Thursday, November 13, 2014

SPORTS: The Next Step to Fill the Nest

There is a reason Alex Anthopoulos is the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays and you and I are not. I think a plan for the future was moved into phase two last night with the Blue Jays' trade of Anthony Gose to the Detroit Tigers for second base prospect Devon Travis.

It creates a road map that borders on being short AND long-term savvy. There's a couple more steps involved in this post-season makeover of the close-but-not close-enough Jays of 2014. A team that demonstrated it COULD compete, but ultimately didn't have the depth to actually pull it off.

And here I am waxing prosaically about the acquisition of a player that will not start 2015 on the field at Rogers Centre. Oh, he'll wear Blue Jay togs before the year is over, but he'll be in Buffalo on opening day.

Here's what I think AA does to round out his Winter Wish List. He signs Russell Martin and Frankie Rodriguez and then deals Mark Buerhle for Matt Kemp and dollars to come in the 2016-2019 time period. Don't know how many dollars, but it will be SOME to off-set Kemp's contract payments. AA might flop a relief pitcher or two from the group he has available, but I think the moves I just mentioned finish off his transaction page appearances.

Let's examine the fallout if AA does what I suggest.

In Canadian-born Martin, the Jays get a catcher that can share a season-long workload with Dioner Navarro, with the other getting DH at-bats from the freshly-freed position previously held by fan favourite Adam Lind, a guy who turned into a one-sided power-poor singles hitter last year. I'm in the group that thinks getting him off the bases, where he was a clog waiting to happen, and opening the DH spot to spell any player who needs a day off from the Rogers Centre tarmac, was a REALLY good idea.

Martin will have a bunch of duties. He'll catch the majority of games, including when R.A. Dickey pitches. That means bidding adieu to Josh Thole and his anemic bat for 30+ games this season. Martin also has a little 3B history and wouldn't be out of place at 1B on games where you want Edward Encarnacion resting between swings of the bat. Heck, in a pinch, Martin could play LF. And there was that hare-brained scheme to have him start at SS in the last World Cup. Yep, he'll play a lot of games. Navarro is a guy who tops out at 100 games max and probably would be best at somewhere around 90. With some extra duty at DH, he and Martin have catcher covered. And with Navarro an expiring contract, he leaves open a spot for A.J. Jiminez in 2016. And Martin's three or four-year contract will be up just about the time that Max Pentecost should be Big Show bound. Short and long term catching solved? Check.

The starting infield on Opening Day will be Encarnacion, Maicer Izturis, Jose Reyes and Brett Lawrie. Not a hearty and hale bunch by any means. But one you should be able to take into battle in 2015 to start with. Izturis is only keeping the seat warm for the newest Jay farmhand, Devon Travis, freshly moved from the number one spot in the Detroit Tiger Prospect List to the starting job with the Buffalo Bison, where he will get some AAA seasoning. Izturis is the forgotten man for Toronto, a guy who actually looked to be off to a decent start in 2014 before getting hurt and lost for the season. Is he a star? Nope. He's a career backup on the last year of a contract with a hot prospect breathing down his back. He'll either meet the challenge or give way. Second base short and long term solved? Check.

It's hard to argue against the other three starters as not being injury prone. In Encarnacion's case, its aches and pains. But he's got a David Ortiz vibe. He'll sign an extension to his really, really inexpensive contract sometime in the next 12 months. First base long and short term solved? Check. (Oh, the reason why he'll get big bucks for a three-year extension? The kiddie corps starting pitchers will allow for spending on Encarnacion and Jose Bautista up to 2020).

Lawrie's the wildcard. He'll play good enough defence at third to off-seat the plummeting defensive range of Reyes. He'll provide some power and some speed and maybe hit, maybe not. Is he the long and short term solution at third? Who knows? I don't. But I want the Canadian kid to stay healthy, harness his spectacular physical talents and be a checkmark in both columns. I'm biased, but I'm a Lawrie supporter.

Reyes is a guy I would LOVE to turn into a DH at home (and in Tampa), while having him play shortstop the other 70 games or so. I don't think Izturis can be a shortstop and not having anything more than Ryan Goins (The starting shortstop in Buffalo until the turn of the decade) leaves one checkmark off the list. Reyes is the short term solution at shortstop. The long-term solution? Somebody who signs NEXT winter, maybe after being acquired in a mid-season trade this year.

Moving to the outfield, we have Kemp and Bautista bracketing the kid(s). Bautista, as mentioned, gets an extension for his post 2015 Blue Jays career. With the departure from the books of contracts of 2014 regulars Lind, Navarro, Buerhle, Juan Francisco (for at least a month) and maybe even Dickey, the 2016 payroll has a distinct kid-'n-vets vibe. And don't forget no Rickey Romero money left either. With kids having really, really small payouts, it leaves room for Bautista and Encarnacion to cash in along side of Kemp, Reyes and Martin.  So, the corner outfielders are taken care of short and long term too. One caveat? Kemp and his health are no sure thing.

