It’s about that time of the year again. Major League Baseball’s bosses are congregating for the Winter Meetings and a few big names are on display in free agency. As always, Blue Jays fans, like most of their counterparts in American cities, are imagining the big names wearing their team’s jersey. This year’s big names are among the biggest in baseball: Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols. Pujols and Fielder have consistently dominated hitting stats in the National League for the past few seasons. This year, Pujols showed why he is considered one of the best hitters of his generation by helping the St. Louis Cardinals to win yet another World Series title. Both Pujols and Fielder bring more than just fearsome hitting. Although neither would be considered an elite first baseman, they do provide consistent defense (despite Prince and Milwaukee’s troubles during the pennant race this year). Moreover, both players provide that intangible quality that separates good players from the great players.
Like most players of their caliber and proven success, Fielder and Pujols have earned the right to demand lucrative salaries. Even if we disregard the outrageous money wasted over players like Alex Rodriguez as a measuring stick (wasted considering his injury troubles and underperformance in recent seasons), modest figures for these two hitters would still be closer to the $20 million range. Furthermore, both would require multiple years. In Pujols’ case, the 8-10 year deal would be more important because he is in his 30s and over time his productivity may begin to drop. The demands may go even higher if Boston and New York decide to dabble. In Fielder’s case, having Scott Boras as an agent can always result in a bidding war.
So where does all this fit in for the Toronto Blue Jays? Well, for one, Jays fans should stop fooling themselves (year in and year out) that a big name like Fielder or Pujols in his prime will come to play for Toronto. It’s not cynicism, it is simple pragmatism. And it’s a system that’s worked for Alex Anthopoulos’ model. AA has made it clear that he (ideally) intends for Bautista to be the highest paid hitter on the team and put the necessary pieces around him. Secondly, and despite yearly prayers that this is the year that Rogers finally opens up its vault of treasures, Jays have shown restraint in spending. Even history would support such a notion. In the past fifteen years or so, the Jays have never signed an “elite” free agent in his prime. They have either gone after players considered on the twilight of their stardom (think Canseco, Frank Thomas) or drafted their own great players (Halladay, Delgado). Roger Clemens may have been one of the biggest signings ever in Jays history, but Dan Duquette, then GM of the Red Sox, believed that Clemens had hit his “twilight”.
Given this dose of reality for baseball fans in the great city of Toronto, our attention should turn to more realistic options that suit the team’s needs. Hitting is not the problem. Over the past two seasons, the Jays have shown they can hit and they can do so with depth. Joey Batts continues to make pitchers squirm, while Adam Lind, JP Arencibia and Brett Lawrie can provide hitting down the lineup. Similarly, the Jays are better than average on defense. Adam Lind has been a pleasant surprise at first and Lawrie has shown much promise at third base. With Travis d’Arnaud in the pipelines, catching seems locked for a few years and Jays fans no longer have to endure nightmares of the Gregg Zaun variety.
The problem is pitching. With the backward progress of Brett Cecil, the loss of Shaun Marcum, and the implosion of Jesse Litsch and Dustin McGowan, the Jays rotation is not as fearsome as was hoped it would be. Moreover, the bullpen was horrendous last season. In terms of a closer, the Jays have not had a legitimate “go-to” closer since Billy Koch (and that was more than a decade ago!). Experience has shown that pitching can make all the difference between successful teams and the perennial almost-were. In the AL East Division especially, if the Jays are to outdo the Sox and Yankees, they need to have excellent pitching. Therefore, if the Jays ownership is willing to open up its purse somewhat this year, it should be for a top-of-the-line closer or a solid mid-rotation starter. Lucky for the Jays, there are a few Free Agent options this year depending on how much they are willing to spend.
With Jonathan Papelbon headed to Philly (could that pitching staff get any better???), Francisco Rodriguez may be the best closer on the market. K-Rod is still a reliable closer who can save key games, diffuse pressure situations and do so at an economical ERA. K-Rod made $11.5M last season and could demand upwards of $15M over a number of seasons, but he may bring the upside of responsible closing that the Jays need so desperately. For starters, the Jays can look at a number of options. Edwin Jackson, who was a Jay for all of two hours last season, can provide 10 wins in the middle of the rotation at a reasonable ERA (3.00 to 4.00) for a cost of $8 to $10M per year. For a proven veteran presence and considerable upgrade, the Jays could hunt down White Sox ace Mark Buehrle (13 wins in each of the last 3 seasons), but he would want more than the $14M he made last year. A couple of low-cost/moderate risk options could be Erik Bedard and Brandon Webb. Bedard, a Canadian boy, could benefit from a good hitting team to support him and made only $1M last year. Webb, the former Cy Young winner, is coming off a surgery but may return to some semblance of his old form. He would seek $4-6M per season.
Experience tells us that Fielder and Pujols are not headed north across the border. So it’s time to rest our laurels on some realistic options and hope that if the Jays ownership does open up its purse it is to fill in some holes in pitching. With AA at the helm, here’s to hoping the Jays will finally make the playoffs and be a serious contender.