Since Rogers Communications purchased a majority ownership of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2000, fans have eagerly anticipated ownership would open their wallet and make a big splash over the winter.
However, like most winters north of the border, the offseason was usually cold, harsh and fruitless. Blue Jays fans had become accustomed to a similar offseason arc: add a few mid-level free agents, make some seemingly intriguing transactions, wait on top prospects and hope for significant improvement from what was largely the same core of players from the prior season’s non-playoff squad.
Fast forward to this offseason.
The Jays started off in typical fashion: signing a solid role player in Maicer Izturis. However, in a blockbuster trade that signaled a new era in Blue Jays baseball, general manager Alex Anthopoulos acquired two-fifths of his starting rotation in Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, premiere lead-off hitter Jose Reyes and speedy utility player Emilio Bonifacio in exchange for six players---most of whom had deemed expendable or were not ready to contribute at the major league level.
In a second trade, AA landed reigning NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and his catcher, Josh Thole, for an enticing package that included two top prospects. Sandwiched in between these headliner trades, the Jays also inked switch-hitter Melky Cabrera to man left field.
So after acquiring all these veterans, where does that leave the team now?
The Jays have arguably made a bigger splash in the past two months than in any past offseason under Rogers ownership. As such, there isn't much left to do. A quick analysis of the potential roster heading into 2013 reveals that there may only be two or three roster spots that are in play (barring additional trades, injuries, etc.).
For the current Blue Jays depth chart, click here.
The first roster spot would be for a final bat to come off the bench. The second that should be addressed is in the bullpen---a healthy reliever to set up for Casey Janssen.
I am suggesting the Jays add one of the hitting candidates and one of the pitching candidates to round out the roster and complete one of the most memorable offseasons in franchise history.
Given how bare the free-agent cupboard is for right-handed power hitters, Scott Hairston would likely be the ideal acquisition for the Blue Jays.
Unfortunately, there have not been any substantial rumors connecting the Jays to Hairston at this point. However, that shouldn't completely rule out the possibility of the Jays making a run at him. The most intriguing right-handed power-hitting outfielder on the market a week ago---Cody Ross---signed to a three-year, $26 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Jays should consider making a similarly late push to add Hairston. At age 32, Hairston had his best season in the majors hitting 20 home runs and posting an .807 OPS. More importantly, Hairston raked against lefties in 2012: 11 home runs in 189 at-bats with a 126 OPS+. He would make for a great platoon partner with Adam Lind and would be able to fill in at all three outfield positions as needed. There is even a slight chance that the converted second baseman could occasionally fill in at first base.
Although he's never played an inning at the position, the Mets worked him out there the last two seasons, and there is a possibility he could see time there as his career progresses.
Given the limited options in free agency, the Blue Jays' best bet to find a right-handed power hitter may come via another trade by GM Alex Anthopoulos, and one of the most likely trade partners could be the Minnesota Twins.
The Twins have shown a willingness to part with good, young hitters this offseason, sending Ben Revere to the Philadelphia Phillies and Denard Span to the Washington Nationals. The Twins have a deep, hitter-heavy farm system that has made a number of their current bats expendable. Trevor Plouffe could be the next hitter on that list.
Given the anemic output at third base for the Twins in recent years, Plouffe was a bit of a revelation for the team last year, as he hit 24 home runs and slugged a respectable .455. The former 2004 first-round pick finally received significant playing time at age 26, and—although he has plenty of weaknesses in his game—he showed good power potential and hit well against lefties.
Plouffe hit 12 home runs in 124 at-bats (1 HR every 10.3 at-bats) and slugged .911 against lefties. Plouffe's main weakness is his defense. Plouffe logged 95 games at third base last year and posted a -9.2 UZR/150. The Twins also tried him out at second base, shortstop, right field, left field and briefly at first base. The problem is, minus his 12-inning stint at 1B, he was even worse at every other position.
On the bright side, he was slightly better in the outfield and as a converted infielder, there is still a slight possibility he could develop into a mediocre corner outfielder in due time.
OK, Morneau clearly doesn't fit the mold of a right-handed role player to come off the bench or platoon with Adam Lind, but as I was exploring the possibility of acquiring Trevor Plouffe, I could not help but notice how much sense a trade for Morneau could make for both organizations.
As a left-handed hitter due to make $14 million in 2013, Morneau would obviously be expected to do a lot more than just platoon at DH if acquired. As a matter of fact, his presence would render Adam Lind unnecessary, which would mean the Jays would either have to include Lind in a potential deal for Morneau or find a separate suitor for the 29-year-old Lind, who is due to make $5 million next season.
