So we've been through this before. The Toronto Blue Jays are passing through the "dog days" of August, moving through meaningless baseball games in the last month of the regular season. Yet they aren't entirely meaningless. According to Cot's Contracts, the team has over $110 million dollars in commitments to their 2014 team (excluding arbitration raises to Brett Cecil, JP Arencibia, Colby Rasmus, Esmil Rogers, and Brad Lincoln). Given the way the roster is constructed and the contract guarantees are limited to, success within this 4-year "competitive window" is all-important. More simply put, success by players who are seen as contributors for the 2014 season and beyond, even during a stretch of games late in the season without playoff implications, is a sight for sore eyes and an indication that the true talent level of these Blue Jays is better than their record implies.
If you've watched the Blue Jays season as we all know you have (even you closet lurkers), you'll know how dreadful certain positions have been. Starting pitching has been absolutely dreadful, compounded by the predictable and extremely inconvenient absence of Brandon Morrow. Ineffectiveness by Josh Johnson, implosions by Ricky Romero, and inconsistency by J.A. Happ, R.A. Dickey and Esmil Rogers have all led the Blue Jays down a road of ineptitude.
Beyond the obvious need at starting pitcher, there are multiple holes to address with position players as well. Melky Cabrera is at this point a bad DH, and Maicer Izturis is a light-hitting utility infielder without the defensive pedigree to warrant that responsibility. JP Arencibia might have the worst approach of any every day major league player (as his K/BB ratio would indicate), and that coupled with his inability to rise to his own two feet to throw prospective runners out makes him a black hole in the Blue Jays lineup even Neil DeGrasse Tyson would marvel at. Adam Lind is a platoon DH, necessitating another player on the roster to protect him from southpaws.
These are the problems. A wise man by the name of George Poulis (trainer for the Toronto Blue Jays) once told me that by identifying problems, "you're halfway to a solution", and I think are some players that can be brought from outside the organization to help improve this Blue Jay team in some ways subtle, and other ways drastic.
Fortunately, the Blue Jays are not full of problems. Jose Reyes is a productive when healthy shortstop, 2/3's of the outfield is covered by productive players, the hot corner (3B) is being manned by the pirouetting defensive wizard himself Brett Lawrie, the cold corner (1B?) is covered by the t-rex armed Edwin Encarnacion, and the bullpen is full to the brim, with quality relievers claiming spots for 2014 and beyond:
Closer: Casey Janssen
Set-up Men: Brett Cecil, Sergio Santos
Long Relievers: Esmil Rogers
There are 7 quality bullpen arms that the Blue Jays have going into next year, with an unprecedented amount of depth (Luis Perez/Jeremy Jeffress likely DFA, Neil Wagner, Mickey Storey, Brad Lincoln in AAA), something I haven't seen since AA took over. This is wonderful because it gives Alex Anthopoulos an opportunity to focus on the more troubling challenges to the construction of their major league roster.
Despite JP Arencibia's insistence that he "isn't going anywhere" and that we should #getusedtoit, no team and their fans should have to get used to a wRC+ of 70, a K% bordering on 30%, and well below-average catching skills (receiving, blocking, taking throws from the outfield, pitch sequencing, etc.).
Despite an appealing skill set (power, durability, strong arm), I am of the opinion that JP Arencibia needs to be replaced if the Jays are to move forward. The obvious candidates are:
Brian McCann : Ranked as the 3rd best free-agent according to Tim Dierkes of MLBTR, McCann represents the biggest upgrade to Arencibia, but also the biggest financial commitment of the group of FA catchers. His .231 ISO is the best he's posted in a full season since 2006, he has a strong defensive pedigree. and his 9.5% career walk rate is nearly triple that of incumbent JP Arencibia. It is worth noting that he will certainly be tendered a qualifying offer this summer by the Atlanta Braves, complicating the Blue Jays pursuit.
Carlos Ruiz: This is my personal choice. Chooch will demand considerably less than the aforementioned McCann, on account of his age (being 5 years his elder). Interestingly, he's caught over 2000 major league innings less than McCann, leading me to believe that his legs are going to hold up better through the life of a prospective contract. More over, Ruiz has maintained a strong line drive %, he's remained durable, he doesn't strike out often and couples that with career walk rates that give him a very impressive 0.88 K/BB ratio (Arencibia's is a paltry 0.19 by comparison). Last note, he is in all likelihood not going to be tendered a qualifying offer by the Philadelphia Phillies, which makes him all the more attractive to me.
