Blue Jays expect core to rebound in 2014
Healthy seasons from Bautista, Morrow could push club back to contention
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays' roster overhaul didn't work out as expected this year, but the hope is that a few changes during the offseason and a return to form by the club's core will get the franchise back on track.
Toronto has almost its entire roster locked up for at least the next two seasons, but the challenge for general manager Alex Anthopoulos is to identify which players have the potential to bounce back, while plugging the remaining holes.
The obvious area of need can be found in the starting rotation, but that's also the most difficult position to fix. Anthopoulos will need to be creative in order to navigate his way through a market that is starved for pitching, and that could lead to more than a couple of unexpected moves in the offseason.
"We need to make changes; that goes without saying," Anthopoulos said recently. "How can we sit here with our win-loss record and say we're going to maintain the status quo? That's just not realistic.
"Our focus has to be on, 'How do we get better?' To focus on blame and things like that, that's part of the process and the evaluation, but I just don't think [that's productive]. It's collectively. When we've had the results we've had, it's a lot of areas."
The Blue Jays already have a full slate of pitchers under contract for next season, but what the Opening Day rotation will look like is still very much up in the air. R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and most likely Brandon Morrow are the three guaranteed to have spots, with the final two slots up for grabs.
Anthopoulos isn't expected to make a push for free-agent right-hander Matt Garza -- arguably the top pitcher available -- although Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka could be of interest if he decides to make the jump to the Major Leagues.
The Blue Jays' preference, though, has always been to do most of their work through trades rather than the open market. That could require parting with one of their young center fielders -- Colby Rasmus or Anthony Gose -- or perhaps lead to an even bigger move involving a major piece of the club's core.
"We're always looking to add," Anthopoulos said. "I don't know ultimately that it will be there. I don't think we're going to look to force anything, but we're always going to look to add. I think there's improvement we can get from within as well."
One problem the Blue Jays' rotation won't have is depth. In addition to Dickey, Buehrle and Morrow, the organization has the likes of J.A. Happ, Ricky Romero, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, and prospects Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin to compete for jobs.
That should help avoid a major dropoff if any of the key starters goes down with an injury, but it still doesn't change the fact that there is a clear need for at least one more middle-of-the-rotation arm.
"Ideally, you go outside the organization," Anthopoulos said, "and then your Hutchisons, Drabeks, Nolins -- those guys are your sixth, seventh and eighth starters rather than, with all due respect, some of the Minor League free agents we had, like a Ramon Ortiz. You're not necessarily relying on those guys to come up."
Anthopoulos said the Blue Jays' payroll next year won't be decided until later in the offseason, but he's adamant the club won't be forced to slash money. If he decides to keep the current core intact, it's going to cost upward of $130 million.
That likely won't leave a whole lot of room for upgrades, but there should be enough for at least one more addition, while the possibility of a trade involving a big name still remains very much a realistic scenario.
Here's a look at how the entire roster shapes up heading into the offseason:
Arbitration eligible: LHP Brett Cecil, RHP Rogers, C J.P. Arencibia, OF Rasmus
Free agents: RHP Josh Johnson, OF Rajai Davis, LHP Darren Oliver, RHP Ortiz
Rotation: The starting rotation was supposed to be Toronto's biggest strength this season but instead proved to be its most glaring problem. Despite the additions of Dickey, Johnson and Buehrle, the starters consistently ranked near the bottom of the Major Leagues in virtually every major pitching category.
The Blue Jays will now have to find a way to solve their pitching woes despite having most of their core locked up with long-term deals. The key to any success next year could rest on the shoulders of Morrow, who was limited to just 10 starts in 2013 because of a right forearm strain. Injuries are nothing new for the 29-year-old righty, but he'll need to stay healthy for Toronto to take a big step forward on the mound.
Bullpen: The Blue Jays have more depth in the bullpen than they do at any other area. It's an impressive group of hard throwers with a nice balance of lefties and righties, which should eliminate the need for any upgrades during the offseason.
Right-hander Casey Janssen was nearly flawless during his first full season as closer, and his team option for 2014 is all but guaranteed to be picked up. He is joined by Steve Delabar, Cecil, Dustin McGowan, Neil Wagner, Sergio Santos, Aaron Loup and Luis Perez.
There are a few other bullpen candidates as well, and the toughest decision for the Blue Jays next spring could be which pitchers to bring north with the team. The fact that there are so many pitchers in line for a job could lead the club to deal from a position of strength and depth to fill holes in other areas.
Anthopoulos explored the market for his relievers prior to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline but didn't like the offers he received from other teams. If that remains the case this winter, it's possible Anthopoulos will once again stand pat. Otherwise, it's conceivable that at least one of the late-inning relievers could be on the move in the near future.
Catcher: The Blue Jays indirectly picked their catcher of the future when top prospect Travis d'Arnaud was traded away as part of a package to acquire Dickey from the Mets. That resulted in Arencibia being named the catcher of the present and the future, with little in the way of organizational depth backing him up.
The hope was that Arencibia would take a step forward during his third full season, but instead, 2013 turned out to be a frustrating year for the native of Miami. He battled nagging injuries for a large portion of the season and ultimately finished with a sub-.200 batting average.
