrow ($10 million) and Adam Lind ($7.5 million) – will be a significant and possibly difficult task.

Some combination of Gose, Sierra and Pillar would be cost-effective but the Blue Jays can’t be sure they’ll be ready to be given the reins in a year’s time.

At minimum, Anthopoulos believes Gose and Pillar can provide elite defence, which leaves the club somewhat protected.

“One thing, especially with the premium positions – shortstop, centre-field, behind the plate – is you better have the defence no matter what – you can’t band-aid non-defenders at those positions,” he explained. “Knowing you have guys who can play the position defensively is obviously a pretty important starting point. …

“Defensively we’re well positioned in centre field long term, the question is going to become are we going to be happy with the bat. Very similar to what we’re dealing with (at second base with Ryan) Goins. Then you’re just trying to fill the left-field spot, every year there are left-fielders out there.”

Anthopoulos also dropped one of his favourite expressions – things can change quickly – and that certainly holds true in the Blue Jays bullpen.

Midway through the 2012 season, the relief corps featured only one player, Casey Janssen, who was healthy, effective and under club control for the next year. Now, the bullpen is so flush, the Blue Jays looking to move relievers to address other needs.

They can only hope their outfield transforms into a similar area of bounty, but regardless the hard choices the Blue Jays must make extend well beyond whether to surrender a top prospect like Aaron Sanchez or Marcus Stroman in a trade for starting pitching.

Life with a thin rotation is bad, but so too is life with a weak outfield. Already needing to address the former, it won’t be long before there’s some urgency to the latter, too.

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