The 2011 version of the Blue Jays finished the season 81-81 . . . ahh, our first team without a losing record! Doesn’t it feel nice?? Oh wait . . . the Blue Jays still were 4th in their division . . . and 16 games out of first place . . . and 10 games behind the Wild Card winner. Of all the teams in major league baseball, this is the one I feel the sorriest for. There’s no way the Blue Jays can compete with the salaries of New York and Boston. And, while Tampa is proving you don’t necessarily have to – they’ve also created one more roadblock to the playoffs for Toronto. The Blue Jays have a good team. And, if they were playing in the AL Central instead of the AL East, they’d be competing for the division nearly every year, because instead of playing the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays 12-15 times each, they’d be playing Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota. Nothing against the AL Central, but two of the top 5 teams in baseball have been in the AL East 8 of the last 9 seasons, and rarely has anyone in the AL Central been in the same conversation. Add to this the fact that the Blue Jays are in Canada (never understood why there were any teams in Canada), where their dollar has consistently been worth less than American dollars – which makes it tougher to lure free agents your way – and you have to wonder how Toronto could ever hope to compete in the AL East.
But, let’s set aside all of the sad tales and focus on the future of baseball in Toronto. The good news is that the ownership in Toronto isn’t afraid to spend money. Their average payroll over the last 5 seasons is just over $77 million, but they reached as high as $97 million in 2008. And, when the team has been competitive, the attendance has improved (closer to 30,000 per game, rather than the 22,445 per game in 2011 – 25th in the league). For the purpose of this post, let’s make our payroll goal for 2012 right about the middle of those two numbers – $85 million. It’s a number they can clearly afford – and one that will allow them to make reasonable moves to improve the team for coming years.
For 2012, the Blue Jays already have $41 million locked up in 7 players (Jose Bautista, Ricky Romero, Adam Lind, Mark Teahen, Yunel Escobar, Edwin Encarnacion, and Rajai Davis). So, let’s start with the offense, since it requires the fewest changes. Scoring runs was not a problem in Toronto last season – they were the 6th highest run-producer in baseball. And, for the most part, their offense will still be in tact for 2012. They’ll have Lind at 1B, Kelly Johnson at 2B (who just recently agreed to salary arbitration), Escobar at SS, and Brett Lawrie at 3B (who, if he’d had 1 fewer AB in 2011 could make a run at Rookie of the Year in 2012 – but, he had a .953 OPS in 150 ab’s this year). J.P. Arencibia is likely their everyday catcher, though their best prospect – Travis d’Arnaud – is also a catcher (#5 catching prospect in baseball), who is ready for the majors now. I’d say they’ll let the two of them battle it out, and one of them will be the backup.
Bautista will remain in RF, but the rest of the outfield is in a little bit of flux. Davis played a lot of CF, but they also acquired Colby Rasmus in the 3-team deal that sent Dotel & Rzepczynski to St. Louis. So, Davis is likely to platoon, while Rasmus is the everyday starter. In LF, it will either be Eric Thames or Travis Snider (both pre-arb eligible). Snider has a little more experience, but Thames showed that he may have the better bat. It will make for an interesting competition in spring training, and the loser will still likely make the team as an extra outfielder off the bench. Encarnacion will do most of the DH-ing, but will occasionally be relieved by some of the other guys like Teahan. The other bench spot is likely to be filled by Adeiny Hechavarria (#9 SS prospect in baseball). In my opinion, they should have moved Escobar to 2B, and brought Hechavarria in to play SS (since he may already have a better glove than Escobar at the age of 22), instead of offering Johnson arbitration. But, as it is, Hechavarria can get some exposure to the big leagues, and move into the everyday SS position perhaps as soon as 2013.
Now for the pitching staff. Toronto ranked 24th in ERA – 25th among starting pitchers and 21st among relief pitchers. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, there aren’t a lot of great top-of-the-rotation starters available (and even less now the C.J. Wilson signed with the Angels). Yu Darvish could be an option to consider, but that’s such a process, and there’s no consistent salary number out there to even be able to take a guess at what he would cost. So, let’s move forward assuming they don’t or can’t get Darvish. Romero is very good, and Brandon Morrow is a good starter that should be offered arbitration or a multi-year contract. The back end of the rotation should include Henderson Alvarez (pre-arbitration), who pitched well in his 10 starts in 2011. The #5 spot should be a duel between Brett Cecil (pre-arbitration) and a rookie named Deck McGuire. McGuire might not quite be ready for the majors, but I’d at least give him a look in spring training. At this point, you still have a hole in the middle of the rotation. Since your best pitching prospects are still a couple years away from being ready, I’d say Toronto’s best option would be Hiroki Kuroda. He can fill the #2 or #3 spot well, and won’t cost a fortune to sign to a 2-3 year deal (maybe $8-10 mil/year).
The bullpen is where you should see a complete renovation in 2012. Their most valuable reliever was Casey Janssen, who is eligible for arbitration, and will likely cost somewhere in the $3-3.5 million range. That’s a no-brainer. Carlos Villanueva split time between the bullpen and starting in 2011, but was clearly more effective as a reliever (1.60 ERA – 6th best in baseball among relievers with at least 30 IP). Villanueva is also arbitration eligible and will cost around the same as Janssen. The only other reliever I could see the Jays holding onto for 2012 might be Jesse Litsch. He’s young, and could improve, and will be fairly cheap (around $1.5 million). As for the rest of the bullpen, there are several options out there that would be a major boost to the performance of the pitching staff overall. My suggestions are Darren Oliver (a lefty and an innings eater at around $2.5 million for 1 year), Javier Lopez (an excellent left-handed specialist/set-up man for 3-years/$10-12 million), and Ryan Madson (a much better closer option than what Toronto previously had, and he’ll come fairly cheap since there are other bigger names available this year that teams are going after first – 4-years/$25-30 million).
In the end, the Blue Jays’ total payroll for 2012 could be around $75 million with these moves. And, this pitching staff gives them a much better chance to compete than the 2011 version did. If they were willing to go up to around $85 million, they could even consider going after Yu Darvish, which would give them 4 solid starters. What do you think?