Toronto Blue Jays: An Early Free Agency and Offseason Primer
The Toronto Blue Jays have been mired in a terrible slump this month and have all but fallen out of the playoff race entirely.
Entering play Wednesday, the Blue Jays were 10 games behind the Baltimore Orioles for the top spot in the American League East and 6.5 games out of the second wild-card spot in the AL.
With just 30 games left in the regular season, it will be very difficult for a Toronto team that has gone 3-7 in its last 10 games to claw back into contention.
If the Blue Jays indeed miss the playoffs yet again, it will be interesting to see what Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos will do this offseason in order to shake up the roster.
Because of a club policy that prohibits the team from offering free agents contracts exceeding five years, Toronto is rarely is a factor when it comes to recruiting the top free agents in the winter. So Blue Jays fans can forget about landing the likes of Max Scherzer and Jon Lester.
This doesn’t mean that Toronto should stand pat once the season ends, though. Let’s take a look at some of the moves the Blue Jays need to make this offseason in order to have a better chance of contending next season.
Re-Sign Melky Cabrera
It’s fair to say that re-signing outfielder Melky Cabrera will be the most important priority for the Blue Jays this offseason.
After struggling through an injury-filled year in 2013, Cabrera has blossomed into one of the best outfielders in the entire American League this season.
Usually batting second in Toronto’s lineup, the 30-year-old Cabrera has hit .310/.362/.468 with 15 home runs, 70 RBI and 79 runs scored in 131 games played this year. He also has six stolen bases in eight attempts.
Cabrera has also held his own defensively in the outfield as well. He has made just two errors, and his 12 assists rank him third in the majors in assists among outfielders.
It’s needless to say that losing Cabrera to free agency would be a huge loss for the team, both offensively and defensively.
Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, the market price for good outfielders has gone up in recent years as demand has increased. Last offseason, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo (the top two outfielders on the market) both signed multiyear contracts exceeding $100 million.
Cabrera’s value might not be as high considering his down year last season and his checkered past, which includes a 50-game suspension during the 2012 season for using PEDs. But the 30-year-old should still receive lucrative offers from several teams.
For the Blue Jays, it’s important that they pay the market value and bring Cabrera back at all costs.
Pave the Way for a Younger Starting Rotation by Dealing Away Veteran Pitchers
If there’s one positive thing to take from the Blue Jays’ 2014 season, it’s the emergence of several young pitchers on the team.
Leading the way is Marcus Stroman, 23, who owns a 6-5 record with a 3.47 ERA as a starting pitcher this season.
Drew Hutchison, 24, has also been solid during his first season back from Tommy John surgery. He has a 4.68 ERA in 26 starts this year.
Finally, we have the 22-year-old Aaron Sanchez. While Sanchez was a starting pitcher in the minor leagues, the Blue Jays have decided to break him into the majors as a reliever first and will use him as a starting pitcher next season.
In 19.2 innings pitched out of Toronto’s bullpen this year, the hard-throwing Sanchez has posted 1.83 ERA with 17 strikeouts.
The Blue Jays also have top pitching prospect Daniel Norris in Triple-A Buffalo and might even call him up to the majors in September, per Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca.
Norris has enjoyed a breakthrough season this year, posting a combined ERA of 2.57 between three different levels of the minor leagues (Single-A Dunedin, Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo).
All four of these young pitchers with high upside should be fixtures in the Blue Jays’ starting rotation as soon as next year.
In order to pave the way for a younger rotation in the future, Anthopoulos needs to start thinking about moving some of his veteran starting pitchers who have been part of an underwhelming rotation this season: R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and J.A. Happ.
Some of the aforementioned veterans, such as Dickey or Buehrle, would be attractive options for other contending teams and might even net the Blue Jays a decent return in a trade.
Moving some of these veteran starting pitchers and going with a younger pitching staff next year will also allow the Blue Jays to get some salary relief in order to perform other tasks (such as re-signing Melky Cabrera).
Make Some Changes in the Bullpen
Toronto’s bullpen has arguably been the team’s biggest weakness all season long and drastically needs to be upgraded this offseason.
Just how bad has the bullpen been? It’s combined 4.24 ERA ranks 26th in the majors this year.
Nearly every reliever on the team has struggled this season, including some notable pitchers who had a successful track record in the past.
Closer Casey Janssen has a 3.93 ERA and four blown saves in 23 opportunities.
Steve Delabar—an All-Star last season—posted a 4.91 ERA in 25.2 innings pitched this season before being sent down to Triple-A Buffalo.
Sergio Santos was expected to be a high-leverage reliever on team coming into the season, but he was recently designated for assignment after posting an 8.57 ERA in 21 innings pitched, per Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet.ca.
So what does Anthopoulos need to do in order to overhaul the bullpen for next season?
Well, for starters, Santos’ $6 million option will have to be declined. Considering that the right-hander has a 5.23 career ERA in his three seasons in Toronto, this move makes sense for both parties.
Janssen, 32, will also be a free agent at the end of the season, and the Blue Jays have to think hard about deciding to bring him back on an expensive deal. While Janssen has been a reliable closer for the team these past three seasons, his lack of velocity and inconsistency this year should be a cause for concern.
The free-agency class of closers this offseason is rather shallow and will be headlined by the likes of Francisco Rodriguez and Sergio Romo.
The biggest catch on the market will likely be Andrew Miller, who will be seeking a lucrative contract after posting a 2.09 ERA with 82 strikeouts in 51.2 innings pitched this season.
Anthopoulos has previously traded for relievers in the past (such as Delabar and Santos) and might decide to do so again if he can’t come to terms with any free-agent relievers this offseason.