Alex Anthopoulos’ Off-Season To-Do List
The Toronto Blue Jays demise this season is less than a week old, but it’s highly likely that GM Alex Anthopoulos and his brain trust of senior executives are busily working on plans for when this group re-convenes in Dunedin in four months.
This year’s edition was one of the most interesting in team history; a team that hit a lot of Home Runs, but had a collective approach that was anything but swing-from-the-heels. A team that saw an MVP, diving-into-the-stands-for-a-foul-ball performance from Josh Donaldson. It was a group that was scuffling along in late July, when Anthopoulos rolled the dice and went all-in, acquiring high profile talent while emptying the farm system for the second time in three years. The team went on a best-in-club history run in August, and brought baseball back to life in Toronto, a city with a dwindling, moribund fan base that was suffering through baseball’s longest post-season drought. Suddenly, everyone wanted to talk baseball again as the team closed in on an American League pennant. Life in many parts of Canada came to a standstill when the playoff games were on. And while the team ultimately failed in its quest to bring a World Series title back across the border, a new generation of fans was born.
Getting to the top is tough – staying there is even harder. And Anthopoulos, through a combination of impending free agency, older players on the decline, and younger players ready for more prominent roles next season, has a daunting list of tasks ahead of him. When he made the mega-deals that brought Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, and R.A. Dickey to Toronto in the fall of 2012, it was largely because he and his advisers thought that a window of opportunity was opening. The Red Sox and Yankees both had rosters filled with older players at the time, and AA and company thought that they had a real chance to fill a leadership void at the top of the AL East, and acted accordingly, shipping out a truck full of prospects to make those deals. That window is rapidly closing – the Yankees have returned to respectability, and nearly withstood the charging Blue Jays in the race for the pennant in the final few weeks of September, and the Red Sox have an impressive farm system that is about to bear fruit with a bundle of top level prospects.
Of course, the biggest task of all will be for Anthopoulos to sign a new contract with the team after his current deal expires October 31st. It’s somewhat surprising that an extension or a new deal was not announced earlier; rumours in the Toronto media suggest that there is no guarantee that the Montreal-raised, Hamilton-educated Anthopoulos will be back. One outlet put the chances of him re-upping at not better than 50-50.
It’s hard to see Rogers not opening the vault for Anthopoulos, however. The Blue Jays’ resurgence was highly beneficial for the corporation, leading to record tv ratings, a healthy third quarter profit, and a huge boost in the franchise’s value.
So, it’s not time for Anthopoulos to sit back and admire the new roster construction paradigm he created this summer; he needs to continue to act boldly to keep this team near the top, and push them over the edge to a World Series title. Here are the tasks he should consider his top priorities:
1. Re-sign David Price
This is the biggest and most challenging item on his list. Price will no doubt be one of the most sought-after free agents this off-season. He will be looking for years and dollars in line with what Max Scherzer agreed to with the Nationals: seven years, $210 million.
The Blue Jays, of course, have had a long-standing policy of not exceeding five years for a pitcher, but with new President Mark Shapiro on board, that policy may be jettisoned in favour of signing Price. Forget Price’s post-season record: he pitched two strong games against Kansas City, and did everything the organization asked of him. Price is a lock for 200 innings, and in today’s game, that’s a significant chunk of a season. At 30, he is still in the prime of his career, and has the frame to continue to shoulder a heavy workload for several more seasons. Price would take up some of the mentorship duties of the likely-departing Mark Buehrle, helping to tutor young pitchers like Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna.
With the change in free-agent rules, the Blue Jays will not receive a compensatory draft pick if they offer Price a Qualifying Offer (which he would turn down) and he still departs. They gave up their best pitching prospect and two other promising arms to acquire him, so it’s hard not to see at least them being a player in the Price Sweepstakes. While Marco Estrada made a startling transition from journeyman to front of the rotation starter in a little over three months, if it comes down to dollars, Price is younger, and has a much longer track record of success.
Although he pitched only half a season for the Blue Jays, Price’s departure would create a huge hole in their rotation. With the rapidly closing window they have to negotiate with him before free agency season begins, they will likely be able to get a sense of their chances of signing him, which will go a long way to dictate the rest of their off-season plans.
1. (b) Submit a QO to Marco Estrada
Estrada picked the right time to have a career year.
Despite concerns about how his flyball tendencies would play in the Homer-happy Rogers Centre, Estrada worked his way into the top of the Blue Jays rotation, even though he started the year in the bullpen.
