One Step Towards the Next Level: Blue Jays Offseason

It was the morning of November 27th when I woke up by watching Brett Lawrie sink a no-look shot from his swimming pool which was just another thing to add on his basketball resume (http://instagram.com/p/v7GJWmt8OJ/ ). Like many other players around the league he was enjoying the beginning of the offseason and taking a break from a hard working yet shortened injury prone season. The hard work was just beginning for GM’s around the league as within hours of watching the video his time as a Toronto Blue Jay had come to an end for better or worse. My initial reaction that same evening was very mixed and it took me time to assess my feelings towards losing such a fan favourite but also to welcome a league’s best at the same time. All I know was instead of being at the Waterloo Laurier Ismaili Students Association End of Term Formal that night I was going crazy with my emotions flying around everywhere. Now I choose to put it all down on paper and share it with my fellow Blue Jays fans.

The 2014 season was a bittersweet season for the Blue Jays and GM Alex Anthopolous. He was coming off a very disappointing end to a season that had many bright moments but nevertheless was tough to overcome because it was just another year that they didn’t make the playoffs. Though the expectations were not as big as in 2013 the Jays were more competitive and being so close to making the playoffs and playing meaningful baseball didn’t make it any better. The front office knew that changes had to happen should they want to take that next step from being good to being elite. Whether they have taken that step or not has yet to be determined but Alex Anthopolous wasted no time by acquiring one of the league’s premier third baseman’s in Josh Donaldson from the Oakland Athletics for Brett Lawrie and a package of prospects.

Now if I told you that Brett Lawrie would no longer be a member of the Toronto Blue Jays at the beginning of the offseason you would have probably thought I was crazy or something. If I went on to tell you that the Jays would acquire Josh Donaldson in return you would probably be quite impressed but many would be confused because we would be trading a third baseman for another and many would agree that the holes in our team would still be quite significant which you would rather improve than improving a specific position player. If you asked me I would have told you I in a perfect world we would be able to have Brett Lawrie and Josh Donaldson that way we could improve our infield by moving Brett Lawrie to second base after all while solidifying our lineup with a third baseman not named Chase Headley.

Now majority of the people will say the Blue Jays straight out won this trade hands down. This sounds familiar to the blockbuster with Miami, which I strongly believe is not a “steal” for the Jays if they don’t make the playoffs this upcoming season. Going back to the topic at hand, you have to admit getting one of the best (if not the best) third baseman’s in the league who is still in his prime without losing Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez or Daniel Norris is quite impressive. When you look at the return it doesn’t even seem to add up in the sense that the Jays gave enough for someone who I should say is coming off back to back MVP caliber seasons with MVP like stats and league leading WAR stats (Only Mike Trout had a higher WAR than Donaldson the last two seasons) for all third baseman’s. Brett Lawrie is a fan favourite especially among the female population (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gSfriALPiA) and I wouldn’t be surprised if his jersey was among best sellers in Toronto. As Jay’s fans know his defense was top of the line and gold-glove caliber. One of the main reasons why he hasn’t one yet at only the age of 24 is him being prone to injuries. Josh Donaldson missed eight games last season and according to the Score, Brett Lawrie has only appeared in 345 games over the past 4 seasons (which is just over 50%) and this absence has created lots of trouble for the Blue Jays with a lack of production both offensively and defensively off the bench. Brett Lawrie solidified the Jays defense and it is because of his injury problems that have made Lawrie fall short of expectations in Toronto. I still remember the hype around the Canadian native from Burnaby who was going to be a big part of the Jays future from years to come. It took a fastball to his hand that delayed his major league debut just a few seasons ago. From the time he made his debut in Baltimore he has been an electric played fueled by Red Bull. After all Red Bull gives you wings right? http://content.usatoday.com/communities/dailypitch/post/2012/07/blue-jays-brett-lawrie-leg-injury-/1#.VKEJ-sBA I am not what is more surprising about this play – the fact that he got injured or that Ricky Romero was pitching. Back to my point is that his time as a Blue Jay may come to an end and he may have not done the job fans would have wanted but the potential is there and his defensive gems will continue. Hitting a walk off homerun to hitting an umpire with his helmet, Brett Lawrie will be heading to Oakland to play under Billy Beane.

