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Questions remain for aggressive Jays
How timely: The Toronto Blue Jays will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Joe Carter’s home run with another World Series title in 2013.
At least, that’s what some early assessments of the Blue Jays’ whirlwind week would have us believe.
I’m a little more skeptical.
Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos has (unofficially) turned over one-quarter of his team’s 25-man roster over the past several days, acquiring five players from the biggest flop in baseball this year and adding another who missed his team’s run to a world title because of a steroid suspension.
No red flags there, right?
Listen, I’m completely on board with the Jays’ decision to operate with a big-boy payroll in baseball’s big-boy division. I argued that they should have gone big last offseason with either Yu Darvish or Prince Fielder.
Toronto fans are starved for a championship (in any sport), the Rogers Communications Inc. ownership has the resources to spend Loonie-for-Loonie with any US competitor, and the Blue Jays demonstrated a generation ago that Toronto can be a baseball titletown and popular destination for free agents.
But we are not yet looking at an October-ready product, even after the agreed-upon trade with the Marlins for Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck, followed by the (equally surprising) addition of Melky Cabrera on a two-year, $16 million contract Friday afternoon.
My remaining questions about the 2013 Blue Jays, in no particular order:
1. How difficult will it be for this team to forge an identity?
After Enrique Rojas of ESPNDeportes.com first reported the news of Cabrera’s signing Friday, I sketched out one projection of the Blue Jays’ 25-man roster. I counted 12 new players since July, including infielder Maicer Izturis (free agent), reliever Esmil Rogers (November trade), reliever Steve Delabar (July trade), reliever Brad Lincoln (July trade), starter J.A. Happ (July trade) and reliever Aaron Loup (July call-up — and first of the group to arrive).
In other words, a GM who has been on the job for more than three years just churned through half of his roster in four months. On the field, at least, the early stages of that transition did not go smoothly. The Blue Jays went 30-45 — the fourth-worst record in the American League — between Loup’s July 14 debut and the end of the season.
The eight offseason additions can’t be held accountable for that poor second half. But the Jays’ faceplant in August and September — hastened by pitching injuries and marred by clubhouse discord — underscores how much this group must improve if it wants to win the rugged AL East. The most important addition of all might be Jose Bautista, the 2011 MVP candidate who played only six games in the second half because of a wrist injury that required season-ending surgery.
2. How about a manager?
So many new players, no one to lead them.
The Blue Jays remain the only big league team without a manager, and the job is getting more intriguing — and difficult — by the day.
Anthopoulos wants someone with experience. Whether or not he realizes it, he needs someone with presence to handle the varied cast of strong (and possibly prickly) personalities he’s putting together. As of the middle of this week, the Jays weren’t close to hiring anyone.
The team environment soured near the end of the season, and some of the players responsible are still around. On top of that, Anthopoulos has added veterans who thought they had signed to play in Miami. As my colleague Ken Rosenthal reported late Friday, the Marlins broke verbal no-trade promises to both Buehrle and Reyes. Together, they are supposed to make the playoffs in the perpetually competitive AL East.
It sounds like the plot of a good movie. The wrong managerial hiring could turn it into a bust — as the Marlins and Red Sox learned this year.
3. Will the Blue Jays complete the job of building a World Series-caliber pitching staff?
The bullpen is in good shape, particularly if closer Sergio Santos returns from an injury-plagued season. But even after this week’s blockbuster, there’s an uncomfortable amount of risk in the Toronto rotation.
The Blue Jays need one more veteran — Happ, the incumbent No. 5 starter, probably shouldn’t be counted on after a foot injury ended his 2012 season — and it’s possible that Buehrle’s prior insistence on playing in the Midwest could resurface and necessitate a trade. (Also of note, his family owns a pit bull, and pit bulls are banned in Ontario. Any dog lover understands the depths of that quandary.)
St. Louis — Buehrle’s hometown and longtime preferred destination — doesn’t appear to be in the market for a starting pitcher. Perhaps the best possibilities would be in the AL Central, where Buehrle spent the first 12 seasons of his career with the Chicago White Sox.
The Minnesota Twins are desperate for pitching and might be willing to trade Justin Morneau (a Canadian) if it means landing a veteran ace like Buehrle. The Detroit Tigers want to add a starter and are longtime Buehrle admirers. There’s always the chance that the White Sox could have interest in a reunion. Elsewhere, the Washington Nationals courted Buehrle last offseason and have ample prospect depth to trade.
Buehrle is due $48 million in base salary over the next three seasons, which sounds like a steep price ... until one considers that free-agent starter Anibal Sanchez is asking for roughly twice that. If the Blue Jays end up exploring the market for Buehrle, they would be best served by marketing him as a cheaper option than the arms available on the open market. (Of course, they would need to get a starter back in return.)
4. Who will be the left-handed presence in the middle of the Toronto batting order?
The lineup looks formidable after this week’s moves, with Reyes, Cabrera (if he can hit without PEDs), Bautista (if healthy) and Edwin Encarnacion occupying the top four spots. But then there’s a gaping need for a booming left-handed hitter to follow the righty sluggers Bautista and Encarnacion.
It could be Adam Lind, but he’s coming off three subpar seasons in a row and seems to have lost the form he displayed while winning a Silver Slugger award at designated hitter in 2009.
It could be Colby Rasmus, but his OPS over the past two seasons is a meager .689. He remains one of the most enigmatic players in baseball, to teammates and management alike.
It could be David Cooper, who suffered a season-ending back injury in August just when it appeared the former first-round pick was making a case for the everyday job at first base.
It could be a free agent or trade acquisition to be determined. Since Encarnacion can play first base or designated hitter, Anthopoulos could sign a left-swinging DH — Travis Hafner? Raul Ibañez? — to start roughly half of Toronto’s games in the No. 5 spot.
One way or the other, the Jays can’t view their lineup as a finished product yet. Yes, they are better now than they were Monday. But it’s not yet time to plan the parade route down Yonge Street.
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