Morneau would make sense for the Blue Jays if they could afford to take on his salary for 2013. The 31-year-old Canadian is a former MVP in a contract year for a team that isn't likely to be competitive next season. Morneau has been hampered by injuries for the last three seasons, but had a modest rebound to finish last season in promising fashion. He's still capable of manning first base on occasion and could split time between 1B and DH with the right-handed Edwin Encarnacion.
In a recent interview with Phil Mackey of 1500 ESPN, Morneau said he hasn't been restricted with any concussion concerns as he was last offseason, and he appears to be in full heath for the first time in a long time going into 2013.
Morneau's primary health issue was concussion symptoms, and although his body has seemed to age a bit faster than the average 31-year-old hitter, he is only three years removed from being a perennial 30 HR hitter and could benefit from seeing increased time as a DH. He still put together a solid campaign last year and hit even better on the road away from the most pitcher-friendly park in baseball, Target Field.
A move to a more hitter-friendly park, where he could have more rest as a DH, and being fully healthy in a contract year could spell big things and make him worth a gamble by AA to solidify the heart of the lineup.
Returning to the cheaper, right-handed platoon options at DH, Chris Marrero is a lesser-known name but an intriguing option given his pedigree and potential.
Marrero is a lot like a player currently on the Blue Jays: David Cooper. Both are first basemen and former first-round picks who have hit well in the higher levels of the minors the past four seasons, but have yet to receive significant playing time in the majors. The main difference; however, is that Marrero is a right-handed hitter, while Cooper is a lefty who scouts worry may struggle against left-handed pitching at the major league level.
Unfortunately for Cooper, Adam Lind already possesses a similar set of attributes and given his contract and status, is all but guaranteed a roster spot (barring a trade).
Marrero; however, as a righty, would be an interesting candidate to finally get his chance to see 300-plus PAs at the major league level in a platoon with the aforementioned Lind. Marrero is still on the Nationals and would have to be acquired via trade, but it is clear that he has fallen out of favor in the Nationals organization. He doesn't have the elite walk-to-strikeout rate that Cooper has posted at AAA the last two seasons, but at 6'3'', 220 lbs. and 18 months younger (at age 24), he is still developing as a power hitter.
With little left to prove in the minors and buried on the depth chart in Washington, Marrero has the right combination of upside and availability that should pique the Blue Jays' interest for a platoon partner for Adam Lind. At the very least, he would offer strong competition for the recently-acquired Russ Canzler for the job.
As discussed, the free-agent market after Scott Hairston does not elicit much excitement for right-handed power hitters.
There's switch-hitting Lance Berkman, who will likely receive an above-market salary based more on his reputation than what his body is still capable of doing. There's Juan Rivera, who performed so terribly, the Jays gave him away to the Dodgers in 2011. There's Carlos Lee, who may have eaten himself out of the league. There's also Delmon Young, who avoids drawing walks at a historic pace and is a liability at any defensive position.
Getting creative, but also staying within the realm of possibility, Troy Glaus is an option who should at least be considered, assuming his asking price is reasonable. According to WFAN, New York's premiere sports radio station (via CBS New York), Glaus contacted the Yankees about coming out of retirement to play third base once it was announced Alex Rodriguez would miss time due to a hip injury. The Yankees ended up signing Kevin Youkilis instead, but Glaus remains available.
Obviously, given that Glaus has been out of baseball for the last two seasons, the paramount concern is whether Glaus has kept himself in playing shape. It would be hard to consider Glaus as a serious option without first bringing him in for a workout. Glaus claims he has been able to heal his knees and shoulders the last two years and is 100 percent healthy, but it's hard to tell the veracity of those claims at this point.
Glaus was always an impressive specimen at 6'5'', 220 lbs. Although he has been out of baseball for two seasons, he is still "only" 36 years old (and younger than the likes of David Ortiz, Rodriguez and Paul Konerko).
The main concern will be how his shoulder has healed and whether he's still capable of offering his primary asset: the ability to hit for power. In his last full season, despite being hampered with injuries, he hit 16 home runs in 483 PAs (hitting 11 HRs in 324 PAs against lefties).
There is also still the issue of whether he could play the field. He was able to handle 1B (albeit below-average defensively) for the Braves in his final season, but hasn't seen significant action at 3B since 2008.
Moving on to the candidates for the setup role, I would suggest the Jays take a look at another former Minnesota Twin, Matt Capps.
The free-agent market for relievers is still relatively deep, but the options are limited when it comes to finding bullpen pieces that are affordable, have closing experience and won't mind starting the season in a setup role.
Admittedly, the player I hoped the Jays targeted at the beginning of the season was Ryan Madson, but there are still suitable alternatives available. After what the Jays went through with Francisco Cordero and how he played down the stretch, there should be no interest in Jose Valverde. Brian Wilson would likely be too expensive and Rafael Soriano is most certainly too expensive.