That has led many to speculate that the Blue Jays will be in search of an upgrade this winter, but to date, Anthopoulos has yet to admit that publicly. Finding value behind the plate is often challenging, but at the very least, Anthopoulos will need to bring another player in to challenge Arencibia for playing time after Josh Thole had an underwhelming year as the backup and isn't a legitimate candidate to start.
First base: Edwin Encarnacion silenced all of his remaining critics by following up a breakout 2012 season with yet another impressive campaign. He was arguably the club's best hitter for the second consecutive year and almost became the third player in franchise history to hit 40 homers in back-to-back seasons until a left wrist injury cost him the final few weeks of the season. The 30-year-old has another two guaranteed seasons on his contract and will be relied up to maintain his middle-of-the-order production.
Second base: Anthopoulos will have no choice but to address second base after the position yielded minimal production for most of the season. Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio were brought in to split time up the middle, but instead, both didn't impress in the field and at the plate.
Bonifacio has since been traded, while Izturis has another two years remaining on his contract. Ideally, Toronto would use Izturis in a backup role, but if another player is not found, he'll likely compete for playing time with rookie Ryan Goins. Anthopoulos explored upgrades at second prior to the Deadline but ultimately decided the asking prices were too high, leading him to instead wait until the offseason.
Robinson Cano is the top free agent available, but he's unlikely to be on the Blue Jays' radar because of his high salary demands. Detroit's Omar Infante could be an option when he hits the free-agent market, and he has drawn interest from Anthopoulos in the past, but it's also possible Toronto will upgrade through a trade instead.
Shortstop: Jose Reyes was forced to miss more than two months of the season due to a severe left ankle sprain, but outside of that setback, his first year in Toronto was an overwhelming success. He finally gave the Blue Jays the prototypical leadoff hitter they had been missing since the days of Shannon Stewart, and his production in the field came as advertised as well. The only issue was the missed time, and injuries will likely continue to be at least somewhat of a concern while Reyes is forced to play his home games on artificial turf.
Third base: Brett Lawrie has once again positioned himself as one of the brightest young stars in the game after a strong finish to the 2013 season. His year began on a sour note because of a strained right oblique muscle, and the problems continued after he was rushed back to fill a glaring hole at third base.
It wasn't until after the All-Star break that Lawrie began looking like his former self. He started to use a more upright stance at the plate and became a little more patient, and the slight adjustments resulted in drastically improved results. He remains a permanent fixture as part of the Blue Jays' core and could be in line for a big 2014 campaign if he manages to avoid injury.
Left field: Melky Cabrera's first season in Toronto couldn't have gone much worse. He did manage to hit .279 but had only 20 extra-base hits while struggling to cover much ground in left field. It appeared as though his legs were in a major state of decline until Blue Jays doctors found a tumor located in his spine.
The tumor applied a lot of pressure on Cabrera's back, and the pain extended to his legs. Cabrera's tumor has since been removed, and thankfully for the former All-Star, it was benign and he is expected to make a full recovery prior to the start of Spring Training. Since the Blue Jays found an obvious cause for the lack of mobility by Cabrera this season, it's very likely they'll give him another chance in left. The previous line of thinking was that Cabrera would need to transition to designated hitter, but that no longer appears to be the case.
Center field: Rasmus arguably took the biggest step forward of any of the Blue Jays' hitters in 2013. He surpassed the 20-homer plateau for the second consecutive year but this time he did so while posting an impressive average and on-base plus slugging percentage. The biggest question surrounding Rasmus now is just how long the Blue Jays plan to keep him in the fold.
Rasmus is set to enter his final year of arbitration and could be in line for a lucrative multiyear contract extension. But the only way that's likely to happen this offseason is if Rasmus takes a discount in order to gain long-term security. Otherwise, Anthopoulos will probably wait and force Rasmus to prove himself for another year before the club guarantees him a large sum of money. It's also possible Rasmus will become a trade candidate as the Blue Jays search for ways to upgrade their rotation.
Right field: Bautista had another productive season at the plate in 2013, but for the second consecutive year, it prematurely ended because of injury. Last year, it was a severe left wrist injury; this season, it was a left hip injury that lingered and eventually caused Bautista to be shut down in August.
Bautista shouldn't be expected to top 50 home runs in a season again, but he still remains a legitimate threat in the heart of Toronto's lineup. Bautista is guaranteed $28 million over the next two seasons -- excluding a $14 million club option for 2016 -- making the remainder of his contract very affordable.
That hasn't prevented some trade rumors from popping up every now and then. Anthopoulos will have to be creative in upgrading his roster this offseason, and while it would seem unlikely that Bautista is going anywhere, stranger things have happened. Toronto will need to give up something of quality to get some talented players in return, so Bautista's name could surface in rumors again. Still, he won't be dealt unless Toronto can receive a significant piece in return. Making a trade even less likely, his departure would create a major void in right field.
Designated hitter: One of the toughest decisions Anthopoulos will have to make this offseason is what to do with veteran DH Adam Lind, whose contract has a club option valued at $7 million. Lind's chances of returning seemed remote earlier this year, but that changed late in the season, once the club found the cause behind Cabrera's leg issues, opening up the DH spot for someone else.
If Toronto does decide to part ways with Lind, the club would need to pay a $2 million buyout, so the difference of $5 million is rather affordable for a player who once again surpassed the 20-homer plateau while maintaining an average above .270 for most of the season. Lind is especially valuable when used against right-handed pitchers. In all likelihood, he'll be back with the team in 2014.