The Toronto Blue Jays have done a tremendous job remodeling their team into a playoff contender during the offseason.
No, make that a World Series contender.
I may be getting a little ahead of myself, but the oddsmakers in Las Vegas have them pegged as the clear favorites.
What’s even more impressive: Almost every major player they have acquired this season is set to wear a Blue Jays uniform for at least a few years, except starting pitcher Josh Johnson. Johnson will make $13.75 million this season as his four-year contract comes to an end (originally signed by the Miami Marlins).
While Johnson will not be the “ace” or Opening Day starter for the Blue Jays, he will play a vital role in the Jays' success or failures this season. But you have to wonder if Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos wants to dish out the money to have him as a staple in the rotation for another couple of years, or if will he let him walk at the end of 2013.
Beyond this year, the Jays will have R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and Rickey Romero still in their rotation. Adding Johnson makes that one of the best—if not the best—in baseball. But how much do the Blue Jays lose by taking him away?
I think that depends on who they replace him with. There are plenty of options available to the Blue Jays in 2014.
Personally, while I think having Johnson in the rotation would be amazing and fun to watch every fifth day, I don’t think future success beyond this year warrants giving him a Felix Hernandez-type contract. And while I don’t think Johnson will be able to get that kind of money ($175 million over seven years) from anyone, there’s reason to believe he can get a hefty payday by testing the free-agent waters.
If the Blue Jays are willing to spend money and are looking at locking up a guy long term, they can always re-sign Johnson. However, the players expected to hit the free-agent market provide some intrigue.
— Two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum: This is the same Lincecum the Jays could have had if they parted with Alex Rios in the infamous trade that wasn’t. How does that look now, J.P. Ricciardi?
While Lincecum was banished to the bullpen last year, I think that he has too much raw talent to not bounce back and be a very good starter once again. If he has another bad year, though, do the Jays look at getting him?
— Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez: I link the two together because though they wouldn’t bring to the table what Johnson brings, they would get the job done on the back end.
If Rickey Romero bounces back to his 2011 form, do the Jays need a Josh Johnson, or would they prefer a Garza or Jimenez? I don’t think they would command anywhere near the same kind of money that Johnson would, even if both Garza and Jimenez have good years. They are steady veterans that give you a chance to win.
— Roy Halladay: Potentially, the Philadelphia Phillies pitcher could hit the market. While Doc has stated he wants to finish his career in Philadelphia with the Phillies, I think it would be a pretty classy move to bring him back to Toronto for a couple of years to be another veteran arm in a formidable rotation.
We also can’t forget about in-house options the Blue Jays have—all those guys on the farm that were possible hopefuls for this year’s rotation before AA’s wheeling and dealing. There are guys that will start at Triple-A, Double-A or the disabled list that would have been given an extra look and opportunity to make the big-league club in April of 2013.
But because there are a number of veterans poised to slot into the rotation, these candidates get some extra time to develop their game on the farm and, barring any injury, will stay there for the whole year and compete for that supposedly vacant spot in 2014.
— Chad Jenkins made his debut last year with the Jays. He posted a 1-3 record with a 4.50 ERA in 13 games, including three starts. Jenkins showed some promise last year, and he would be the most likely to be called up first in the event of an injury. Either he or J.A. Happ would get the chance to start—and I thought Jenkins deserved a chance to start before the moves were made.
I don’t think he figures into the team's long-term success, though, so he may not be an option to replace Johnson.
— Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchinson are coming off Tommy John surgery and will get an entire year and offseason to regain their arm strength. Both will be looking to find a spot on the big-league roster when they return, and both have a legitimate case to make.
Drabek was starting to mold into the pitcher the Blue Jays hoped he would be when they traded Halladay to get him. He was 4-7 with a 4.67 ERA and a WHIP of 1.60 and was improving with every start. The 23-year-old Hutchinson was called up to the big-league roster almost out of necessity after the first week or so into the season. In 11 starts, he went 5-3 with an ERA of 4.60 and 1.35 WHIP. He will be 23 this year and will hope to bounce back from a tough injury at a young age.
These guys are probably the cheapest low-risk/high-reward options for the Jays in 2014.
Other names you can throw out there include Dustin McGowan, Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna, Daniel Norris, Marcus Stroman, Deck McGuire and Adonys Cardona. With the exception of McGowan, it may be too soon to bring them up. But you never know how they may develop over the course of 2013.
Should injuries occur to the starting five, some of these names may get a big-league debut this season and an extended look heading into 2014.
As for McGowan, if he ever gets a lucky break and finds that his arm allows him to compete, I think the Jays will give him every chance to make the rotation. It has happened a few times in the past where athletes perform at their best level when on their final contract year (A.J. Burnett, for example, threw 200 innings, went 18-10 with a 4.07 ERA and opted out, as his contract allowed after year three, his best season).
If Johnson looks like he is leaning towards cashing in on a big pay day on the market, then let him go out there and show the whole league why he deserves that money.
It's debatable whether Johnson wants to pursue free agency. Shi Davidi of Sports Net writes in a recent article that free agency doesn’t really appeal to Johnson. While it could be something his agent told him to say, it could also be true, and he may want to be with the Jays for a lengthy period of time.
The Jays have a handful of options. I don’t think signing Johnson long-term is an immediate need for this team.