With many of the big boys coming off the free agent market, led by Cliff Lee's jumping back to the Phillies and Carl Crawford to the Red Sox, some of the familiar Jays' names are suddenly making appearances in rumours and transactions. You've got first baseman Lyle Overbay signing a one-year deal with the Pirates for $5 million. He made $7 million in his final year with the Jays and if the Jays had indeed offered him arbitration at the deadline, he might have been advised to actually accept the offer and may have been back for another season for a raise. The Jays decided they were moving forward and Lind will get a full opportunity. Also in the news, Kevin Gregg and Jeremy Accardo are reported to be close to signing wth the O's. Gregg is also of interest to the Red Sox. A total of 84 free agents out of 255 have found new homes as of Wednesday morning. Only 13 of those are for longer than two years. There are bargains to be had for teams willing to take a chance. On to the mail bag.
With the Bronx Bombers falling short in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, what other course of actions will they follow in order to make a splash this off season? Do you think they will now try trading for either Zack Greinke or Matt Garza to bolster their rotation?
-Matthew Lee, Leaside, Toronto
A-So far the Yankee reaction has been slow as they struggle up from the canvas to take what amounts to a standing eight-count, but expect them to heat up into a near-froth as they realize how far behind the Red Sox they have fallen in the battle for Evil Empire supremacy and one-upmanship. On Monday, they thought they had Cliff Lee with the extra guaranteed year and the highest guaranteed offer. On Tuesday he was gone and they instead had agreed to terms with Mark Prior. The former Cubs star is trying to re-establish his career. The hot spotlight of Broadway is not always the best place to get that done, although Prior's running mate with the Cubs, Kerry Wood did it out of the Yankee bullpen.
The Yankees definitely need to do something big in terms of starting rotation. They cannot compete against the Sox, Jays and Rays with CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, A.J. (I'm taking my talents to the South Bronx) Burnett, Ivan Nova and Prior or Sergio Mitre. Their best chance to compete is to trade for Greinke, but do they have enough in terms of prospects to satisfy the Royals' needs? The other thing they may try to do right away is to call Andy Pettitte and ask him to come back for one more year. The Rangers have also expressed an interest in Pettitte and that would be delicious if Nolan Ryan signed the Texan away from the Bombers. As for Garza, would the Rays trade him within the division? Their fans might not show up. Oh, wait, they already don't show up. The best free agent starter available, other than the undecided Pettitte is Carl Pavano and the Yankees have been down that road before.
Q-I'm curious as to why the Blue Jays are leaning towards having Drabek start the season in the big leagues. While we all agree he has great potential, putting him on the roster on Opening Day qualifies him for Super Two status two years from now. Instead bringing him up in June (like that Nationals did with their phenom starting pitcher), the Jays would save a significant chunk of cash down the line. If we all agree that the Jays will contend in 2012 and beyond, I'm really curious as to why AA and the new manager have been quick to throw his name into discussions for the starting roster.
-Joe Sacti, Toronto
A-Having Drabek play the entire season with the Jays will not qualify him for Super Two status two years from now. It qualifies him for free-agent status six years from now and that's only if he remains on the major-league roster from now through the end of 2016. That would be an organization thinking far too deeply if that's going to be a reason not to have a guy in the opening day rotation. Super Two is a category of arbitration eligible players that includes a low percentage of players each years that have two years plus the highest number of days in the majors among all players. For those players that are called up and sent down over the course of several years, a total of 172 days service equals a full year.
In Drabek's case, it's getting to the point where it does not mater as much about super two, because in a player's second year of arbitration, if he figures prominently in an organization's future, they buy him out of the final couple of years of arbitration and lock him up with a long-term deal. If Drabek rates that sort of consideration, the fact that he spent the entire 2011 season in the majors will become academic. As for why they throw his name in the 2011 discussion, he's good.
