MLB free agency opens tonight (well, technically tomorrow) at 12:01am EST with a laundry list of available names that you can undoubtedly already recite in your sleep (Pujols, Fielder, Reyes, Wilson, Ortiz, etc.). The Jays, armed with a fully returning front office, will certainly be doing their due diligence on several of the available marquee names and, as SI’s Jon Heyman recently reported, could be players in the free agency game.
Without further ado, let’s breakdown a list of potential issues for GM Alex Anthopoulos and co. to tackle and names that could be considered as hunting season begins tonight.
1) The Kelly Johnson / 2B Question
When Johnson came over from Arizona in August for Aaron Hill and John McDonald, the reaction was one of perplexed confusion from those who saw the deal involving pending free agent infielders as, at best, a lateral, unnecessary move and, at worst, selling low on a talented second baseman who had been struggling. However, a month and a bit of solid contributions from Johnson (.270/.364/.417 after the trade) have him looking like the No. 1 choice as second baseman of the future in Toronto. Plus, Hill got a taste (however small) of postseason play in Arizona and seemed to thrive in a new setting. Still, its curious that no deal is in place with Johnson after four days of the Jays having an exclusive window to negotiate. Anthopoulos has said that second base is his first priority of the off-season and it will be interesting if he begins free agency speaking with Johnson’s reps or looking elsewhere.
2) The Bullpen Issue
No position is stocked with the same level of free agent star power as first base, but the closer position is awfully close. Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Madson and Heath Bell comprise a trio of headliners that will make big money and that the Jays could kick the tires on. However, the bullpen woes of the 2011 Blue Jays extend well beyond the ninth inning guy and Anthopoulos isn`t the type to shell out huge dollars on the closer spot. More likely than taking a shot at any of the big three, the front office could set its sights on an impressive secondary group of relief arms that includes risk-reward options in Joe Nathan, Jonathan Broxton and Francisco Rodriguez and excellent lesser-knowns in Matt Capps, Mike Gonzalez, George Sherrill and Chad Qualls. Frank Francisco also deserves some consideration after a redemptive second half (seven saves and a 1.37 ERA in 25 appearances. The temptation is to suggest that the club needs to overhaul their relief corps after it served as a weak link during the 2011 season, but judging by Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynksi`s awakenings as members of the World Series-winning Cardinals, maybe the pieces were there and they just weren`t being used correctly. That being said, among the Jays` own free agent arms, Jon Rauch is already a goner and neither of Shawn Camp nor Brian Tallet are likely to return.
3) Pursue Yu?
Yu Darvish will be making his way overseas at some point, and it is looking increasingly like it will be this off-season. While the bidding process and money involved should still be significant, it may not involve the Yankees or Red Sox, both of who have been recently burned by the posting process for Japanese pitchers (Kei Igawa and Daisuke Matzusaka, respectively). So who does that leave? Well, according to some sources, Toronto and a likely ace-needy Texas may be at the front of the line for his services. Anthopoulos has watched Darvish at least twice, so he has as good an idea about the quirky 25-year old righty. Still, at the hefty price Darvish is sure to command, there are plenty of questions. Not only are baseball people reluctant to participate in a posting process that has historically not been worth the money spent, but it has to be concerning to deal with a pitcher who has already pitched over 1,000 innings of pro ball (among active MLBers, only Felix Hernandez has reached the thousand-inning mark at such a young age). While Darvish would fit within the club’s rotation and offers an exciting, exotic potential solution to the starting corps, there is better, safer money to be spent elsewhere.
4) Other Possible Arms in Play
If not Yu, then who? Forget about CJ Wilson right away, as he’ll likely get big money elsewhere (probably in New York). Mark Buerhle will get his share of attention as well, but could be an interesting fit for the right price as a steady veteran presence in a youthful rotation. The 32-year old may be at least slightly redundant as a lefty on a staff already anchored by left-hander Ricky Romero, but he’d serve as a desperately-needed inning eater (he’s pitched 200+ in each of the past 11 seasons) and could mentor guys like Kyle Drabek, Henderson Alvarez and some of the young arms working their way up the system. Another hurler who could fit the bill include 29-year old Paul Maholm, a free agent after having his 2012 option declined by Pittsburgh whose complete lack of run support as a Pirate last season left him with a 6-14 record despite a 3.66 ERA. Again for the right price (although good luck with Scott Boras as the representation), I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing Edwin Jackson make his triumphant return to Toronto after all of a 72-hour stay in the summer. He’s just 28, possesses filthy stuff and could benefit from a full season of staying put rather than being yanked around (he’s been a part of eight organizations in nine seasons and has been traded in-season during each of the past two). All that being said, this could be an area of need addressed through trade rather than free agency.
5) Making a Splash
Yes, it’s exciting to dream up scenarios (as I definitely have) that see the Jays locking in a Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols or Jose Reyes. Unlikely? Of course it is! Unnecessary? Quite possibly. Ill-fitting? Yup, pretty much. But still, nothing would announce the Jays’ arrival as contenders who are willing to do what is necessary to win quite like inking another superstar to pair with Jose Bautista. Pujols is already an all-time great, but I can’t fathom Anthopoulos spending north of $200 million on a guy who’s already 31. Reyes might thrive in a clubhouse heavy on Latin flavour and his exciting energy would certainly play well in Toronto, but he remains an injury risk and could present a problem if he insists on playing shortstop rather than filling the vacancy at second. Last but not least, any regular readers know that I’ve been not-so-subtly plugging a run at Fielder for months now, a run that looks like it simply won’t happen. I never really expected him in a Jays uniform, but I do think that having an already-established 27-year old superstar would be a huge coup for the club, both from a financial and competitive standpoint. The fit may not seem clear, but that’s something that could always be addressed later. Okay, no more about this pipe dream!
6) What about Big Papi?
Less of a pipe dream is David Ortiz, who has already been identified as a solid fit based on his Latino descent and his strong relationship with both Bautista and manager John Farrell. But is that enough to make him the right fit in Toronto? Just because he seems like a smiling, likable guy doesn’t mean he’s a positive clubhouse presence. His drive and dedication have been questioned before and he will surely still be looking for both the money and playing time that he enjoyed during his prime years. The problem: he ain’t in his prime anymore. Ortiz would represent an upgrade at DH from Edwin Encarnacion, but is also seven years older and would ultimately wind up taking at-bats away from even younger, developing guys. Plus, it’s not as though the Blue Jays, ranked sixth in runs scored in 2011, need a ton of help offensively (and yes, I realize that probably makes my Fielder plea look even more ludicrous).
7) Catching Depth
If Johnson is at the top of Anthopoulos’ priority list, who backs up J.P. Arencibia is probably down towards the end. Jose Molina served as the perfect complement to the rookie last season, but the reality is that he’s ultimately replaceable. And even more to the point, that replacement can probably be found closer to when Spring Training rolls around. Molina will certainly be the first call to fill the role, but the team won’t want to go a whole lot higher than the $900,000 that he earned last season, particularly with Arencibia ready to take on a heavier workload in 2012. If not Molina, the free agent market is littered with 30-something veteran catchers who can fill a primarily defensive role for 30-40 games (Molina got into 55 this past season, 47 of which came behind the plate). Among them, Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder, long an intriguing player to Anthopoulos, may catch the club’s eye.
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Written by Ben Fisher