In centre field, the Blue Jays will start Dalton Pompey. I don't think they will go with Kevin Pillar to delay the hometown hero's clock from starting to tick. That would be possible if Pompey has a bad spring and needs the confidence booster Buffalo might provide. But I suspect manager John Gibbons is right in proclaiming Pompey's the guy. Pillar is no old coot himself and there's a bit of Michael Brantley in him. Might require going elsewhere, or he might stay and make Kemp redundant and an expensive bench piece (which he's been, at times, with the Dodgers). But Pillar is not a bad fourth outfielder. However, he might need at bats in Buffalo early. Either coming or going, he becomes a fairly decent fourth outfielder. Betting the farm on Pompey seems reasonable from this corner as there aren't any warning signs other than his injury-delayed progression through the minors. That was until vaulting from A to MLB in one year made 2014 a season to remember. Centre field long and short term solved? Yep.

The composition of the four-man bench squad could go in a lot of different ways. Left-swinging Andy Dirks Seems almost assured of being that fourth/fifth outfielder, although he's basically just a left-fielder. The only other reasonable left-handed bench guy would be the switch-hitting Justin Smoak, an erstwhile first-baseman and DH. He's got to show he's worth being on the squad for more than just power that has come and gone in his big-league career. Pillar, Danny Valencia and John Mayberry Jr. are all righties. Four of the five will stay. Pillar has options left and he makes sense to begin in Buffalo. Thus, I make the bench out to be the rather DH-ish oriented boppers in Smoak and Mayberry with Dirks providing late-innings relief for Kemp and Valencia combining with Izturis to provide middle infield and third-base backup. This is an ALL short-term solution set outside of Pillar. If any of them got traded for a shortstop kind of guy, it wouldn't shock me. The 2016 version will probably be a lot different.

With the Buerhle-Kemp trade being largely salary neutral for this year, this offensive group actually comes in a significant bit cheaper than the 2014 version. It starts five RH swingers in Martin, Encarnacion, Lawrie, Kemp and Bautista with four, count 'em, four, switch-hitters in Izturis, Reyes, Pompey and Navarro. The batting order? Reyes, Lawrie, Bautista, Encarnacion, Kemp, Martin, Navarro, Pompey and Izturis. It bunches up both the RH's and the switch-hitters. I could see Kemp and Navarro swapping spots against some right-handers. But it's not going to be an easy line-up on pitching staffs whatever hand the hurler throws with.

The starting pitching staff is young, save for the old goat, Dickey. He'll have to make do with Martin catching him, but the athletic Martin should be up to the task. After Dickey comes Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchinson, J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez. The long man in the pen will be Estrada, who has breakout bullpen arm capability. And Daniel Norris and Kendall Graveman are a heart-beat away in Buffalo. That's the eight arms you HAVE to have to start a season. I have NO problem with this kiddie corps, that will only get younger when Norris supplants Happ (and/or Dickey) in 2016. Long and short term solution solved? Check.

Which brings us to the bullpen. I've got Frankie Rodriguez signing for the money that Martin doesn't suck up. He becomes the new closer. And he starts my ulcer hurting. Frankly, Frankie worries me. But Martin will take most of the Blue Jays' 10-20 million free agent dollars. In fact, I think the Jays have to dig into the 2016 budget to sign him. The best part? No losing a draft pick. In fact, the off-season plan seems free of qualifying offer signings other than Martin. And that one comes back in the form of the compensatory pick not re-signing Melky Cabrera will bring. It'll be about a dozen picks later, meaning the player is more likely to be a future bench piece than a starter. But Martin off-sets that. So, while signing a Dave Robertson is out of bounds, getting a FRod is certainly reasonable.

The lefty side of the bullpen is reasonable and should return in the form of Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup. I also think Sean Nolin breaks camp in the pen, to give the team three southpaws. Rodriguez and Estrada and ... ? Well, that is the question, isn't it. There was a lot of talk about 'fixing' the bullpen, but that's an arcane science at the best of times. If, in fact, the rest of the seven-man pen turned out to be Chad Jenkins and Steve Delabar, I could live with that. Todd Redmond's an Estrada competitor and who knows what kind of chance Kyle Drabek has now that he's a full-time reliever in mind and spirit. There's talent there that a changed mindset might release. The same thing might happen positively for Romero and wouldn't that be a wonderful story. Plus, there's the chance that the lessons of the early 90's might be re-learned. That's the era when future starters cut their teeth in the bullpen regularly, which would make Norris and Graveman candidates to join the equally inexperienced Nolin. This bullpen seems more long-term positive than short-term. But then again, it was only two season back that the Jays sent two relievers to the all-star game. Maybe the old adage about relievers needing short memories has some words of wisdom for fans and would-be GM's too.

And so we come to the end of this What I Did This Winter essay, as intended to be written by Alex Anthopoulos. He need not do whole-sale surgery to make the Jays a contender this upcoming season and for at least the next three or four after that.

And if you are counting, besides the Canadian GM, the Blue Jays would start THREE Canucks on opening day. On a contending team. What a BRILLIANT idea!! If I don't say so myself.