By: Dan Grant
Major League Baseball’s winter meetings are finishing up in Nashville. The yearly event usually inspires a flurry of activity in the baseball world, and this year has been no exception. The Arizona Diamondbacks have been the biggest players, acquiring Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller, while the Yankees will try to plug their hole at second base with the mercurial Starlin Castro. The Chicago Cubs have attempted to purchase experience in John Lackey and Ben Zobrist. These are just the tip of the iceberg, as a litany of players have new addresses, and the groundwork has been laid for others to follow.
This years loaded free agent crop, coupled with a larger-than-normal group of high payroll teams looking to re-tool, has made this one of the most active off-seasons in recent memory. In the American League in particular, the Red Sox and Tigers have both been aggressive, making significant additions to their pitching both before and during the meetings: The BoSox landed David Price and Craig Kimbrel, while Detroit has added Jordan Zimmermann and Francisco Rodriguez.
In a crappy reality check, the Toronto Blue Jays were never seriously in the market for any of the names mentioned above. Despite some ill-considered whinging from the fan base about retaining David Price and how the new front office doesn’t have ‘the stones’ of the one led by Alex Anthopoulos, the bottom line is that this team, with its current payroll constraints (self-imposed though they are) simply doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to acquire top-level talent on the free agent market. Nor do they need to. While signing J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada to contracts that exceed eight figures per season may seem insane to the casual fan, the fact is that these are the going rates for veteran starting pitching these days. Just look at the contracts that Greinke and Price inked; at 34.3 and 31 million annually, they represent the largest free agent deals (for pitchers) in the history of baseball. That is the free market cost of a true ace, and that market excludes the Jays, as currently constructed. In fact, if you look at the Blue Jays 6 man starting unit consisting of Stroman-Dickey-Happ-Estrada-Hutchison-Sanchez, they’re set to make roughly 35 million combined in 2016.
Many will look at this as mismanagement, or at the very least with a negative bent, but the Jays have simply allocated their funds elsewhere, and have done so in a mostly prudent and well-considered manner. The lineup that led the league in runs scored by 127 last season will return fully intact. Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin are locked up to long term deals. Reigning MVP Josh Donaldson is about to get more expensive through the arbitration process, but he’s under team control for three more seasons, minimum. Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Devon Travis and Roberto Osuna are all still pre-arbitration and are thus both inexpensive and here for the foreseeable future. Kevin Pillar, Ben Revere, Ryan Goins and Chris Colabello are still relatively cheap as compared to their production. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are back again, though both are on the final year of their current team-friendly contracts. The only significant departure is Dioner Navarro, who was a nice luxury as a backup catcher and bench bat, but not an essential component of the team. Even with a middling starting rotation, this team is stacked.
The biggest thing on the wish list for this Blue Jays squad is help in the bullpen. Roberto Osuna may eventually be stretched out as a starter, but with the depth Toronto has acquired in that area, he appears poised to return to his 9th inning role in 2016. That’s fine, both for the his development and for the team. He’s still just 21 and not that far removed from Tommy John surgery. A bigger question is whether or not Aaron Sanchez will be in the rotation again, with the club seemingly taking a wait-and-see approach. Indications are that he’ll be given every opportunity to start and the bullpen is a fallback plan. That’s fine also. But if Sanchez does indeed crack the rotation, your bullpen is now not just thin, it’s positively emaciated. Osuna, Brett Cecil, Jesse Chavez and…? Drew Hutchison? Aaron Loup? Bo Schultz? Ryan Tepera? Yikes.
You can have one of those guys in there, maybe even two in a pinch. But that still leaves at least two spots to be filled, and you’d hope it’s three. You’d much rather have Hutchison starting somewhere, whether it’s Triple A or Toronto, and you’d really only want one of Schultz or Tepera. Loup regained his form against left handers as the year went on last year, but was downright atrocious in high leverage situations, allowing an opponents OPS of 1.089 over 23 games. Basically, all these guys are OK as depth, but relying on any of them seems foolhardy for a team with so much invested in this particular season.
So where to find upgrades?
Speaking with Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet earlier this week, Shapiro said:
“It’s such a tough market to wade into and allocate so many of your resources to, but we know we’ve got to find some alternatives and we know we’ve got to play in that market,” Shapiro said. “To play in the upper ends of that market it’s a dangerous place to play. You’d better have a lot of flexibility and your threshold for risk had better be very high.”
I get all that. Risk, reward etc… But it sure would be nice if they did SOMETHING, right? We’re dying over here!
The good news is that there’s no shortage of relievers still on the free agent and trade markets, though as we’ve said, Toronto isn’t exactly swimming in the deep end of the pool in this regard. Let’s take a look at some options being mused on by fans and media, and then see if we can pinpoint any targets.
- The long-coveted Aroldis Chapman appeared to be a Dodger before an ugly off-field incident emerged, and he now appears to be in limbo. If he was indeed dealt, it’s thought that incumbent Dodgers closer (and impending free agent) Kenley Jansen might come available. Would Toronto have anything the Dodgers might be interested in? Jansen is an elite guy at the back end, so it wouldn’t be cheap, even if he is asking to be traded.
- Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon are both reportedly being shopped by the Washington Nationals. It’s unlikely Washington would trade both, so it’s likely a one or the other situation. With Papelbon clashing with teammates down the stretch and owed a big chunk of money, it’s hard to imagine anyone would want to acquire him before the season begins, especially since he’ll likely still be available come the trade deadline. Storen is an intriguing piece with two more years of team control, but would likely come at a high cost to any suitor. He’d probably be even more expensive than Jansen.
- Craig Kimbrel and Joaquin Benoit have already been dealt by the Padres, but they still appear to be shopping James Shields and his massive contract, as well as young starters Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross. If Toronto was able to acquire any of those, it would allow them to keep Sanchez in the bullpen for another year. With Shields, the cost would likely just be absorbing money and risk, but with Cashner and Ross, it would be significantly higher. Toronto may no longer have the minor league horses to get such a trade done, without completing emptying its cupboard.
Bye, Bye Birdy
- Ryan Madson and John Axford seemed like the kind of low risk reclamation projects that the Jays might take advantage of, but they’ve both signed with Oakland. Madson cashed in on his first healthy season since 2011 with a three year 22 million dollar deal that looks like a mistake even as I’m typing it. Axford got two years, 10 million, which is a lot more reasonable, but still a hefty price for a guy with his inconsistent track record. Good misses here, I think.
- As recently as Wednesday evening, the Jays were connected with former Giant Yusmeiro Petit, but he now has agreed to a deal with the Washington Nationals. After some hemming and hawing, the Nationals have also snapped up Shawn Kelley, another potent mid-level arm. Both would have fit nicely in Toronto, but there are plenty of fish in the sea.
- Now former Blue Jay Mark Lowe inked a two year deal with Detroit. The Astros gave up an arm and a leg to acquire young closer Ken Giles from Philadelphia. Darren O’Day and his hate for Jose Bautista, re-upped with the Orioles for big money. Chad Qualls and Jason Motte, far more likely Jay targets, both signed in Colorado. Oh well!
Come Home to Roost!
- While the Jays may have missed out on Petit, there have been some rumours involving them and former starter Joe Blanton, who was excellent with Pittsburgh down the stretch. Never much better than average as a starter, Blanton converted to full time relief for the Pirates and threw 36 innings over 21 games, posting a 1.57 ERA and a 2.11 FIP. Additionally, it’s reported that they’ve been in touch with the agent for Craig Stammen, the former Nationals long-man who missed most of 2015 with a partially torn-flexor muscle. Both Stammen and Blanton are relievers capable of pitching more than one inning at a time, so I think, when you couple that fact with the acquisition of swingman Jesse Chavez, we’re beginning to see a clear plan from Shapiro and Atkins.
- Another thing that Stammen and Blanton have in common is that they throw sinkers, which serves to increase their ground-ball rate, something that would be an asset at the homer-friendly confines of the
Rogers CenterSkyDome. With that characteristic in mind, Burke Badenhop is a name that jumps off the page. He was excellent for Boston in 2014, with a 61 GB%, and while that number regressed with the Reds last year, he owns a 54.4% mark for his career, well above league average. The downside to Badenhop is that he strikes out absolutely nobody, which limits his overall upside, and makes his success difficult to project. Another low-strikeout, groundball guy is Matt Albers. He missed most of 2014 with a shoulder injury and then broke his pinkie finger during a bench-clearing brawl in 2015, both of which might serve to depress his overall value. With that said, he had a solid 2015 for the White Sox, when he actually pitched. He was also a member of Cleveland in 2013, so he’s a known asset to the new Toronto front office. Finally, Juan Nicasio, formerly of the Rockies and Dodgers, is another side of the coin. The former starter spent his first full season in the bullpen last year and was reasonably effective, pitching to a 2.83 FIP and a 3.86 ERA over 55 games (58 IP). He also had an excellent K rate of over 10 per 9 innings, though his walk rate was equally ugly, at almost 5 per 9. He averages 94 mph on his fastball, and power arms are always welcome in the ‘pen.
- Badenhop, Albers and Nicasio are primarily one-inning guys however. If Toronto is looking for someone that can throw multiple innings, Carlos Villanueva might be somebody worth a look. The former Blue Jay has spent time as a swingman and had a solid 2015 campaign in St Louis, throwing 61 innings over just 31 games, to the tune of a 2.95 ERA an a 3.74 FIP. While his groundball rate isn’t great, it’s improved incrementally in each of the past five seasons, and his K/BB rate has held steady throughout his career.
Yes, it’s a lot to take in, but those are just some of the options, and there are myriad more! Fret not, Jays fans. Let’s not forget, before the Jays acquired David Price, Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Revere, LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe in July, and before Marcus Stroman came back in September, this was already a .500 team with playoff aspirations. With a full season of Stroman on tap, J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada in the rotation from the get-go and a few more additions of depth on the back end, the 2016 Blue Jays are once again going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Even if this off-season has been boring as hell.
EDITORS NOTE: this article has been corrected to note that the Tigers acquired K-Rod and not Joakim Soria. 30 something closers, amirite?