The Toronto Blue Jays enter the 2011 season with something they haven't had in quite some time: Financial flexibility.
Freed from the shackles of the Vernon Wells contractual albatross, the team now has the ability to add signature free agents, re-sign established players to extensions (as they did with Jose Bautista) and even make a trade or two for a big name player to assist a potential playoff push.
Currently the Toronto Payroll is $64,090,000 (which includes the raise given to Bautista), however this will fluctuate as the Jays finalize their final roster in time for opening day on April 1st. As it stands, this is a savings of $14,599,357 when compared to the opening payroll of the 2010 season.
That's a huge chunk of change to play with.
While I don't expect GM Alex Anthopoulos to make any major moves between now and the All Star break, there are a few scenarios where the need for a player addition could arise.
Regardless, whether its a trade or more likely, a free agent signing next off season, the windfall created by the Wells trade is burning a hole in the pockets of Blue Jays management.
Caveat Alert: The following slides are pure conjecture. I'm not attempting to spread any unfounded rumors nor am I trying to falsely represent myself as someone with a pipeline to insider information. I just looked at the rosters of teams who could be out of the playoff picture early and looking to shed some salary.
-Contractual data from Cot's Baseball Contracts:
Contract: 4 years/$11.25M (2008-11), plus 2012-14 club options
2011 Salary: $4.25 million
Free Agent: 2012 (although the Rays would need to buy Shields out for $2 million instead of picking up his 2012 option).
What a difference a couple of seasons make. In 2008, James Shields was the ace of a young and exciting Rays staff that registered 64 wins en route to a 97 win season.
Since then, three of his staff mates have departed via trade and the other, Andy Sonnanstine, banished to the bullpen.
Now Shields is entering the 2011 campaign as the team's fourth starter behind David Price, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis. By the All-Star break, he may even be fifth behind super prospect Jeremy Hellickson.
If that's not enough of a kick in the teeth for Shields, both Matt Moore and the recently acquired Chris Archer are just about ready for their shot at a MLB job.
All of these factors could make James Shields expendable for a Rays team on a mini-rebuild. Enter the Toronto Blue Jays.
With only the top three rotation spots truly locked in, Toronto may find themselves looking for an upgrade by mid-seaon if one of Kyle Drabek or Jesse Litsch falter and the team can't find an adequate internal option.
The trade would come with risks as Shield's ERA, WHIP, BB/9 and H/9 have all steadily increased since 2008. However, he has still pitched over 200 innings every season since 2007 and his K/9 has actually increased from 6.7 in 2008 to 8.3 last year. i challenge you to find a fifth starter last year with at least 12 wins, 200 innings and 180 K's.
James Shields would be a luxury on Toronto's back end and due to the situation in Tampa, he could be had for a relative bargain.
Contract: 1 year with Milwaukee holding his arbitration rights until 2014
2011 Salary: Unknown. His 2010 salary was $427,000 so its safe to assume a raise in the 15-30% range
Free Agent: 2015 unless Milwaukee refuses arbitration.
You'd think a .285/23/104 season would get you an extension and a raise but not for poor Casey McGehee. All he's done for the Brewers is flat out produce since claimed off waivers after his release by the Cubs in 2008
However, in a cruel contractual twist, Milwaukee actually owns his arbitration rights until 2015 so they can just keep re-signing him to one year deals. For the Brewers this is both fiscally prudent and practical from a personnel standpoint. With younger options like Mat Gamel (admittedly, his defense is atrocious) and prospect Ryan Gennett a couple years away, Milwaukee doesn't seem interested in locking up long term an aging player with injury concerns.
Also, after the Sabathia, Greinke and Marcum trades, Milwaukee might want to restock their farm system. A trade involving Casey McGehee could easily help that.
Nonetheless this scenario, as far as it involves Toronto, would require the Jays to have a need for a third baseman. Reigning MLB home run king Jose Bautista is currently manning the hot corner however he's publicly stated his desire to move to the outfield. But without a viable alternative for third base, the team needs Jose to stay put.
At some point though Toronto will need to find a successor which explains the Jays shifting Brett Lawrie to third during Spring Training. Early returns are promising although he is still expected to start the season at AAA Las Vegas.