The questions now are:
- Will the Blue Jays extend Estrada a qualifying offer of $15.8 million – or almost 5 times what Estrada made this season?
- Will Estrada accept this offer, or turn it down for the chance for a bigger payday? Will teams be willing to meet the demands of a journeyman pitcher who has had one big season (and forfeit a 1st round pick in the process)?
Scenario #1 seems likely. Estrada has established himself in the rotation, and that would be about the going rate for a 2/3 starter. While signing Price might seem like a budget-buster, the Blue Jays would receive no compensation if they don’t extend that offer to Estrada. If Estrada accepts the Jays QO and duplicates his 2015 performance next year, he will be in line for a significant bump in years and pay.
2. Re-model the Outfield.
This may raise more than a few eyebrows. With the highlight-reel machine Kevin Pillar taking over in Center Field when Dalton Pompey was sent back to the minors for further seasoning at the end of April. Ben Revere gave the offence and defence a boost down the stretch in September, but struggled in the post-season (and made a highlight-reel catch of his own in Game 6 against the Royals).
But maybe it’s time to talk about the Elephant in the Outfield: the defence of Jose Bautista. His 4.5 WAR (Fangraphs’ version) were among league leaders, and he carved a new chapter for himself in Blue Jays history with his epic post-season at the plate, but his defensive skills are clearly on the decline. The shoulder injury that he suffered earlier in the season did hamper his throwing ability, and he picked and chose his spots carefully before unleashing this monster throw during the pennant run in late September:
But we also saw several miscues like this one from Game 3 vs the Royals:
And say what you will about Bautista’s decision to throw the ball to 2nd while Lorenzo Cain raced home from 1st with the winning run: in any other situation, that would be the right decision – try to keep Hosmer at 1st to limit the chances of a big inning. Except this was the 8th inning of an elimination game, and one would think a player of Bautista’s stature and Baseball IQ would know that the speedy Cain was on the bases, and hesitate a second before committing to throw. In fairness to Bautista, the replay cameras did not show that the Jays outfield was playing back, in order to prevent doubles, and he had to come a long way to get to that ball. It may still have taken a perfect throw and relay to cut the speeding Cain down at home.
Much has been made to the Royals’ advance scouting report that led to the winning run in Game 6. And you have to wonder: why does Bautista show a penchant for throwing to 2nd on balls hit to his left like that? Was he protecting that arm? More and more this season, we saw balls go over Bautista’s head, and using Fangraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved, Bautista was the 42nd-ranked outfielder in baseball, with a -3 DRS ranking.
Bautista’s decline should not come as a surprise. At 35, he’s at an age when most players have already been on a downward trend in that area for several seasons. Lou Brock may have stolen a then-record 118 bases at that age in the 70s, but that’s a bit of an outlier. Bautista has likely lost a step, which may explain those balls he couldn’t get to. Going forward, it’s not a huge issue, but the decline should continue, and may force the team to look at a position switch for their valuable slugger.
Pompey is a premium athlete, who needs to play. That may force the Blue Jays to make a move with Revere.
3. Shore up the bullpen
Building a bullpen continues to be the biggest challenge for all GM’s. In terms of $/WAR, it probably represents the most inefficient expenditure in a team’s budget. The trend has been to find younger, cheaper players who perform better with only a two-pitch arsenal like a Dellin Betances or a Kelvin Herrera, but as we saw with Miguel Castro this year, finding those players may be one thing – developing them into barrel-dodging rally stoppers is another. Osuna and Sanchez both have a four-pitch arsenal that should at least give them an opportunity next spring to earn a shot in the starting rotation (but they would be marvelous fall back options). After a rough start, Brett Cecil was one of the best relievers in baseball, and deserves the opportunity to close. Liam Hendriks carved a niche for himself as a long reliever, and free agent to-be Mark Lowe should be brought back. Aaron Loup‘s struggles were well-documented after three seasons of solid work, and Anthopoulos should be looking outside the organization for a potential replacement.
GM’s do tend to pay relievers for past performance, and the shelf life for many if these guys is fairly short, but Anthopoulos may have to dig deep to pay for a couple of arms. The Astros, at $6 million/season for each, got reasonably good value from Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek.
So many people do not understand how to effectively use a bullpen, including some managers. John Gibbons showed a willingness this year to go to Osuna in high leverage situations in the 8th, if needed, and not save him for the sake of an arbitrary statistic.
