Will Jays’ groundwork at GM meetings pay off?


Devon Travis. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

PHOENIX – Two years ago in Palm Springs, Calif., Alex Anthopoulos emerged from the GM meetings with the framework for a blockbuster with the Miami Marlins largely in place, and the seeds for a deal that would eventually land R.A. Dickey firmly planted in the ground.

This year, the Toronto Blue Jays were set to head home from four sun-filled desert days at the Arizona Biltmore with little more than a plethora of gathered information to dissect. Instead, dormant talks with the Detroit Tigers suddenly got hot Wednesday afternoon, and a few hours later they had a potential long-term solution to their revolving door at second base to bring north with them.

Prospect Devon Travis, 23, acquired for centre-fielder Anthony Gose, is now part of the Blue Jays’ future up the middle. That future could start as soon as the beginning of next season, but the likelihood, Anthopoulos said, is that the 5-9, 195-pound right-handed hitter opens at triple-A Buffalo.

“Depending on what happens in the off-season,” the GM explained, “he may have a chance to win a job unless we go out and add someone else in trade or sign a free agent.”

At the same time, “we think he can come quick,” added Anthopoulos. “It’s going to depend, honestly, on the bat. He does a lot of things that we like, he’ll put the bat on the ball, he has a pretty good approach at the plate, uses the whole field, he’s got surprising power for his size and he can steal a base. He’s got good tools but he’s more of a baseball player than anything else.”

Travis’ size, position and style have led to Jose Altuve comparisons, and while that’s not fair to the kid, it’s a refreshing change from the catch-lightning-in-a-bottle approach at second since Aaron Hill was traded to Arizona in 2011.

For the first time since then, there’s the potential for a viable long-term plan.

“He can hit, has a good approach, great makeup, solid-average defensive player, someone who we like the bat,” said Anthopoulos. “It’s an area of need in our organization in terms of middle-infield depth. Detroit had talked about converting him to centre field at the end of the season, and he was going to play centre field in the Arizona Fall League, but he had a sports hernia that he had surgery on. He’s nine weeks post-op and he’s full go.”

Travis also provides one concrete achievement for the Blue Jays at the GM meetings prior to Thursday morning’s conclusion to the annual gathering.

Despite lots of talk with varying degrees of substance in regards to Russ Martin, Pablo Sandoval, Victor Martinez (reportedly headed back to the Detroit Tigers, as expected) and others, they return home with nothing else imminent. Given the general lack of movement industry-wide thus far, much of the real action may drag toward the winter meetings Dec. 8-11 in San Diego.

“You always come out of these (GM) meetings with a more narrow focus,” said Anthopoulos.

Asked if the club’s voids in the infield, bullpen and at DH were more likely to be settled via trade or free agency, Anthopoulos replied: “I don’t know yet. It’s safe to guess that the reason some of them haven’t signed is that maybe they’re not ready to sign, or nobody can line up to agreeing on a contract, and same thing with trades. You come out to these meetings, you touch base, you reconfirm where everybody is at, whether it’s with agents or with teams, then everybody leaves here, they huddle up back in their respective front offices and go from there.”

At least one other item on the to-do list is moving toward completion as the Blue Jays interviewed Brook Jacoby to replace the departed Kevin Seitzer as hitting coach. Asked about Jacoby’s chances of landing the job, one source said “probably,” while another noted other candidates are in the mix.

Described as a solid instructor and tireless worker, he’s similar in approach to Kevin Seitzer, who left for more money and a longer term from the Atlanta Braves. The Blue Jays also still need a bullpen coach to replace the reassigned Bob Stanley, with Dane Johnson, Rick Langford and Randy St. Claire considered leading candidates.

Another matter settled to some degree are the club’s plans for centre field, with top prospect Dalton Pompey and Kevin Pillar now competing for the starting centre-field job in a two-horse race after Gose’s departure.

Pompey, who drew heady praise from Anthopoulos on Tuesday, gave the Blue Jays a scare Wednesday when he slid into second base, got stuck on a muddy patch, banged his face into the dirt and exited Mesa’s Arizona Fall League game against Peoria in the first inning. But the removal was precautionary, and he’s fine.

Before the game, Pompey said getting props from the GM, “is all positive.”

“Anything I can take from what Alex says or what John Gibbons says I’m going to listen and I’m going to apply it,” Pompey continued. “For them to come out and say good things about me is only going to help going into next year. They believe in me, and if they believe in me I can believe in myself. I definitely have that confidence going into spring training that if I play well, there’s a good chance I can be where I want to be, and that’s the opening day centre-fielder.”

While much of the recent focus has been on Martin (who may indeed be the club’s primary target), Sandoval (who had some positive talks with the Blue Jays but doesn’t appear legitimately on their radar), and Martinez (whom they expected would remain with the Tigers all along), the Blue Jays also did work on repairing the bullpen.

They met with the representatives for Andrew Miller, an industry source told Sportsnet colleague Ben Nicholson-Smith, and the left-hander would go a long way in boosting a relief corps that ranked 12th in the American League with a 4.09 ERA.

Luke Gregerson should also be high on their priority list, the right-hander being perhaps the most consistent reliever on the market not named David Robertson.

Still, an intriguing question is what the Blue Jays want their bullpen to look like, and Anthopoulos was very vague on his plans on that front.

“You just want good relievers,” he said. “If you can mix up the looks and have a lefty specialist, a groundballer, a strikeout guy, you’d love to give your manager as many options as you can.”

How many relief arms the Blue Jays need is an interesting point of debate.

Sure bets for the ‘pen barring trades include Brett Cecil, the only experienced late-inning reliever they have, Aaron Loup, swingman Marco Estrada and long man Todd Redmond. Top pitching prospect Aaron Sanchez, who’ll be stretched out as a starter in the spring, Chad Jenkins, Kendall Graveman, lefty Rob Rasmussen, Daniel Norris and, later in the year, soon-to-be-20 right-hander Miguel Castro are other possibilities mentioned by Anthopoulos.

“There are some guys internally that could emerge,” he said. “We’ve got bodies, we’re just trying to build as much depth as we can.”

Adding more bodies could create enough of a surplus to give the Blue Jays an opportunity to make some trades, a calculation that played into Estrada’s acquisition for Adam Lind, which provides flexibility with J.A. Happ.

A couple of key relievers could add to that pool while also delivering the back-end stability manager John Gibbons missed so dearly this season.

“We have a pretty good collection of young players and prospects,” said Anthopoulos. “We definitely have the assets to make a deal, but you do want to horde your depth, especially on the mound.”

Soon though, things will start to give, and the Blue Jays will find out whether the rest of their groundwork in the desert pays off.

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