Q-The acquisition of Brett Lawrie had me thinking about Aaron Hill's situation. What do you think the odds are that the Jays don't pick up his $8M and $10 club options in 2012 through 2014. Hill definitely has some pop in his bat but one could question whether you're better off getting another 2B or 3B free agent for the same (or less money)... similar to the decision AA made with Kevin Gregg. For Hill specifically when do the Jays need to make the call on picking up his club options?
-Harry Jackson, Toronto
A-The Jays need to make the call on Hill's three option years (2012-14) not until the eve of Opening Day 2011, although they will likely decide during spring training. The Hill contract was one of Anthopoulos's early innovations as assistant GM to J.P. Ricciardi. The Rays used it as a model when they locked up Evan Longoria less than a year later. If the Jays decide to pick up the Hill options before next season it will include all three years at $8, $8 and $10 million. If they do not pick all three up they can declare after 2011 for just 2012-13. Or, in the end, they can decline all three options and Hill is a free agent after 2011. The safer of two courses of action would be for the Jays to wait until Hill rebounds offensively in 2011 before deciding on two option years through 2013. The flip side of that argument is that Anthopoulos said early in his GM career that there is an upside to having a player locked up to a long-term deal even if your plan is to eventually trade him. If Hill is the Hill of 2009, then the three option years are a bargain. A.A. likely has a soft spot in his heart for this contract.
Q-Given the large contracts given to Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, how do you think this changes AA's thinking on Jose Bautista? The Jays are in a bit of a catch-22. If Bautista replicates his 2010 season through 2011, the asking price only goes up.
A-You're right about the financial danger of allowing Bautista to have another 50-home run season heading into free agency and what that would do to his market value...but don't you think the Jays would love to have that problem. Put it this way, if Bautista has slammed 15 homers by the end of May 2011, they would make every effort to lock him up to a long-term contract looking for some sort of hometown discount perhaps because of the break they gave him in establishing his career. If not, if that strategy doesn't work, if they realized that he was going to go through the free-agent process and see what he was Werth, then they could attempt to trade him before the deadline in July and get back prospects. There is also a huge danger in giving Bautista free-agent star money after just one great season at the age of 30. The organization is still smarting over the Vernon deal. The most intelligent course of action was descibed above – to pay very close attention to Bautista during the spring and in the first two months and then try to lock him up if he proves to be who he says he is.
Q-Richard, I have long admired Tony La Russa's approach to the catching position. This is a position where defense is critical. He once said that he would start Yadier Molina even if he batted .100. Bearing this in mind and with a young pitching staff on board, wouldn't the Jays best approach be with an established veteran who can best manage a game? If Arencibia is known to be a defensive liability and we have holes at both 1st and 3rd, wouldn't a switch seem logical? Jose Molina seemed to bring out the best in our pitchers last year. He with another veteran seems like a winning combination.
Mauro Cavazzon, Markham
A-LaRussa's approach to catchers is shaped largely by his relationship with long-time pitching coach Dave Duncan who himself was a strong defensive catcher with crappy offensive numbers. Duncan spent 11 years in the majors with a .214 career average, 109 homers and a .636 OPS. He threw out 32-percent of runners attempting to steal and was noted foir his cerebral ways behind the plate winning a World Series with the 1972 A's. As for the Jays and J.P. Arencibia, his off-season grip on the No. 1 catcher's job is tenuous at best, having dodged more off-season bullets than Keanu Reevs in The Matrix. But as long as the Jays have just J.P. and Jose Molina on the roster, then Arencibia's the one. But they already flirted with John Buck and Miguel Olivo and made a pass at Rusell Martin, who apparently has chosen the Yankees. The Jays young rotation needed a veteran presence behind the plate the past two seasons, but they are now themselves young veterans getting to the point where they actually know what they're doing on the mound and can help Arencibia get by. For the Jays' young slugger, it's not that he's bad defensively, it's that he needs to understand that the ability to steer a pitcher through a nine-inning minefield is his most important role. It's not a lost cause. They need to find out about him and they won't do that by signing another veteran and sending J.P. back to Vegas.