If I have learned one thing over the years, you should never question Billy Beane. A move like this may appear to be a win-win but we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. As we learned after the deal Beane wasn’t really looking to trade Donaldson when Anthopolous first called but Anthopolous was persistent and called him back at a later date and was able to put the package together to land the superstar. This persistence from Anthopolous is greatly appreciated by Jays fans but we have no idea if this persistence was because he felt pressure from their division contender Boston with the big signings of Sandoval and Ramirez. Obviously Sandoval for example would have been a nice addition, but Anthopolous made a nice addition without having to break the bank. We also don’t know if Billy Beane yielded any other offers for Donaldson because it seems he could have got much more in return for someone of Donaldson’s caliber. Regardless if he yielded any other offers or not brings up an even bigger point here and that is to never question a GM like Billy Beane. He continues to do something of great significance, which is rebuilding while contending and he continues to receive praise for this around the league. Beane has made fairly big moves such as this one before and people have often questioned why he would make such a move. Despite those moves his Oakland Athletics have made the playoffs the last years. Well in this move with the Blue Jays his team has got younger and less expensive. Oakland continues to add to their surplus of premier prospects and could easily make a move to land a big name to their roster to take them to the next level. Does Samardzija and Hammel sound familiar? Donaldson is just heading to arbitration and his salary is bound to hike up. He gets a younger third baseman and a set of prospects including a 18 years old SS prospect who’s potential is just growing as he speeds through the minor league system. This in my opinion could be the biggest piece of the trade and if Lawrie is healthy we should believe both teams have benefited from this trade. The Jays happen to still have holes in their team, in fact the same ones before this trade but nevertheless this trade should and will improve their team in the short term.

Donaldson was just another great addition to the Blue Jays after their first move of the offseason, which was signing Russell Martin. Russell Martin was a hot commodity on the free agent market and the Blue Jays paid a hefty price to acquire his talents. His talents are often overlooked as he won’t necessarily hit the most homeruns or drive in the most runs. It is his game calling that excites me the most. Russell Martin has the ability to frame pitches and call a great game, which has been evident over the years behind the plate. He has a resume of success with a relatively young rotation in Pittsburgh and should bring that to Toronto who bolsters a young rotation with the likes of Stroman, Sanchez and Hutchinson. More than just his game calling, he is a veteran leader in the clubhouse and brings that Canadian spirit we lost with Brett Lawrie. His deal may appear to cost a significant amount but its back logged and gives the club more financial flexibility in the short term. The Jays are getting a durable player who going out game in and game out crouched behind the plate (maybe even for RA Dickey) and will continue to perform at a respectable level despite his age. So where does Navarro end up in all of this? Ideally he would be better off on another team (possibly Arizona) as a starting catcher, which he is. It wasn’t as if Navarro wasn’t good or playing well enough for the Blue Jays last season but rather the Jays had a chance to improve and they did which is the right thing to do. Once again you may say the team still has the same holes but having someone like Martin and all the stuff he brings the club batting in front of or after Bautista, Encarnacion and Donaldson is definitely a nightmare to any opposing pitcher.

One hole the Jays have had for a while is a solid second baseman. Over the years we have seen the likes of Bonifacio, Izturis, Goins, Kawasaki and even Brett Lawrie take their turns at second base but nobody has been there to stay. The Jays acquired a second baseman this offseason by trading Anthony Gose for Devin Travis from the Detroit Tigers. Anthony Gose, similar to Brett Lawrie hasn’t fulfilled expectation and found himself in a battle with Kevin Pillar for playing time while in the big leagues. Passing up on someone with his speed is hard to do but his inconsistency gave the Jays a chance to acquire a top second baseman prospect in the Tigers farm system. Travis is still relatively young and un-proven for the time being but Anthopolous expects a quick rise to the majors like his new teammate Dalton Pompey. Though this might not be an ideal addition like someone who Jay’s fans want like a Howie Kendrick (no trade clause) or Chase Utley, he is a solid piece to add to a team that looks to contend in the near future. The Jays have been linked to Japanese infielder Takashi Toritani who is a natural SS but would ideally fit in at 2B. His numbers in the Japan league insist he would be a huge upgrade but his age and never playing before in the MLB could make him a bust in some sense. Another relatively small move was the acquisition of Micheal Saunders for JA Happ. After trading Adam Lind at the beginning of the offseason, Saunders provides another solid bat and is a defensive upgrade to Melky Cabrera. He should fit in nicely for the Blue Jays with Dalton Pompey and Jose Bautista so long as he stays healthy. JA Happ was a solid contributor to the Jays last season but hasn’t performed to his liking as a Blue Jay. After being moved to the bullpen and back in the rotation Happ stuggled to find consistency and his departure likely presents the opportunity for Aaron Sanchez to become a starter unless the Blue Jays struggle to find relief help. Justin Smoak was another minor addition and could find time as the DH for the Blue Jays.

