Blue Jays Notebook: Waiting on Tanaka

Masahiro Tanaka (Toru Takahashi/AP)

Throughout the off-season, I’ll provide commentary and links related to the Toronto Blue Jays and MLB every weekend.

Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Curtis Granderson all obtained lucrative multiyear contracts this week, as the free agent market reached a frenzied pace. But what about the pitchers?

While Tim Hudson, Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Jason Vargas and, most recently, Scott Feldman have found deals, the top free agent pitchers remain available: Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez. The wait seems to be connected to the uncertainty surrounding Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka and the posting system in general.

After weeks of discussion, officials from Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball appear to have reached an agreement on a new system. Here’s how the process would work: teams could submit up to $20 million for the right to bid for a posted player such as Tanaka. If multiple teams submit the maximum bid, as they surely would for a frontline arm, the player can solicit offers from all teams over a 30-day period and choose the proposal that suits him best. The process would resemble free agency, with only the winning bidder paying the $20 million fee.

However, the Rakuten Golden Eagles may not post Tanaka, and until MLB teams know whether he will be available and determine his asking price, the market for other top starters will remain hazy. Santana, Garza and Jimenez are free to sign whenever they please, of course, but engaging bidders could be a challenge for now. Potential suitors including the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels might prefer to wait for clarity on Tanaka’s future.

So even after a week filled with transactions and rumours, there’s still something to look forward to as the Winter Meetings approach. The starting pitching market hasn’t caught up to the rest of the league just yet.

ASSESSING HAPP: The Blue Jays say J.A. Happ can rebound in 2014 if he has health on his side. The left-hander posted a 4.56 ERA during a difficult 2013 season that included an extended stint on the disabled list following head and knee injuries sustained when he took a line drive to the head. Yet he might be capable of more going forward.

“We feel good about J.A., where he’s at, how he ended the year, how well he threw the ball,” Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos told reporters, including Shi Davidi. “The other thing, too, J.A. was throwing with a knee brace the entire time. Is that an excuse? No, but normally he doesn’t throw with brace. His velocity was back, we saw some 93s, 94s, and I thought his last three outings looked really, really good. J.A., as the fifth starter, has a chance to give us a really solid year.”

Other teams might view Happ as a trade chip, since his contract will look reasonable in light of free agent deals signed by mid-rotation starters such as Feldman, Vargas and Hughes. Happ earns $5.2 million in 2014 on a contract that includes a $6.7 million option for 2015. Having already committed well over $100 million to their 2014 payroll, the Blue Jays could consider moving Happ to create additional flexibility.

PROSPECT RANKINGS: This time of year prospects are currency just like anything else. Teams can use them in trades instead of spending big in free agency, just as the Blue Jays did a year ago in deals for Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey.

Anthopoulos said this week that he’s targeting starting pitchers available in trades, which means other teams will be looking up and down Toronto’s roster for appealing pieces — prospects included. As of now, pitching seems to be the Blue Jays’ strength. In his assessment of Toronto’s farm system, Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus places Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez atop the list. Pitchers Alberto Tirado, Daniel Norris and Sean Nolin round out the top five of Parks’ list.

NOTES: Catcher Tyler LaTorre, who spent the 2013 season with San Francisco’s top affiliates, re-signed with the Giants on a minor league deal, according to an industry source… Yuniesky Betancourt continues drawing interest from multiple teams as a utility player with power according to an industry source. However nothing is imminent as of Friday… There’s action on many other fronts with at least one more major deal expected within the next day or so… Anthopoulos says player development is neither simple nor predictable. “I think that’s just the way the game works. Very rarely to players’ careers go in a linear fashion where they continue to improve every year” …  Anthopoulos noted that the Blue Jays believe A.J. Jimenez is ready for the big leagues defensively and close to ready on offence.

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