Other catchers of note on the free agent include but are not limited to: Jarrod Saltalamacchia (29) and his insane strikeout totals, Dioner Navarro (30) and his impressive renaissance as an every day player, and Kurt Suzuki's (30) strong defensive ability.
After a terrible season by Melky Cabrera, and injuries by both Colby Rasmus and Jose Bautista, a corner outfielder who can allow a rotation of DH and OF would be a masterful acquisition. There are two players who I want to highlight as potential targets on the free agent market who could contribute as peripheral players for the Blue Jays.
Carlos Beltran: Beltran was once highly sought after by the Blue Jays in the winter of 2011, and has since enjoyed two very successful seasons in St.Louis. While his dropping walk rate is alarming, he's hitting line drives at a better rate than ever before, and changing his hitting profile at no expense to his productivity (wRC+ of 143 to date). His ability in the outfield has predictably taken a step back from his once elite ability, but he still represents an upgrade over the one-legged Melky at any outfield position. I think Beltran is on the cusp of being tendered a qualifying offer, and how his impending free agency develops over the coming months will be interesting to watch.
David Murphy: Murphy is suffering from a worrisome encounter with the BABIP luck dragon, as his current BABIP is .076 points lower (.227) than his career total (.303). Other than that, his peripheral stats have remained constant, other than an uptick of 2% in IFFB%. He does have some admittedly paltry numbers against LHP's, though not as untenable as Adam Lind's. He plays a very strong left field, and he's available to play right field to spell Bautista as well. He isn't likely to receive a qualifying offer, Texas hasn't retained their last few impact hitters (Hamilton, Napoli), and Murphy would likely come at a discount given his bad luck in his contract year.
As noted by Scott MacCarthur of TSN earlier this week, the utmost resilient Dustin McGowan is approaching 2014 as a starter, adding another name to the pool of eligible starters for the 2014 Blue Jays team. His name adds to an overcrowded list (Mark Beuhrle, R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, J.A Happ, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Marcus Stroman, Sean Nolin, and I guess Ricky Romero as a formality), a list which features varying levels of durability and effectiveness issues. Save for the first three pitchers mentioned (Beuhrle, Dickey, Morrow), the last two spots available in the rotation are open for the taking. There are a few pitchers on the free agent market who I find interesting enough to be mentioned.
It goes without saying that Matt Garza is a legitimate target for the Blue Jays this winter. He's held strong K and BB rates, though his dropping propensity to induce ground balls (38.8%) and his increasing propensity to serve up the long-ball (1.30 HR/9 in 2012, 1.21 HR/9 in 2013) should give pause. Also, since he's avoided the qualifying offer, there will undoubtedly be plenty of teams vying for his services, thus inflating the price of his services past the point where I'd feel comfortable bidding for him competitively. My two targets would be:
Jorge de la Rosa, and Paul Maholm. The former has been pitching in the launching pad best known as Coors Field for the past five years, and the 32-year old had put together some successful seasons. He's admittedly struggled with command, but he's put together strong ground-ball totals, penchant for the strike out, and ability to limit home runs in a high-scoring run environment.
The latter has been in the NL for his entire 8-year career, with stops in Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Maholm has posted very stable peripherals over the last few years, with strong ground ball rates, a strong command within the strike zone, and a HR/FB% in 2013 that is above the league average at 14.1%. He won't cost the Blue Jays a draft pick, and it's likely that he won't be seeking a deal that is prohibitive in length or financial commitment.
Also, I figured I'd suggest Dan Haren as a legitimate option for a spot in the starting rotation. Michael Barr of rotographs wrote an insightful article titled "Dan Haren is suddenly great again" which lends some credence to the idea that Dan Haren might be an option as a starter in 2014.
It's worth mentioning that the perennial all-star Robinson Cano is a free agent, and would conveniently fill a void at second. Also, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin Soo-Choo are quality players on the free agent market. That said, these players would both a) cost a draft pick and lessen the draft budget, and b) stiffen the financial flexibility of the Blue Jays.
Lastly, an all-time Blue Jay favo(u)rite Roy Halladay is sure to have his $20 million dollar option declined by the Phillies, making him a free agent this winter. He hasn't looked like a viable option since his shoulder surgery, but I'm of the position that he was rushed after the Phillies and Diamondbacks went an epic 18-innings on August 24th. I would love nothing more than have Halladay, and his battery mate for the last few years (Ruiz) join the Blue Jays this offseason!