NEW YORK - The Blue Jays will spend the day Friday in their annual navel-gazing exercise, dissecting the team and, more importantly, isolating its needs.
“Those have been ongoing conversations we’ve had going on since, maybe, mid-June,” said manager John Farrell this week. “That’s one of the benefits of the communication we have with Alex (Anthopoulos) and his staff is that we talk a lot. Whatever is said on Friday won’t come as a surprise. It will be a continuation of all the conversations that have taken place.”
Anthopoulos is always coy about his intentions, talking instead in public in more general terms. Farrell isn’t quite so shy about his wants and needs and he’s made it perfectly clear he’d like the team to add a front-of-the-rotation talent to the pitching staff. Not necessarily a No. 1, or 1A, since Ricky Romero is already The Guy, but he wants and needs A Guy.
This makes perfect sense and it should be priority
No. 1 over the off-season. The Detroit Tigers picked up a guy like that in Doug Fister at the trade deadline without giving away the farm. Now he’s their No. 2 behind Justin Verlander.
The Tampa Bay Rays are in the playoffs because of their pitching staff, and that’s exactly how the Jays are going to have to crack the stranglehold the Rays, the Red Sox and the Yankees have on the American League East.
“I really feel like when you look at any team that is contending or going into the postseason, their cornerstone is their rotation,” said Farrell. “Improvements in that area, whether internal or external, would be item No. 1.”
There are other areas of concern. The Jays need a second baseman. They’ll probably need another catcher. They have a 2012 option (at $3.5 million) on Edwin Encarnacion who showed signs of being the productive hitter they hoped he would be during the second half but if they were to set their sights a bit higher it would help an offence that struggled to protect Jose Bautista on too many occasions.
Mostly, though, they need to assemble a reliable bullpen. They’ve auditioned some minor-league arms (Joel Carreno and Luis Perez), with some promise, down the stretch but they will need to get serious about relievers this winter. Frank Francisco had a marvellous second half of the season and may still be a candidate as a free agent to close. But, if not him, then they need somebody who can take the ball and run with it.
The success, or failure of a bullpen always comes back to roost on the quality of the rotation. Hence the importance of adding a starter who can deliver not just innings but shutdown innings.
“Without a doubt,” said Farrell. “It allows that middle reliever or setup guy to come to the mound having proper rest. It keeps the game under control, provided he’s not only giving you 200 innings but 200 quality innings. It goes back to the cornerstone: You look to the strength of the starting rotation.”
While pitching help should be an important part of Anthopoulos’ off-season strategy, he should never avoid an opportunity to add more bats. Jose Bautista had an extraordinary season in 2011, probably an even better year than in 2010 when he hit 54 homers. But what if he hadn’t been so easy to pitch around?
What if, like Curtis Granderson, he had a Mark Teixeira, an Alex Rodriguez, and a Robinson Cano batting behind him? Now that’s crazy talk because you’re talking close to half a billion dollars tied up in three players, but even a couple of reasonable facsimiles would help get Bautista more pitches to crush.
That’s where Brett Lawrie may fit into the middle of the lineup, though he would likely be the type of athlete who should hit in front of Bautista, rather than behind him.
Another area that could be addressed to free up Yunel Escobar to move into a run-producing spot in the order is in the leadoff spot. Escobar did a good job of improving his on-base percentage this year and he was quietly Toronto’s second-best hitter, batting first (at leadoff).
“To me the most important part of being a leadoff guy is the ability to get on base,” said Farrell. “Yunel’s done a very good job of that. If we were able to move him down to an RBI slot, the five hole or six hole, that means we’ve upgraded and added another above-average on-base player. That means we’re getting better.
“Our goal is to have nine tough outs in the lineup. If that means that we end up running up opposition pitch counts, that’s a real part of the game today. If you are able to get into a bullpen early in a game, it has an effect on tomorrow’s game and on a three-game series.”
And, ultimately, on the Blue Jays ability to contend. And isn’t that was this is all about?