If Lawrie slips in his development, Alex Anthopoulos might be looking for outside help.
Contract: 1 year/$10M (2011)
2011 Salary: $10 million
Free Agent: 2012
Simply put, the Chicago Cubs are not a good team. In a recent Sporting News article they were described as ".. an underwhelming offensive club with little identity despite their outsized payroll."
They are also a very old team whose entire starting outfield is over 34. So of course Jim Hendry signs the soon to be 33 Carlos Pena who is coming off a season in which he hit a pathetic .196. Then he trades his best pitching prospect - the aforementioned Chris Archer - to Tampa Bay for Matt Garza. Although not old, he's still at best a mid rotation starter with stats that leave a lot to be desired. Not exactly the return you'd expect for a prospect Archer's quality.
To put it simply, Chicago will struggle to finish better than 4th in the NL Central. Hopefully for Cubs fans, Jim Hendry will shed as much of the old and tattered baggage (not to mention their contracts) as possible by the trade deadline.
As for Toronto, they have an entirely new 1B/DH tandem going in to 2011. Adam Lind spent the bulk of his time as a DH last season, starting 120 games in that slot. However, after only an 11 game audition at first base Lind has been handed the role full time. Time for infield instructor extraordinaire Brian Butterfield to earn his keep.
In the DH slot for the Jays is the mercurial Edwin Encarnacion. Once a highly touted Reds prospect, EE soon found himself in disfavor with Cinci fans and management alike with his inconsistency, poor defense and rumored bad attitude. This in spite of his career averages 25 home runs and 84 RBI's based on a full 162 game season.
Resigned this off season to a much more attractive 2 year/$6 million contract, Encarnacion gets a second chance with Toronto to prove his worth.
This deal is easily the most probable based on the level of uncertainty surrounding both players. Chris Davis on Texas is also an option.
Contract: 4 years/$36M (2010-13), plus 2014 option
2011 Salary: $9 million
Free Agent: 2012. However, 2014 option is guaranteed with 600 plate appearances in 2013.
Although in much better position to succeed than the Cubs in the coming seasons, Seattle is still a bottom feeder and older players with high salaries like Chone Figgins will be a luxury they can't afford.
Although his age and contract length will scare more than a few teams, Figgins' versatility is an attractive commodity. He's played 300 games in the outfield, including 244 in centre. In the infield, Figgins has 540 games at third, 274 games at second and even 27 at short stop.
When you add his ability to hit for average and get on base (career .287/359 BA/OBP) as well as his blazing speed (at least 34 stolen bases each season since 2004) someone will pay Seattle's price for the ultimate utility player.
Nonetheless, for Toronto any trade for Figgins would be for minimal return as Alex Anthopoulos will not sacrifice a top prospect or two for a 33 year old player with an inflated contract.
Having said that, if Toronto is in the playoff hunt and either Rajai Davis or Aaron Hill were to be injured....
Also, Mike Aviles with a 1 year $429,000 deal, might be a cheaper if less productive option.
Contract: 1 year/$7.5M (2011)
2011 Salary: $7.5 million
Free Agent: 2012
Another team who will be on the outside-looking-in this season, San Diego has long been rumored to be open to a Heath Bell trade. Considering his expiring contract and the completion of Luke Gregerson's apprentiship, Bell is a virtual guarantee to be dealt.
For Toronto to be interested a catastrophic combination of injury and failure would have to befall Frank Fransisco (32 career saves), Jon Rauch (47 career saves), Octavio Dotel, (105 career saves) and Jason Frasor (36 career saves).
Nonetheless, even if all are healthy and productive this is still a trade that could, perhaps even should, happen. Heath Bell would immediately become the best pitcher in the Toronto bullpen and the Jays would have arguably the most fearsome set of relievers in the American League.
Having said that, if Alex Anthopoulos is only interested in non-closer help then perhaps he might consider Washington's Tyler Clippard. Traded by the Yankees to Washington in 2007 for the useless Jonathan Albaladejo, Clippard has blossomed in to a workhorse with big strikeout ability, as his 112 K's in 91 innings last season illustrate.