Despite the cold weather and terrible roads, this past weekend a buddy and me took the pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall Of Fame in Cooperstown New York. It is about a 5 hour drive from Toronto, but a must for any baseball fan. In my view Roberto Alomar is a lock for the hall of fame and a lock to don a Blue Jays cap on his head. Are there any other Blue Jays with Hall of Fame credentials? What about Joe Carter? How about Roy Halladay?
-Josh Sanderson, Toronto
A-The Hall-of-Fame is a wonderful place for the true baseball fan. Nice decision by you guys to make that trip. Joe Carter's celebrity and reputation stem more from that one “touch-'em-all” moment than from his body of work, which as impressive as those numbers are, always seemed to be in a supporting role with whatever team he was with. Joe did not get the 5-percent reuqired to remain on the ballot for a second year. I was surprised. Joe was stunned. Robby should be a mortal lock when the announcement is made on January 5. When he goes in it will surely be with the Jays' cap. It's a Hall decision with input from the honouree. As for possible Jays' hall-of-famers, there's an eventual chance for Fred McGriff and Jack Morris. Carlos Delgado needs to come back and hit a few more homers and reach the post-season. Roy Halladay is headed in the right direction, with all the necessities for greatness. What a great summer to drive to Cooperstown July 23-25 with Jays' GM Pat Gillick and Expos' broadcaster Dave Van Horne already going in and with Alomar likely.
I'm a big fan of your column and fan of the Jays. I like the direction that AA is taking the team with young arms and identified young talent. Can you give me a breakdown of who YOU think are the Jays top 5 prospects? Where does Brett Lawrie fit into that mix? Last question - with these young players "done" their college and minor league seasons, what do these young prospects do to improve their skills? Do all young players play in some kind of winter league? Is there such a thing as too much baseball? I know, lots of questions.
-Jason Kerr, Saskatoon
A-I am always shocked that many of today's hot young prospects turn down the chance to play Caribbean Winter Ball, preferring to take time off and then begin workouts in January. My guess it's all about the big signing bonuses that take away the hunger of playing winter ball as a second job. As for when it's too much, I know that there can be too much baseball for some of the Latin American pitchers that have key roles with their home town team, come to spring training trying to win a job with the major-league team and then log a ful season in the majors. It eventually catches up with them.
That's an interesting question regarding Top 5 Jays prospects. There are plenty of sources for farm information including the essential Baseball America Prospect Handbook with the Top 30 prospects from every organization listed and explained. My own personal listing is slanted by my personal preferences of certain skills. For this exercise I will only consider players born in 1986 or later, guys that were born the year after the Jays earned their first division title in 1985. That would make them 25 or younger playing in 2011. In no particular order, here are my five favourite Jays farmhands:
1-Deck McGuire RHP: The 21-year-old was selected 11th overall in 2010. He's like '09 first round pick Chad Jenkins, only better. Deck will try to bring Georgia Tech products back into favour in Toronto after the vitriolic departure of Chris Bosh. Likely he will start at A-Lansing or A-Dunedin.
2-Anthony Gose OF: The 20-year-old former Phillies prospect obtained from the Astros for Brett Wallace has some exciting skills. What jumps out as head-scratchers are his two year totals of 52 caught stealings and 13 errors in centre field, but that shows basically what kind of a prospect he is if he's allowed to reach those numbers. It's not easy being thrown out that many times. As a high school pitcher he threw 97 m.p.h. but gave that up. In the last two years he has 29 outfield assists. Needs another 1000 minor-league at-bats at least, but is getting stronger. Look out Vernon.
3-Brett Lawrie: Okay, so the 20-year-old B.C. native likes to duct-tape huge alcoholic beverages to his left hand while flexing for his Facebook friends. There are worse things. Plus, he's Canadian. If Facebook existed back in the day, Larry Walker would have had exactly the same problems. In fact, Walker also as a 20-year old was trying to find a position and eventually became a tremendous, instinctive outfielder. Lawrie at 20 played second base at Double-A and was an all-star.
