It's quite possibly as tough a time to be a contender in the AL East as it's ever been anywhere in recent baseball history, with the Yankees and Red Sox spending big dollars and the Rays reaping the benefits of the game's best talent pipeline. Even coming off their fourth winning season out of five, what's a fourth-place team like the Blue Jays to do? Stepping into the shoes of GM Alex Anthopolous isn't the most enviable task in the world at this point in time.
Anthopolous has already checked one order of business off my off-season to-do list by hiring John Farrell to be the new manager. With experience on the field (he played in the majors from 1987-96), in the front office (as the Indians' director of player development), and in the dugout (as the Red Sox’ pitching coach since 2007), he brings a unique résumé and glowing recommendations from around the game.
Relatively speaking, that's the easy part. With no less than 14 arbitration-eligible players and half a dozen free agents, there's a whole lot up for grabs in shaping the 2011 Blue Jays. The good news is that thanks to free agency, no Blue Jay besides Vernon Wells is locked in at a salary above the $5 million due to Adam Lind and Aaron Hill. The key will be figuring out how to stay at least as competitive as we were in 2010 while absorbing the increase in Wells' salary; his base pay is nearly doubling, from $12.5 million to $23 million. On the other hand, he's clear of the final installment of his $25.5 million signing bonus, so he's actually not making all that much more money in 2011 than he did in 2010. In any case, with $63 million more due to him through 2014, he's the immovable object on my payroll—damn you, J.P. Ricciardi, wherever you are!
The one place where I can rest easy is the rotation. With a front four of Ricky Romero, Shaun Marcum, Brett Cecil, and Brandon Morrow, I may not have a true ace, but I'm set up to get plenty of bang for my buck, given that both Romero and Cecil are pre-arbitration, Morrow is in his first year of arbitration, and Marcum his second. As if that's not a happy enough situation, I've also got top prospect Kyle Drabek, a five-star future frontliner, coming off a strong year that began in Double-A and ended with two quality starts out of three in a cup of coffee with the big club. If he's not ready to break camp in the rotation next spring, I've got back-rotation options ranging from Marc Rzepczynski to Brad Mills to oft-injured Shawn Hill, who had a solid September showing as well. Zach Stewart, who spent all of 2010 starting at Double-A after reaching Triple-A as a reliever the year before, might be ready to contribute at some point in the year.
The bullpen, on the other hand, is up in the air, with Scott Downs and Jason Frasor both Type-A free agents and closer Kevin Gregg a Type B with a $4.5 million option for 2011 or an $8.75 million option for 2011 and 2012. I'm inclined to let all of them explore free agency, knowing that the Type-A status of Downs and Frasor may cool some of the interest from teams loathe to surrender a first-round pick and enable me to explore bringing them back. Failing that, I'm willing to sift through other second-tier free agents like Frank Francisco, J.J. Putz, and Jon Rauch to find a lower-cost free-agent solution as closer, and then rebuild the rest of the pen, knowing that Farrell's experience with pitchers could be a key to unlocking the potential of some of the remaining arms.
Shawn Camp and Casey Janssen are the key remaining arbitration-eligible pieces; they're the likely set-up men unless I can bring back higher caliber arms at a reasonable price. Brian Tallet is an obvious non-tender given his 6.40 ERA and 2.3 HR/9. After a couple years of trying to crack the rotation, David Purcey showed some aptitude as a lefty reliever who didn't fare too badly against righties. Righty Josh Roenicke is a live arm who needs help finding the plate; something Farrell might be able to remedy. Righty Taylor Buchhholz, a late-season waiver claim from Colorado who missed all of 2009 and part of 2010 recovering from Tommy John surgery, is an arm I'm hopeful of finding a spot for if he can show he's healthy.
Turning to the lineup, I have an offense that hit 257 homers in 2010, tying for the third-highest single season total of all time. Even so, the Jays finished 10th in the league in batting average (.248), 12th in OBP (.312), and sixth in True Average (.264). That's a portfolio begging for diversification, so where I have the option for changes, finding hitters who can get on base is a priority, regardless of how much pop they may have. I'm going to start with an even more fundamental change by delivering a pink slip to hitting coach Dwayne Murphy, whose all-or-nothing philosophy included turning his nose up at OBP. His approach may have worked for some hitters, including Jose Bautista, who bopped an incredible 54 homers, but when you consider that the Jays dropped from 798 runs scored in 2009 to 755 last year despite the homers, and that Lind and Hill had horrendous seasons, I think the change is merited. Meanwhile, it's also worth considering that I have a defense that finished 11th in the league in both Defensive Efficiency (.690) and PADE (-1.36), so a bit of help on that end is in order as well.