Contract: 1 year/$6.9M (2011) - won arbitration with Houston 2/19/11
2011 Salary: $6.9 million
Free Agent: 2012
Now before any Astros fans evicerate me in the message section, Please know that I think trading Pence would be both a mistake and highly unlikely.
However, if Wayne Gretzky can get traded then there are truly no untouchables in the business of sports and player transactions.
So in that frame of mind, lets look at why Houston might be tempted to trade the tools-y Pence.
First and foremost, the Astros are a terrible team who could be in a three way battle with the Cubs and Pirates for the dubious honour of finishing last in the NL Central.
Second, outside of Brett Wallace and Bud Norris the team is void of young talent ready for full time MLB work. Houston's top prospects are all buried deep in rookie or A ball and still at least three plus years away from making a significant contribution.
What this means is that without a series of bold and creative trades, it will be four or five years until Houston becomes a relevant team again. By then Pence will be in his early thirties with guys like Ariel Ovando, Delino DeShields Jr and Jay Austin all nipping at his heels (if they haven't replaced him already).
A package that included two prospects close to MLB ready as well as a young, proven starting player would be a nice haul for Hunter Pence.
But would Toronto offer a package like Travis D'Arnaud/Eric Thames/Zack Jackson/Jason Frasor (based on organizational needs for C/OF/CL)??
That heavily depends on the performance of one Travis Snider. If he fails to show adequate improvement in his development then Toronto might seriously consider making a move.
An outfield of Baustista/Davis/Pence is almost pornographic.
Contract: 6 years/$80M (2008-13)
2011 Salary: $14 million
Free Agent: 2013 off season
Out of respect for Twins fans, I will refrain from offering analysis as to why or how Native Son Justin Morneau could get traded. The 2006 AL MVP is still only 29 and although he's battles injuries lately, none are career threatening. Also, the Twins system is completely void of first base prospects that could be considered a threat to Morneau any time soon.
However, you will be hard pressed to find a red blooded Blue Jay fan that wouldn't cartwheel down Front Street, naked, to see the Canadian Sasquatch step on the field in blue and white.
The Twins would have to have a hugely disappointing season and Toronto would have to pay a king's ransom (Adam Lind/Adieny Hechevarria/Zack Stewart/????) so this is clearly a fantasy.
Ahem, Justin, I'll see you tonight. I'll be wearing my Blue Jays under roos.
Prince Fielder MIL - the reason Pena is on the slide show and not Fielder is the fact that I doubt Anthopoulos would pay the ransom required for Prince's rental
Kelly Johnson ARZ - both Johnson and Phillips are speculative based on another failed season from Aaron Hill
Brandon Phillips CIN - attitude is a concern, production is not
Aramis Ramirez CHC - highly dependant on a bounce back year.
Michael Cuddyer MIN - as neither are centre fielders, this is based on an aborted Travis Snider campaign. Cuddyer is the quietest .270/20/80 player in baseball.
Nate McLouth ATL - there is no way in hell that his 2010 will be repeated. .260/20/70 with 20 stolen bases is a safe assumption.
Chris Carpenter STL - why not?
Paul Maholm PIT - how much of his stats are skewed as a Pirate? give him an offense and less pressure as a 4th or 5th pitcher and he could surprise.
C.J. Wilson TEX - can he repeat his 2010 breakout and if so, how much will he cost for 2012?
Matt Belisle COL - is breakout season at age 30 for real? 2.93/1.087 ERA/WHIP split in 92 innings is impressive
Jonathan Broxton LAD - no one denies his arm, its his head that's in question.
Scott Linebrink ATL - 11 seasons and over 600 innings would provide a great veteran presence on a potentially young 2012 pen. Can't hate a career line of 3.50/1.295 ERA/WHIP with a 7.8 K/9 either.
Todd Coffey MIL - Basically a poor man's Linebrink
Jose Valverde DET - Quite simply, one of the most underrated closers of the past decade. His career numbers of 449 IP, 3.15/1.167 ERA/WHIP, 10.7 K/9 and 193 career saves are more than impressive.