Francisco Rodriguez is interesting, but after last season, he could be on the verge of an implosion, and the Jays may have tired of high-risk, high-reward types.
Matt Capps avoids most of these concerns. He did miss most of the second half of last season with inflammation in his rotator cuff, but was healthy enough to return for one appearance in late September. The Twins declined his $6 million option, and he remains a free agent.
Capps will never be a dominant reliever. He possesses a pitching repertoire that isn't going to baffle or overpower any hitter, low strikeout and walk rates and plenty of balls put into play that are usually turned into outs. Although his ERA will always be lower than his FIP, and though it often seems like he should be easily hittable, he still commands a fastball in the low 90s and maintains a consistently low BABIP to the point where it shouldn't just be considered luck.
If Matt Capps was the "boring" version of a setup man candidate, then consider Matt Lindstrom to be the exciting version (or at least as exciting as a middle reliever can be).
The 32-year-old Lindstrom, who once met great hype upon reaching the majors six years ago, split last season between Baltimore and Arizona, and although it was a quiet season for him, he put himself in a good position to find a late-inning relief job for 2013. Relievers have been moving slowly thus far this offseason, and the hard-throwing Lindstrom is one of the more exciting and high-upside candidates left on the market.
Lindstrom's fastball sits around 96 mph, but he has been known to touch 100 mph on the gun occasionally. He possesses one of the biggest and best fastballs in the game that he often offsets with a big, breaking slider. Typical of most high-velocity relief types, he struggled most of the early part of his career with control and consistency. He pitched extremely well in middle relief his first two seasons before imploding in his first opportunity as a closer, posting a 5.89 ERA for the Marlins in 2009, thanks largely in part to a 4.56 BB/9 and 9.3% HR/FB rate.
He got another chance to close again in 2010 for the Astros, where he was still shaky, but made some minor strides to develop into a more reliable reliever.
Lindstrom has spent the last two years in a bit of anonymity, but has improved each year since his disappointing 2009 campaign. He spent 2011 with the Rockies and split 2012 between the Orioles and Diamondbacks (three teams that do not have pitcher-friendly confines), and despite the minimal fanfare, has seemingly fixed his flaws.
Lindstrom posted a 2.33 BB/9 in 2011 and 2.67 BB/9, he has cut his HR/FB rate nearly in half from 2009 and now has a groundball rate over 50 percent. His average fastball velocity still hovers around mid-90s. He's still the same power pitcher he was, but has seemed to improve his control.
All this points to a pitcher who should at least be considered a quality setup man candidate, if not a low-tier closer possibility. As mentioned, he's a very different pitcher than Capps, but he could still fill the same void of providing a setup man with closer experience to protect leads for Janssen. If his development is real, he would offer a high-upside, reliable setup man who could once again be trusted as a closer. Of course, for high-velocity pitchers of his type, there is always a risk of control regression.
That said, given his work over the last two years, I would be comfortable with the Jays giving him a two-year deal to provide another strong-armed reliever to help close out games.
With the remaining reliever free agents having limited closing experience, the Blue Jays may look to trade in order to bolster the back-end of the bullpen. One incumbent closer who has pitched well in recent years and should be available is Rafael Betancourt.
In full disclosure, I never would have thought the soon-to-be 38-year-old Betancourt would survive the year closing in Coors Field last year. He proved me wrong. Betancourt had a few hiccups along the way, but he went on to record 31 saves for the cellar-dwelling Rockies. He also averaged a strikeout per inning, walked only 12 batters in 57 innings and finished with a sub-3.00 ERA (2.81 ERA, 3.09 FIP).
With the exception of 2009, he has recorded a sub-4.00 ERA every season he has been in the league (dating back to his 2003 debut). He has been an effective reliever and on-and-off-again closer for just shy of a decade now. Although his age is becoming a concern, he was a late bloomer who just mastered his biggest career challenge yet: closing for a hapless Rockies squad in hitter-friendly Coors Field.
The Rockies' heavy-handed management led to Jim Tracy's resignation, and he has been replaced by Walt Weiss, who was most recently coaching high school baseball. I think it's safe to say that the team, coming off a 98-loss season, is in somewhat of a rebuilding mode and doesn't necessarily require a 38-year-old closer in a contract year (albeit with a mutual option for 2014). Furthermore, the Rockies recently traded for former Astros closer Wilton Lopez, who could step into Betancourt's shoes if he is traded.
He may be coming off what could be his last great season, and as he nears 40, we may see that K-rate dip a bit, but Betancourt has an established track record of being a reliable reliever and has shown competence as a closer. He may be one of the slowest-working pitchers on the mound, but perhaps it has helped keep hitters off-rhythm. He also still has his control—he hasn't hit a batter with a pitch since 2003!
