Winter Report Card: Toronto Blue Jays
With little more than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2013.
Toronto Blue Jays
2013 results: 74-88 (.457), 5th place AL East (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: C J.P. Arencibia, OF Rajai Davis, UT Mark DeRosa, RHP Josh Johnson, RHP Brad Lincoln, LHP Darren Oliver
Key arrivals: IF Chris Getz, C Eric Kratz, 3B Brent Morel, C Dioner Navarro, RHP Tomo Ohka
So much for winning the winter. Last offseason, the Blue Jays pulled off two blockbuster trades – adding R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehlre, Josh Johnson and others via deals with the Mets and Marlins — and signed free agents Melky Cabrera and Macier Izturis to multi-year contracts. They earned the only A in this series, entered the season as favorites for a playoff spot with a payroll $46 million higher than the year before (up to $119.3 million)… and fell into the AL East cellar, improving by just one win over 2012. This time around, general manager Alex Anthopoulos appears to be opting for hibernation, or at least a much lower profile.
The Jays’ highest-impact addition thus far has been Dioner Navarro, whom Anthopoulos signed to a two-year, $8 million deal to take over the starting catching job from the nontendered J.P. Arencibia. Navarro, who turns 30 on Feb. 9, has clawed his way back from career oblivion; his 266 plate appearances in 2013 were his highest total since 2009. He’ll be hard-pressed to match his .300/.365/.492 line with the Cubs — not to mention the career-high 13 homers — but even if he merely matches his career line (.251/.313/.371 for an 82 OPS+), it would be a vast improvement on Arencibia’s offense (.194/.227/.365 for a 59 OPS+). Eric Kratz, a 2002 Blue Jays draftee reacquired (along with minor leaguer Rob Rasmussen) from Philadelphia in a trade for Brad Lincoln, is a potential upgrade on Josh Thole as a backup, though he’d be stretched if the job requires more than that.
The addition of light-hitting Chris Getz (.251/.310/.309 career) is mostly to provide insurance as rookie Ryan Goins takes over the starting second base role. The return of Tomo Okha (a Blue Jay in 2007) is noted here mainly because he’s such a curiosity. The 37-year-old Japanese hurler last pitched in the majors in 2009 but is attempting a comeback as a knuckleballer and could benefit from working alongside Dickey in the spring.
Elsewhere, what’s transpired thus far is mainly about what the Blue Jays have lost rather than what they’ve gained. Most notably, Rajai Davis’ departure for Detroit opens up more playing time for Anthony Gose and Moises Sierra as spare outfielders who could cut into Cabrera’s time. The trade of Lincoln and the retirement of Darren Oliver open up some room in the bullpen. The free agent departure of Johnson, who managed just 16 starts and a 6.20 ERA, ends a lengthy — and ultimately silly — saga full of so much handwringing about how much the Jays should spend to retain him.
Unfinished business: Starting pitching
The rotation is full of question marks, starting with frontmen Dickey and Buehrle, neither of whom lived up to expectations in 2013. J.A. Happ, Brandon Morrow and Todd Redmond, the three pitchers currently penciled in to round out the unit, combined for just 42 big league starts and a 4.78 ERA (85 ERA+) in 2013 due to injuries and mediocrity. Happ missed 77 games after being hit in the head by a line drive, while Morrow lost four months to an entrapped nerve in his forearm; he’s totaled just 31 starts over the past two seasons. Between that trio, holdovers Kyle Drabek and Esmil Rogers and prospects Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin — both of whom spent nearly all of last season at Double-A — the team has a variety of back-rotation options but nothing close to a sure thing who can fill a mid-rotation role.
As such, the Blue Jays have scouted Japanese hurler Masahiro Tanaka, though they’re not serious players to sign him. They’re said to be a leading candidate to sign Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez, either of whom would cost them only a second-round draft pick; their two first-round picks at number nine and 11 (the latter as compensation for failing to sign 2013 first-rounder Phil Bickford) are protected. Toronto has also expressed interest in trading for the Cubs’ Jeff Samardzija, whom it would presumably sign to a long-term extension.
At the moment, Anthopoulos sounds as though he’s suffering from sticker shock. On Thursday, Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi tweeted, “AA again says acquisition cost for FA pitchers and arms in trade too high at the moment.” That’s fairly typical GM posturing; Anthopoulos knows he needs to make a splash to reassure the Blue Jays’ fan base that the team still intends to contend in 2014.
Preliminary grade: D+
Is this thing on? The Jays made a solid upgrade at catcher, and while their lineup is generally in good shape — at least if Reyes, Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie are all healthy — their rotation still needs significant work. Even then, it’s quite possible that this team has already missed its window of opportunity in the AL East.