Blue Jays batter Jose Bautista hurts his wrist after a foul ball during a game against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium in New York, N.Y., July 16, 2012. (AL BELLO/Getty Images/AFP)
TORONTO - Just as nobody saw this wreck of a Blue Jay season coming, nobody can really say where it’s going.
In the past 10 or 15 years, maybe even going back to the early 1990’s, there hasn’t been a spring where Toronto’s baseball aspirations have been as lofty as they were this year. Now, with just one solitary game remaining, this team owns the seventh-worst winning percentage of its 36-year history. Five of the seasons that are worse than this one occurred no later than 1981, in the team’s expansion infancy.
Yes, the injury parade was unprecedented in these parts, but the team’s depth was either too inexperienced or just not good enough to cope. Some early setbacks included the loss of new closer Sergio Santos, the inability of Dustin McGowan to get beyond his shoulder injuries, the flukish loss of Jesse Litsch because of an infection in his shoulder. But they were small potatoes beside the loss of 60% of the starting rotation — Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison — in a four-day span in mid-June.
Then the position players started to drop like flies. Jose Bautista, Adam Lind, J.P. Arencibia and Brett Lawrie all suffered significant time-lost injuries in a 17-day span late in July. On July 28, the Blue Jays sat at 51-49 after 100 games, still on the fringe of the wild-card race.
They would win just nine of their next 35 games. Now, staring at a 90-loss season, the team is facing its most important off-season in recent memory.
Was all that spring-time optimism a mirage? Or are the essential parts still in place to make a run at a playoff spot in 2013 with a few key additions? Time to do an inventory.
The Boston Red Sox disaster could very well create collateral damage for the Blue Jays, with a constant barrage of leaks emanating from Boston that John Farrell is their choice to succeed Bobby Valentine, just as he was their first choice to succeed Terry Francona last fall.
The solution is fairly simple, if not painless. The first thing the Blue Jays have to establish is if they still like Farrell to manage this team going forward. Is Farrell the man to take the team to the next level?
The indication from the top is that Farrell is still held in high regard.
If Paul Beeston and Alex Anthopoulos still believe in him, then they must offer Farrell an extension of two or three years with a sizeable raise. That puts the ball in Farrell’s court. If he accepts, end of story and a major off-season distraction has been avoided.
If he turns them down, then his intentions are clear. Toronto would have little choice but to let him walk, though they might still be able to hold up the Sox for some compensation. As an organization, the Jays can’t move forward with a reluctant manager. The manager is part of the leadership group that makes decisions about the team’s future. He sits in on confidential evaluations and influences organizational direction at the highest level. How can the rest of the management team be comfortable with a manager who has rebuffed the team’s best efforts to keep him beyond 2013 and whose heart is elsewhere?
However it plays out, the longer it takes, the more distracting the managerial issue will be to a team that has a lot of other important work on its agenda this off-season.
This is where Anthopoulos must have the greatest impact this off-season. A year ago, he went into the off-season looking to bolster the rotation, but refused to pay the asking price for Gio Gonzalez, among others. This fall, he sounds more determined after seeing his young starting rotation blown apart in rapid-fire fashion within a four-day span in June. Morrow is now back and will probably be the centrepiece of the staff going forward. AA must take it on faith that Ricky Romero will bounce back from his season from hell. Beyond that, there is Henderson Alvarez, J.A. Happ, Chad Jenkins, Aaron Laffey. If AA is successful in his attempt to add veteran strength to the rotation, he wouldn’t have a problem with any or all of them pitching at Buffalo as depth. As always, it will be difficult to attract premier free agents like Zack Greinke or Kyle Lohse, but he might have more luck overpaying slightly for any one of a number of mid-level pitchers and then spend some of his minor-league assets on a trade for someone (Josh Johnson? Jason Vargas?) a year or two away from free agency.