The question is, at what cost is it worth the Jays pursuing him? The Rockies front office is hard to gauge, but you can never have enough pitching in Colorado it seems. Betancourt, given his reasonable contract and last year's success, could command a one or two low-to-mid-level pitching prospects as well an infield prospect like Ryan Goins. Obviously, the Jays won't give up a significant prospect for a 38-year-old reliever, but he may be worth a prospect or two as he fits the team's win-now mode.
I realize there is no such thing as loyalty in professional sports and letting such an intangible factor into personnel decisions can be damning, but I would not mind seeing the Blue Jays look into re-signing Jason Frasor to help fill out the bullpen.
Frasor, now 35, has been a member of the Blue Jays organization since he emerged on the scene as a replacement closer in 2004. He has pitched 505 games in a Blue Jay uniform over the last nine seasons, often providing slightly above replacement level mid-inning relief. He still strikes hitters out at a relatively elite rate for a middle reliever, but gives up his fair share of baserunners. Other than when the Blue Jays shipped him to White Sox for a half-season in 2011, just to bring him back last year. He has spent his entire career pitching for middling Blue Jays teams.
In some ways, I think he has earned the right to be back on a team that is now considered the Vegas favorite to win the World Series (as pointless as that may be). The fact is the team has finally assembled a legitimate contender, and I think Frasor not only deserves a chance to compete for a spot on the roster, but could still be a valuable contributor in mid-relief.
The problem is, he won't really fill a void. I don't think anyone—even those like myself who greatly appreciate what Frasor has done for almost a decade—wants him pitching in the ninth. He's probably even a little risky as a setup option. He did fill in admirably at closer in 2009, but his numbers (strikeouts aside) have been creeping in the wrong direction since.
The Jays could bring Frasor back to fill the same role he pitched in last year and perhaps work the seventh inning, but is he worth a roster spot when there are younger, more interesting arms (Steve Delabar, Brad Lincoln) already on the roster who are capable of doing that job.
The bottom line is, Frasor could still contribute, and having him in the organization is better than not having him organization (obviously if he returns at a reasonable price). He has filled in at closer before and he can still miss bats at a very high rate, so he could be a solid addition to the current bullpen depth chart. Whether he could offer the reliable, experienced late-inning contribution this team could still use is questionable.
The Jays could look to re-sign Frasor (or, alternatively, bring back Brandon Lyon, who pitched well last season after being acquired from the Astros and has a bit more experience as a closer), but it may not offer a significant upgrade over the current options behind Janssen.
One last player I think the Jays should look at despite the vast amount of attention he's currently commanding is J.P. Howell. However, this one is a bit conditional.
I think all Blue Jays fans are hoping Darren Oliver decides to return next season. Oliver filled the left-handed relief role to near-perfection last season and would create a sizable void should he decide to retire. Oliver held left-handed hitters to a .234/.314/.295 split last year. but was actually even better against righties, limiting them to a .196/.252/.241 line. At 42, Oliver has aged gracefully, posting five straight seasons of above-average production primarily as a left-handed specialist.
Unfortunately for Blue Jays fans, despite the fact that Oliver remains under contract, there is a strong possibility he opts for retirement and doesn't pitch again next season. Of course, there is hope he realizes that he'd be pitching for a playoff contender in 2013 and leans toward returning, but the team has to be realistic about the possibility of having to find a new left-handed reliever out of the bullpen.
The Jays have some internal options in Luis Perez and Aaron Loup, but it would be hard to feel comfortable relying on those generally unproven arms to challenge the best left-handed hitters in the American League.
Which is why J.P. Howell, despite the teams vying for his services, should be enticing for the Blue Jays. Howell dominated in his first two seasons after being converted to a reliever in 2008 and 2009. He then missed all of 2010 with injury and was clearly not the same pitcher upon returning in 2011.
However, last season, Howell picked up where he left off prior to injury. Howell held lefties to a .200/.306/.263 split, allowing only two home runs in 112 plate appearances. Like Oliver, Howell also pitched impressively against righties.
Howell has shown, when healthy, that he is capable of thriving in the AL East, against the best the division has to offer. This will be only his fourth season as a fully-healthy, full-time reliever, and it's conceivable that at age 29, he has yet to peak. With the market incredibly thin for reliable left-handed specialists and the uncertainty of Darren Oliver, it would make sense for the Blue Jays to throw their name into the mix and make a run at Howell.
He may not come cheap, but if Oliver retires, do you really want to see Luis Perez facing David Ortiz or Robinson Cano with the game on the line? Hopefully, Oliver returns, but if he doesn't, Howell may be the best available option.