The Jays moves have been great as they have improved but it still remains unknown if they are ready to contend or not. Injuries have been a major barrier to their success over the recent years and a inconsistent bullpen has lost many important games for the Blue Jays. The Jays are just getting more powerful with Baustista, Encarnacion and Donaldson in the heart of the order, which is great, but it seems like a waste if the bullpen is weak. You can look within the American League and see the Detroit Tigers who have been an offensive threat for several years now but haven’t taken their next step to the World Series because of their bullpen. Their division rivals the Kansas City Royals showed the league the power of a strong bullpen. They were able to lock down teams in the late innings and preserved leads from the seventh inning and onwards which allowed them to break the odds and make a postseason appearance this past season. Their lineup wasn’t the most deadly but their defense and bullpen made them a great team all around. The Blue Jays need to find relief options and already passed on the top relief free agents in Miller, Roberston, Neshek and Gregerson. Whether money was the issue or not, Anthopolous and the front office have chosen to look for trade options.

As of now the Jays bullpen consists of Loup, Cecil, Estrada, Redmond and Sanchez if need be. They have lost Santos, McGowan, likely Janssen and Morrow who could have been a good arm in the bullpen if he is healthy. There are still decent options on the free agent market including K-Rod, Rafael Soriano and Casey Janssen of course if the Jays are wiling to give him another go. Trade options are hard to tell as they have been linked to names such as Greg Holland who would come at a very steep price in terms of prospects, which I would say not to go for. The Jays certainly need to find help and preferably proven arms soon.

The AL East looks very different then it looked just a few short months ago. The Rays no longer have Joe Maddon as he has taken his coaching services to Chicago. They are looking to trade Ben Zobrist and seem to be rebuilding despite their solid rotation. The Red Sox look a whole lot more powerful with their big additions of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval but have a weak starting rotation to say the least. The Yankees have lost Derek Jeter and have found a replacement in Didi Gregorius. Their rotations health is a key piece and Tanaka is looking to bouce back from his season ending injury. The Orioles have lost Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis and are looking for outfield options including Colby Rasmus. The division is not wide open or anything but the Jays still have a very good chance of making a run at the postseason once again if they can fix their bullpen and maybe add some more solid pieces. It is hard to know what Jays fans were expecting before this offseason and how fans would feel if the Jays didn’t get Russell Martin or Josh Donaldson. I knew the Jays had to get creative with their salary tied up by players like Reyes and Buehrle and was expecting another solid starter and closer to be added.

The Blue Jays fans often hear the saying we have next year so often that it has come to a point where fans are just too frustrated with the team and aren’t settling for anything less than finally getting to the playoffs. It seems that the Jays might have one more season to do it as the Jays could be losing Baustista, Encarnacion, Buehrle and Dickey at the end of this season – who are all key pieces on the team moving into this season. If the Jays aren’t in the thick of the postseason race by the trade deadline these players could all be moved to contending teams and the Jays chance at the playoffs may be taking a huge toll. The Jays are also expected to be getting a new CEO to replace Paul Beeston next season so this could be the final push at the playoffs for the current front office.

Free agency has been fun to watch and I often say that free agency isn’t the way to rebuild teams but rather a way to add key missing pieces. There have been many game changers on the market and teams like the Padres are trying to prove me wrong which should be very interesting. Teams like the Mariners, Padres, White Sox and Marlins could use their offseason moves to take them to the next step and the Blue Jays could do the same. There is no uncertainty to whether the Jays have improved or not it is about becoming good enough to play postseason baseball. The Jays have a young exciting rotation, a powerful lineup and the flaws of last season could be the flaws of this season if the Jays don’t make the moves necessary.

Before ending this article I thought I would express my deepest condolences as the baseball world lost Oscar Taveras. I still recall stashing him on my fantasy team because of his huge upside and watching his sweet swing as he launched his first major league homerun last season. At 22 his baseball career was looking bright for this young individual and it is sad that he will not get to continue his wish to be an everyday professional baseball player. He will be missed. 2014 was a great year nevertheless and 2015 should have a whole lot in store for us.

The exciting part is that pitchers and catchers report in 44 days! Go away snow lets play some baseball!

(Picture from Jose Reyes Instagram Profile)
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