Blue Jays must decide whether the time is now
Published Monday, October 4, 2010 9:28PM EDT
TORONTO - The question before Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos after a 2010 season full of pleasant surprises is whether or not the time has come to push things forward and add some pieces to take a run at the playoffs.
Strong and hearty "Hell, yeahs!" from his players and fans aside, it's a delicate and crucial call for the 33-year-old from Montreal, who took over the team one year ago preaching a steady, patient approach to building up the talent-base while eschewing the quick fix.
His long-held mantra is that the team will dictate when it's time to go for broke, but whether or not a team that went 85-77 thanks to some tremendous pitching from a young starting staff and a club record 257 home runs is, at this point, up for debate.
Can the Blue Jays count on another year without a single major arm injury to any of its pitchers, continued progress from its young starters and the same thunder from hitters who had career seasons? And if so, will plugging looming holes at first and third base, catcher, the fifth spot in the starting rotation and the bullpen be enough to close the 11-game gap between them and the playoffs.
"I'm not sitting up there in our office with our baseball operations team saying, 'OK we won 85 games, if we make these six moves that will equate to 10 wins,"' Anthopoulos said Monday during a lengthy chat with the team's beat writers. "It's not that easy. I've heard stories and talked to teams where they've done simulations and there are just too many variables, you're dealing with human beings.
"If the focus is on making the team better and continuing to look for value whenever you can get it to build that team, at some point the wins will continue to pile up and we'll get to the point in-season, that hopefully we're going to look to add a piece. Then when you get to that playoff area, that's when you make a big splash."
By that criteria, the Blue Jays did not make the grade in 2010, so a reading between the lines suggests Anthopoulos doesn't think the time is now just yet. Still, that doesn't mean he'll head into his second off-season as GM in low gear.
The search is on for a new manager to replace the retired Cito Gaston -- "I'm pretty much consumed by it," he said -- and Anthopoulos is just about to start chatting his counterparts' ears off trying to get a read on the trade market.
And though making a run at a premier free agent like Carl Crawford has been discussed internally -- he doesn't want to play on artificial turf so there's not much point -- it's through trades where improvements are most likely to come.
The deals that brought in starter Brandon Morrow and shortstop Yunel Escobar are indicative of what Anthopoulos is after -- high-end young players that can immediately join the club's core. Also indicative is that he used prospects to make both trades happen, and he feels the farm is system is deep enough to continue doing that.
"I think the trade route, although there's a lot more risk to it, there's a lot more of a chance to make mistake, I think that's probably the best avenue for us to pursue," said Anthopoulos. "If there's a big free agent to sign and we think the value is there in years and dollars, we'll certainly go out and do that as well. ...
"I'm not opposed at all to taking prospects and trading them for big-league players. They're not all going to play up here and part of drafting, signing and developing these players is to use them to supplement the big-league team because we only have 25 guys."
What that macro approach means is many of the answers to questions at a more micro level will be open-ended, addressed through whatever opportunities the off-season throws up.
The Blue Jays will inquire, if they haven't already, about St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Colby Rasmus and other similar on-the-rise players like Jay Bruce and Gordon Beckham, whom they made runs at earlier this season. Another name to keep in mind is second baseman Kelly Johnson, who they spoke to last winter and nearly acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks before the July 31 trade deadline.
That leaves the future of such players like home run king Jose Bautista, second baseman Aaron Hill and catching prospect J.P. Arencibia up in the air, depending on how other cards play out.
Bautista could end up at third, or stay in right field, while Hill could slide over to third if a second baseman is picked up (a decision also needs to be made on his three-year contract option before next April). Arencibia might break camp as the starting catcher, but the more likely scenario is that he shares duties behind the plate with a veteran who is a strong game-caller, someone like free agent John Buck.
Adam Lind could slide over to play first base, or free agent Lyle Overbay could be brought back on a short-term deal if another stop-gap solution (Carlos Pena perhaps?) isn't found. The bullpen is poised to be gutted by the departures of free agents Scott Downs and Jason Frasor, closer Kevin Gregg is a question mark with the team holding contract options, while Brian Tallet is a candidate to be non-tendered.
"It's going to be very fluid," said Anthopoulos. "It's going to be a very interesting off-season. I thought last year was pretty interesting and I don't think it's going to slow down one bit. We have a lot of work to get done."
Included on that list is dealing with the club's 15 arbitration eligible players.
The most notable name on that list is that of Bautista, who is due a significant bump on his 2010 salary of US$2.4 million and will be eligible for free agency after the '11 season. The Blue Jays will likely explore a long-term extension with him but won't rush into a deal after the 29-year-old posted a 54-homer season he is unlikely to repeat.
Third baseman Edwin Encarnacion is expected to be non-tendered while reliever Taylor Buchholz, a late-season waiver claim coming off arm surgery, is on the bubble as the Blue Jays like his track record but are unsure of whether he can regain his old form.
Anthopoulos's patient approach may not sit very well with a fickle fan base that in many ways embraced the team but still stayed away from the ballpark. The 2010 attendance of 1,625,555 was the team's lowest total since drawing 1,275,978 in 1982. Wisely, the Blue Jays announced a ticket freeze on 2011 prices.
"I think we've done this to the fans before, where we've played well and then we kind of fell off," said Anthopoulos. "I think we need to do it year-in, and year-out to truly get the trust back."
That may be an issue in the clubhouse, as well.
One player said privately that he could not imagine what more the team would have to do to convince management it was time to push for the playoffs, and if Anthopoulos can't make a splash, there is likely to be some disappointment.
Several players believe with a few smart moves, they can track down American League East champion Tampa Bay and the wild-card winning New York Yankees.
"I think with pieces we have here in place, we're not too far away," said Bautista. "We can win as early as next season if we add the right pieces."
Added Vernon Wells: "I think Alex is in a great position to add here and there."
For now, it all starts with the manager and building the coaching staff around him.
Anthopoulos is hoping to have his hire in place shortly after the World Series, and will get some input from his players when he conducts exit interviews before making the final decision. The players will be watching closely.
"We've talked about it amongst ourselves, me personally, I like a Joe Maddon type guy, pitch, play defence and win ball games at times by home run and at times by playing the little game," said left-hander Ricky Romero. "That's just me. And maybe an Ozzie Guillen-type too, someone to jump on our butts whenever stuff is not going our way, maybe a combination of both.
"We just need someone who is going to come in here and want to win, I think we're ready for that, and we're ready to prove even more doubters wrong next year."