The most obvious starting point is to let starting catcher John Buck depart. He's a Type-B free agent who hit a career-high 20 homers but a very lopsided .281/.314/.489 with a 111/16 K/BB ratio. At $2 million for 2.8 WARP, he was a fine bargain, but top catching prospect J.P. Arencibia is coming off a monster year at Triple-A Las Vegas (.301/.359/.626, 32 homers). While those numbers are a function of playing in a hitter's haven and his plate discipline remains something of a concern, the general consensus is that he's ready to take over the starting job. I'd bring Buck back at the same price if he were willing to be a backup, but as he'll likely get better offers for multiple years elsewhere, I'll happily pocket the supplemental pick. Instead I'll pick up the $1 million option on Jose Molina, who'd be a hazard with too much playing time but would make for a solid backup/mentor unless something better falls into my lap.
At first base, the Blue Jays have been waiting to get out from under Lyle Overbay's four-year, $24 million deal ever since he started backsliding in 2007. He's now gone, and the in-house options—Lind, Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion—all involve moving regulars from other positions. Lind hit just .237/.287/.425 in 2010, and his brief first base audition was inconclusive at best. I'd prefer to get his bat back in working order under a new hitting coach and find another solution, though there may be a scenario that intrigues me enough to reconsider; more on that momentarily. Encarnacion is another low-OBP/high-SLG type, one with a recent legacy of wrist problems and eternal questions about his glove. As a third-time arb-eligible player, he's also due a raise on his $5.175 million salary, which would make him more expensive than either Lind or Hill. Non-tendering him makes for an easy payroll cut, though there are configurations in which bringing him back at a lower price may make sense.
Here I'm thinking a free-agent expenditure is in order. It's a deep market, with Lance Berkman, Adam Dunn, Aubrey Huff, and Paul Konerko as the bigger names, and Russell Branyan, Jorge Cantu, Adam LaRoche, Derrek Lee, Carlos Peña, and Ty Wigginton joining Overbay on the lower tiers. Keeping in mind that the shape of the Jays' offense makes OBP is a priority, and that I probably can't afford Dunn, I'd first consider a run at Huff, who's had two good years out of his last three and who's certainly no stranger to the AL East. I'd also look into the possibilities of Berkman and Lee. Both are coming off injuries and headed into their age-35 seasons, so their warning signs are visible from miles away, and certainly they carry risk, particularly when one adds the Rogers Centre artificial turf to the equation. What interests me about them is that the combination of those question marks and the market glut could drive down their prices considerably, making a one-year, incentive-laden deal a possibility. With lengthy track records as top-notch hitters, they also offer the potential reward of a strong rebound, which under the right circumstances could lead to a mid-season flip in exchange for a prospect if nothing else. Berkman's woes against lefties would require a platoon partner; Encarnacion is a good lefty masher, so bringing him back as a lower-priced corner backup might work if that's the route taken. But given the options, my preference would lean toward Lee as the better glove man and the player in less need of a caddy.
As for the rest of the infield, shortstop Yunel Escobar heads into arbitration for the first time. He's coming off a subpar year with the stick, but he did hit significantly better after being acquired from Atlanta in mid-July, and his glove grades out as above average. With Cuban defector Adeiny Hechavarria, who was signed to a four-year, $10 million deal last March, reaching Double-A in his first year stateside, there's no pressing need to move in a different direction here. Backup John McDonald is under contract for 2011, so he's in place, though if I could move him, I'd love to find a spot for Maicer Izturis as a utilityman.
The other two infield spots are something of a puzzle. Coming off a 36-homer career year in 2009, Hill still managed to hit 26 homers in 2010, but his .205/.271/.394 line was a major disappointment. He got extremely pull-happy; as a result his line-drive rate was essentially halved, and his BABIP dropped to .196. He's got to go back to his older approach. Signed for $5 million in 2011, Hill has another $28 million worth of options for 2012-14 lined up, with a decision on those due prior to the 2011 season; I'll pass on that one for the moment, knowing I can still get the 2012 and 2013 ones after this season if he rebounds. On a positive note, Hill is open to moving to third base, and with Encarnacion non-tendered and Bautista owning a track record at the hot corner that's shaky at best (both UZR and Plus/Minus are particularly down on him, and even FRAA sees him as solidly below average), that adds a bit of flexibility.