Pressed into the closer’s role because of Santos’ arm problems and Francisco Cordero’s awfulness, Casey Janssen had a nice year. Beyond that, AA was able to renovate the relief corps by adding power arms like Steve Delabar, Brad Lincoln and Brandon Lyon, as well as lefthander Aaron Loup. They’ll probably be saying goodbye to ageless lefty specialist Darren Oliver. The Jays have a $3-million club option on Oliver that they’d gladly invoke but, at 42, Oliver is making noises as if he’d like to retire. With Santos expected back sometime next year, Anthopoulos won’t be under the gun to fill up his bullpen but may yet add some complementary pieces.
The Blue Jays are solid behind the plate. In a season interrupted by injury, Arencibia still managed to hit 18 homers in 100 games. After struggling through a 2-for-37 stretch in his September return, he has gone 10-for-22 recently with a couple of homers. Jeff Mathis is as good a reserve catcher as there is. This could be a position of strength AA might deal from, especially with top prospect Travis d’Arnaud nearly ready for prime time.
On the one hand, you have Adam Lind with his three-season pattern of declining productivity. On the other hand, you have Edwin Encarnacion coming off a breakout seasons of 42 HR, 110 RBI and a .941 OPS. Beyond that, Encarnacion has proven far more adept at first than he ever was at third. The result? Lind is on very thin ice, despite the fact he is guaranteed $5 million next year, plus a buyout of $2 million for club options on 2014-15. Barring off-season developments, Lind will compete for a job next spring and could save his future by showing up in top condition and reproducing some of the numbers he put up in 2009.
This will be a subject of much off-season intrigue. Cue the “Aaron Hill, where are you now?” chorus. Kelly Johnson is a free agent and there will be no attempt to re-sign him and his .224 batting average and 158 strikeouts. There are a lot of moving parts in the mid-infield picture for 2013. If the Jays are willing to stay with shortstop Yunel Escobar (because, seriously, what team is going to trade for him and his baggage coming off this lousy season?) for another season, they might slot Adeiny Hechavarria in at second, even though he is ready, both offensively and defensively to be the everyday shortstop. There are also a few free agent second-base options (Jeff Keppinger? Marco Scutaro?).
Brett Lawrie is The Man here for the forseeable future. He hasn’t yet scratched the surface of his potential and, in fact, took a step backward this season. Still, there is no doubt that, with experience and a little more self-discipline, he’s headed for the middle of the batting order and into Gold Glove contention.
If AA can trade for or, better yet, sign a free agent first baseman, this would be where they prefer to slot Encarnacion because, unlike a lot of players, he is comfortable with the role. But if they could sign a David Ortiz, there would be no qualms about playing Encarnacion at first. There are a lot of ways the DH hole can be filled.
If the Jays chose to play Anthony Gose in left on a regular basis next year, it would give Toronto a very good defensive outfield. The question, though, is probably tied to what other offensive firepower the Jays are able to acquire. Keeping both Gose and Hechavarria — each of whom has demonstrated value both in the field and at the plate in September — in the everyday lineup could backfire offensively when the rest of the league zeroes in on them. If they can find some extra production at DH or 1B, this team should be able to withstand the inevitable learning curve of both Gose and Hechavarria. If the team’s tall thinkers disagree, then an experienced LF with offensive credentials is probably one of AA’s trade/free agent targets.
As part of the team’s trade objectives, some players on the major-league roster are going to be moved. With Gose as centre field insurance, Colby Rasmus might be a trading chip, even though the GM still believes Rasmus is a superstar in waiting. To get something, you have to give something. To this point in his Blue Jay career, Rasmus has shown flashes of potential. In one 32-game stretch from June 5 to the all-star break, he hit .304 with 11 HR and a .977 OPS. But, overall, his .223 BA, .289 OBP, .400 SLG and .689 OPS needs to be better.
When he was lost on July 16 to a tendon injury in his left wrist, Jose Bautista left a massive hole in the middle of what at the time was the most prolific lineup in Major League Baseball. Bautista holds the key for this team. Without him, they won just 26 of 70 games through Monday of this week. In the 90 games he played, the team averaged exactly five runs per game. Without him, they averaged 3.8 runs.
In a couple of weeks, Bautista will be 32 years old and he’s under contract to the Jays through 2015 (club option for 2016). The window of opportunity to take advantage of the best part of his career is short.