4-J.P. Arencibia C: This is Arencibia's last chance with the Jays. He cannot possibly be sent back to Las Vegas for a third year after winning PCL MVP honours in 2010. Either they think he can start every day or they should trade him to a team that will give him that chance. There are plenty of catchers that started out as offence-first guys that developed humility and leadership skills.
5-Adeiny Hechavarria SS: The 21-year-old Cuban defector was the first high-profile international free agent signed by the Jays proving they were play-ahs. Completely adjusting to a different culture, he did better in the backwoods of New Hampshire at Double-A than in the Latin-tinged Tampa Bay area at A-Dunedin. His manager, Luis Rivera, a big help in New Hampshire is now a coach with the Jays. Hechavarria has some extra base power, decent speed and quickness, but needs a little more time.
As I see it, the 2010 Blue Jays were 10 games shy of competing with a more or less solid team whose closer blew 9 saves and whose manager's wait-and-see approach cost them another 10. We've got a new manager -- one who's committed to firing on more than one cylinder. And we've added some speed. Why not sign a first-rate closer, stop all this trading/building ballyhoo, and aim to win in 2011? I understand the need to build for the future. I do. But it's not like the 2010 crew were a bunch of senior citizens. My fear, after moving Halladay, now Marcum, after losing Downs, losing Overbay's sure-hands at first, maybe getting greedy with Bautista, is that the Jays will get stuck in a one-step-forward, three-steps back approach to building that will never pay off. Your thoughts? In always looking ahead, do the the Jays overlook what's worked in the past?
-Matthew McKean, Ottawa
A-That's a pretty harsh view of Cito Gaston. I think there is a balance to his perceived strategic shortcomings compared to his solid “have a plan” advice to his hitters, his patience with guys like Romero and Morrow and the “this is your clubhouse” approach with his roster. It adds up to far fewer than 10 losses. I agree that the Jays may be a better team in 2011 but win fewer games, but it won't be because they did not re-sign Gregg or replace him with a proven closer. They still will sign one more veteran arm for the pen to compete with existing guys, led by Jason Frasor, for saves. I believe the advancement in terms of record will depend more on the bouncebacks of Hill and Adam Lind and the emergence of Snider. Of course Bautista and Wells will have to be forces again and they need to acquire another hitter at DH or third base. Closer is not the answer for 2011 to be considered a success.
When teams sign free agents to long-term contracts that will run well into their decline years, why don't they front-load the contract so the largest annual salary is paid when the player is younger and his performance is likely at its peak? Arranging the contract in this way would also make the player more tradable in his decline years. This may make it more difficult for the team to add additional pieces in the short-term to make a run, but it would allow teams to avoid Soriano/Wells-type situations in the long-term. What am I missing?
-James McMahon, Thunder Bay
A-Many times, teams will in effect front-end load contracts by paying out big signing bonuses that can be amortized over the length of the contract but go directly into the pocket of the player in the first few years. The problem with front-end loading is that teams already have a large chunk of payroll committed when they sign a player long-term and that may make the total payroll untenable for ownership. By back-end loading, they can plan ahead for the supporting cast when they know they are going to be paying the most to their star player. No matter how much the declining year's salary is, players are always tradeable if you are willing to pay a large portion of the remaining annual salary.
I'm curious as to why GM's trade players who are already drafted instead of trading picks, such as the NBA. Am I missing something or is there a rule in the MLB that you cannot trade picks but rather players who are drafted with that pick.
-Nilesh Panchal, Pickering
A-Baseball teams are not allowed to trade their draft picks and that's probably a good thing. There are 50 rounds in baseball and there are some shrewd GMs with deep farm systems that would be trading veterans for draft picks and developed minor-leaguers for more draft picks ending up with dozens of picks in the first five rounds and on the other hand there are some organizations that would cut down their scouting and just use draft picks as inventory. Former Jays' GM Gord Ash is one that has been in favour of trading draft picks, but they would have to restrict it to first three rounds or something reasonable that would prevent the draft becoming a travesty.