At the right price, a second spin with Orlando Hudson, who spent 2002-05 as a Blue Jay after coming up through their farm system, could work to provide incremental OBP and defensive upgrades. However, he's going into age-33 season with two straight one-year deals under his belt, and is probably still looking for a multi-year payday—not that he's any closer to getting it. David Eckstein, who spent half a season as the Jays' shortstop in 2008, is another player who's more of that flavor than, say, a hacker like Juan Uribe. If I can land either of those, I shift Hill and stay out of a third-base market barren except for Adrian Beltre and a bunch of bad fits or worse ideas (Cantu, Uribe, Pedro Feliz, Miguel Tejada, Ty Wigginton); that still leaves Bautista as a fallback option.
Another route to go would be to make a run at Boston's Jed Lowrie, who's relegated to a bench role given returns to health from Dustin Pedroia and Marco Scutaro. One route that could appeal to Boston would be to draw from this system's catching depth, which includes legitimate backstop prospects Carlos Perez, Travis d'Arnaud, and Brian Jeroloman as well as Arencibia; none of them are going to be ready in 2011, but for a team that's struggled for years to come up with an in-house successor to Jason Varitek, someone from that group could appeal as a longer-term solution. Lowrie has experience at second and third as well as shortstop, so who ends up where between him and Hill would be a matter that could be decided in spring training.
The outfield has some options despite the presence of the immovable (but thankfully not immobile) Wells in center. Bautista is coming off what certainly looks like one of the great fluke seasons of all time, though the epiphany he reached in 2009 regarding the mechanics of his swing suggests that at least some of his power spike is real, and sustainable. He's headed into his final year of arbitration eligibility and is due a big raise from his $2.4 million; he could get in the neighborhood of $8 million in a hearing. While there may be mutual interest in a longer-term deal, I'd prefer to see how far he regresses in 2011 rather than committing to something big, like three years and $27 million, knowing that it could cost me if he has another strong year heading into free agency. In any event, the most likely scenario leaves him as the starting right fielder.
Elsewhere, Travis Snider is coming off a rough year (.255/.304/.463) marred by a wrist injury, but he's only going into his age-23 season and is still pre-arbitration; it's far too early to give up on him, so pencil him in as the regular left fielder. Fred Lewis (.262/.332/.414) is arbitration-eligible for the first time; he's got a history of higher OBPs (.348 career) and he's also the only Blue Jay who stole at least 10 bases in 2010, so keeping him around, even if only as a fourth outfielder, has its merits.
That leaves the question as to what to do with Lind. If I sign a first baseman like Derrek Lee, Lind is the DH, with the option of some time in left field. But there's one bit of news which came over the wire that has me intrigued, and that's the word that Manny Ramirez is particularly interested in playing for Farrell based on his time with him in Boston. Yes, Ramirez is 38 and coming off an injury-marred season in which he hit "just" .298/.409/.460 with nine home runs in 320 plate appearances. Yes, he can certainly be a distraction, though I'll hold that he's not the one who quit on the Dodgers last year. Ramirez was batting .322/.412/.525 for the Dodgers in late June when a hamstring strain landed him on the DL, quickly followed by a calf strain, and now we know he also had a hernia which required surgery to repair. The dude can still hit, and in coming back to the AL, he can be parked at a position where he need only worry about that.
As the GM, I'm willing to see if Ramirez will put his money where his mouth is in wanting to play for Farrell, and offer a one-year deal, perhaps with incentives and/or a vesting option. If he bites, I've got a regular DH, and I go back on what I said about Lind; first base-ward, ho! If not, Lind is my DH and I stick with my original plan of filling first base via free agency.
While the Blue Jays on my watch come in as somewhat older than in 2009, and while I'm advocating at least a couple of mid-priced free-agent moves, what I've outlined should go a long way toward a better-balanced offense, and hopefully an improved defense as well. I'm realistic enough to know that it probably won't be enough to push our way into the playoff picture, but I don't think it's entirely out of the realm of possibility that Farrell can help some of our pitchers take it to the next level, if not in 2011, than a bit further down the road.