Unlike last year, when Castro and Osuna received an invite to spring training with the big club, and baffled hitters enough to break camp with the team, there are no similar breakout candidates in the minor league system at this point. There are several Ryan Tepara types – guys who have had decent track records pitching out of the bullpen in AA and AAA, but will take several seasons (if ever) to establish themselves. One intriguing candidate is sidewinding southpaw Chad Girodo, who pitched at New Hampshire and Buffalo this year.
This, no doubt, will be the area requiring most of Anthopoulos’ attention. With the return to form of Cecil, and Sanchez to the bullpen, he was able to dodge a bullet, and adding Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins patched up the leaky roof of the club.
4. Do not lose your mind and trade Troy Tulowitzki
Toronto media personality Stephen Brunt suggests that Tulo would be a candidate among the core of the team to be dealt. Brunt reasons that with Donaldson headed to arbitration, the team-friendly options on Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion about to be picked up, and with Devon Travis hopefully healthy next spring, Tulowitzki could be dealt for pitching, and Ryan Goins could take his place.
With respect to Goins, who filled in marvelously on both sides of 2nd, that’s nonsense.
Despite claiming that he felt betrayed by Colorado, and didn’t really settle in Toronto, Tulo is going nowhere. His impact on the Blue Jays up-the-middle defence was swift and significant, a vast upgrade over Jose Reyes. And while he did struggle with the bat after the trade, at 31, he is still in the prime of his career as an offensive and defensive player. While Goins had a career year at the plate, he does not get on base or put enough balls in play for a player of his limited offensive skills, and at 27, there is no room left for projection.
We all know how Anthopoulos likes to roll the dice, but he did not sacrifice a potential 1/2 starter like Jeff Hoffman, only to turn around and deal the centerpiece of the deal four months later.
5. Pick up R.A. Dickey’s option.
Say what you will about Dickey: he had a great second half (his playoff performance notwithstanding), and has given this team almost 650 reasonably good innings in his three years with the team.
Fans expected another Cy Young performance from Dickey when the Blue Jays acquired him, and those expectations were unrealistic. Hitters have access to video like never before; some can even run to the clubhouse between at bats to review it. And when you throw a novelty pitch like Dickey’s, hitters will figure it out, especially when the capricious pitch pulls a disappearing act on him.
With the uncertain status of both Estrada and Price, you can pencil Dickey in for another 200 insurance innings. At worst, he could be a bullpen-saving back of the rotation guy.
6. Bolster the catching situation
It wasn’t how he planned on spending the season, but Dioner Navarro was useful as a back up. He and Estrada discovered some great chemistry, which helped to give Russell Martin regular rest. The thinking up until the trade deadline was that Navarro would be dealt, but obviously Anthopoulos had bigger plans in mind.
Nonetheless, beyond Matt Wieters, the free agent Catcher market is a little thin, and Navarro should draw some interest. Unfortunately, there is little in the system to replace him. A.J. Jimenez is an elite defender, but has a questionable hit tool, and an even greater question mark in terms of his ability to stay healthy. Ditto for 2014 1st rounder Max Pentecost, who missed all of 2015 with shoulder issues. Martin is still an elite receiver, but at 33, the wear and tear of catching over 1300 games in 10 years is taking its toll, and will continue to do so.
7. Rebuild the farm system
Despite the fact that 14 prospects, over half of them Top 10-types, have been dealt in the last 12 months, there still is quality in the minor league organization. Anthony Alford, Rowdy Tellez, Conner Greene, Richard Urena, and Sean Reid-Foley all will likely help the club in the coming years.
The depth drops off drastically after that, however, and despite Anthopoulos’ sunny assurances, it’s a bottom-10 system right how.
The Blue Jays pride themselves on finding high-risk, high-upside prospects, sometimes in non-traditional baseball places. Having built the system up once before, they’re confident that they can do it again. It is hard to see Anthopoulos strengthening the major league roster with prospects again for a couple of years, however. With at least 3 of the top 60 picks belonging to the Blue Jays next June, there’s a chance that they could rebuild quickly. And last year’s draft plucked some potential gems, like Justin Maese and Jose Espada, as well as International Free Agent Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who hit a couple of monster Home Runs in Instructional League play, but those players are still several years away.
The Blue Jays have a roster of core players who are still at the peak of their skills, but are facing a closing window. Questions remain about the club, and there more than likely will be holes in the lineup to fill. In short, Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays can’t rest on their laurels; there is still plenty to be done to keep this club competitive.