Q-Are there any plans to revamp parts of SkyDome (I will not call it Rogers Centre) for the upcoming season? The on-field product is ultimately the most important enticement to coming out to the ballpark, but further enhancements to the Dome would certainly seem to improve the fan experience. Is there a long-term plan for the stadium, or does ownership operate on a year-to-year basis?
-James Riswick, Mississauga
A-They own the place, so they should be able to make needed adjustments on the fly. How about some specifics for next week's mailbag. I think they plan on adding an octagon at some point before next April. For the media, the wireless in the press box needs improvement which is ironic since Rogers is the biggest wireless provider in Canada. But nobody else cares about that. I'm with you. I prefer calling it SkyDome. How about the Rogers SkyDome.
Q-Hi Richard. I'm a longtime reader and love your insights. Definitely feeds my excitement for this season, just wish it wasn't so far away! My question focuses on the rebuilding process. I know you're against dealing Travis Snider, and I like him too. But with a acquisition of Lawrie, and the example of Larry Walker, could Lawrie not be a replacement for Snider? If so, what if the Jays dealt Snider and other not including Drabek (perhaps Deck McGuire) for Greinke. Then turned around and spent big money on Adrian Beltre and Adam Laroche? I realize it's a bit out there, but I think the Jays would be able to contend right away and have prospect depth.
-Richard Colton, Waterloo
A-I would rather begin with Drabek and add catcher Travis D'Arnaud as a starting point for Greinke. There would have to be a couple of more minor leaguers, or else a major-league bullpen guy. If Snider went in that deal, I would not think it was a great step forward. I see Snider as a breakout player in 2011. The Jays were very interested in LaRoche last winter. But with Lind a lefthanded swinging first baseman they might be looking for a righthanded hitting DH/1B. Beltre is a trap waiting to happen.
As someone who hasn't yet finished grieving over the loss of "Nos Expos" your writings are my last connection to something that once brought me great joy. I haven't seen this 20th Anniversary film, where can I get my hands on it? Also are there any other Expos films worth watching?
Love your work,
-Nick Capozzi, Toronto
A-When we did the 20th anniversary highlight film, it was basically on VCR. Donald Sutherland did the voice over. We flew to a sound studio in Miami to meet him during a break from that horrible prison movie he did with Sly Stallone back in the day. Donald played the evil prison warden. My biggest guffaw of the day was when we asked the great Canadian baseball fan whether Stallone was a better director or actor. Donald looked up and said: “Neither!” I lent my copy of the film a few years back and never got it back, so I must contact Brian Schecter in Vancouver to try and get a fresh copy for myself on DVD. I will ask him at that time if there is any way for others to acquire a copy. As for other Expos films, we did a different highlight package every year from 1979 on and they were alll so well scripted as to be unbelievably entertaining. Uh, that was my job. I don't knw how many copies still exist.
I enjoyed your column about Dave Van Horne and Tom Cheek. You make an excellent point of Van Horne being the more senior guy in the Hall of Fame vote. It's interesting that with you writing in Toronto and Alex A. running the whole show, we're getting a very different perspective on baseball after all these years of an AL-centric view of the game. We've always had excellent writers here (Perkins, Elliott, et al) but a view from people with a NL background is quite different. The NL seems to be a place where teams are put together differently, where the 20th to 24th men are very important to a team's success. That hasn't always been the case in this town. By the way, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant, is a wonderful book. A great baseball story but, more than that, it's compelling history dealing with race, personal triumph and Aaron's complicated personality.
-Timothy Daniels, Toronto
A-I received a really nice e-mail from Shirley Cheek thanking me for the Frick piece and agreeing that Tom woud have been very happy for Dave. That was sweet. As for the Expos connection, don't forget that Bob Elliott's first work on the baseball beat was covering the Expos for the Ottawa Citizen for three years. He is a through and through National League guy. I will read the Aaron book.