Off-season dance continues as Blue Jays wait on Estrada decision

Shi Davidi, Mike Wilner and Barry Davis discuss Marco Estrada's contract situation and Drew Hutchison's role on the Toronto Blue Jays next season.

BOCA RATON, Fla. – The information gathering picked up for the Toronto Blue Jays at the GM meetings Wednesday, with the trade market slowly developing and contact continuing with the representatives for various free agents.

“There’s a lot of dancing,” is how interim GM Tony LaCava described it.

Still, in some ways that works right now for the Blue Jays, whose off-season plan will be shaped significantly by whatever decision Marco Estrada makes by Friday’s deadline on the $15.8 million qualifying offer extended to him.

Where that lands is tough to read right now, as the free-agent right-hander’s representatives are working to beat that amount on a multi-year deal, either with the Blue Jays, who are speaking to him about one, or another club.

It’s possible his free agency ends at the deadline, lest the big one-year payday slip away.

Until that call is made, LaCava and Co. must proceed as if they’re going to have a $15.8 million hit on the books for the 32-year-old, which would obviously impact their ability to make other moves. Valuing Estrada is somewhat tricky, given how strong a season he had in 2015, one in many ways superior to those previously in his career.

To be fair, he became a different and far more effective pitcher this past season by throwing up in the zone, refining his curveball and picking up a cutter, all things that are repeatable next year and beyond.

“You weigh what he did this year, look at what he’s done in the past, and try to come up with your best evaluation as to what he’s going to do in the future. That determines what you want to pay him, how many years, how many dollars,” LaCava said of how to value Estrada. “We felt comfortable in making him the Q.O., we were definitely comfortable with that, knowing what we had seen and what we were forecasting.”

A one year-deal, even one at the high-end of the spectrum, holds some appeal to the Blue Jays, because there’s no contract that short a team can’t recover from. Yet the ideal may very well be a multi-year deal with a lower average annual value that spreads the cost and locks another rotation piece in place for a longer-term.

No player has ever accepted a qualifying offer and super-agent Scott Boras, during a lengthy session in the lobby of the Boca Raton Resort and Club, once again railed against the system, saying it unfairly limits the earning power of players in the market by linking their signing to draft-pick compensation.

Boras also said that with 20 players tendered qualifying offers, their decisions were also one of the forces holding up the off-season right now.

“A lot of teams are focused on the trade market, and there are still a lot of international signings that can have an impact on this market … so clubs are somewhat focused on that,” said Boras, “and there’s also the qualifying offer decisions that players have to make.”

As pivotal as Estrada’s decision is to the Blue Jays, he’s only part of the solution even if he returns.

LaCava talked up the prospects of a Drew Hutchison revival, and at the moment he’s in the rotation along with Marcus Stroman and R.A. Dickey, but really, they’re going to need the depth to make the enigmatic righty force his way on to the roster.

They’re going to need some bullpen help, too, so balance will be needed to wisely parcel out the money they have to work with.

Even with that in mind, they’re trying to keep all avenues open, reaching out to the representatives for top-flight free agents like Jordan Zimmermann and Zack Greinke, and keeping tabs on David Price, although competition for all three will be fierce and the price tag may push beyond their comfort level.

The Blue Jays have some room to be creative with their payroll by backloading contracts given that Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and R.A. Dickey are all coming off the books after 2016, and they only have $40 million per season in guaranteed money from 2017-19. Josh Donaldson’s salary is likely to range from $18-$24 million through arbitration during those years, assuming his performance doesn’t collapse, so that needs to be factored as well.

“It’s about balance and you’ve got to allocate to certain years maybe more so than you do in other years, looking at future payrolls and who’s coming off the books and who’s on the books, things of that type,” said LaCava. “You have to really gauge it and balance it that way. Ideally you don’t want to mortgage your future, but you have to take a look at all the alternatives.”

Given where the roster is now, the timing may call for it, just the way it did last year with the way Russell Martin’s $82-million, five-year deal was structured.

“It’s certainly a way to go, knowing there is some money coming off the books in the future,” said LaCava. “But again, you have to balance that with what you want to do in the future, as well, and you don’t want to hamstring the club too much by backloading excessively.”

The Blue Jays can also create some more payroll flexibility in how they handle their nine players eligible for arbitration ahead of the Dec. 2 deadline to tender contracts. But again, all that depends on what happens beforehand, with Estrada right now the variable that gets the ball rolling.

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