After a busy off-season, the Toronto Blue Jays were expected to be contenders.
Instead they're well under .500, out of the American League East and AL wild-card races and grasping for positives amid a season that hasn't gone according to plan.
"When you're not winning games, it's not good," general manager Alex Anthopoulos said during a recent homestand. "You're scratching your brain trying to come up with ways to get better."
One way to get better, for next year and beyond, involves selling before Wednesday afternoon's trade deadline. Anthopoulos recognizes the Blue Jays' place at the bottom of the standings, but with the hope of contending in 2014 there might not be many assets available to deal.
"Everyone's in trade mode," Anthopoulos said. "I think anything we do, if we can do something that helps currently, great, but even for the following year as well, we'll look to do it. We're having dialogue, but I'd say every player we're having dialogue about are players that can help us beyond the current year."
In other words, don't expect a fire sale of every Blue Jays player who has underacheived this season. Only three are impending free agents: starter Josh Johnson, whose value is at an all-time low, reliever Darren Oliver, who's 42 years old, and outfielder Rajai Davis, who's a part-timer relied on mostly for his speed.
The bullpen has been one of a few bright spots for the Blue Jays this season, featuring all-stars in Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar. Until last week Toronto hadn't lost a game it led after seven innings.
Naturally, the Blue Jays have been getting calls about relievers, but Anthopoulos didn't commit to trading from a position of strength.
"We do have depth, and that is an area that we can afford to trade a reliever and still be fine," he said Wednesday. "We're not close to doing anything. As I sit here today I don't think we're trading a reliever. The only free agent in that group is Darren Oliver. So any reliever deal, it can happen now or we can take it into the off-season and make a deal there. I wouldn't rule it out because of that depth."
Left-handed relief is often hard to find, so Oliver might be a commodity for a playoff contender that wants a rental. At 1,900 innings for his career, Oliver has some wear on him, but he was 3-2 with a 3.82 ERA going into the Blue Jays' series in Oakland.
Aaron Loup, a 25-year-old left-hander, leads the team with a 1.90 ERA, and veteran lefty Juan Perez was nearly perfect before giving up six runs in his past two appearances. The Blue Jays have a team option on closer Casey Janssen for next season and have Cecil and Delabar under team control for the foreseeable future.
But Anthopoulos learned last year when he was trying to acquire bullpen help that it's hard to make a trade for just a reliever.
"By themselves, a team needs a reliever but the flip side (is), 'Well, I only want to pay so much to get a guy (to) pitch 40 innings, especially for the last two months,"' he said. "And it's so difficult to equate just on a one-on-one deal, and that's why it's easier to make them part of a larger deal."
The market for reliever trades has already been set. On Monday the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim traded 37-year-old former Blue Jays lefty Scott Downs to the Atlanta Braves for minor-league right-hander Cory Rasmus, and the Houston Astros traded closer Jose Veras to the Detroit Tigers for 19-year-old outfield prospect Danry Vasquez and a player to be named later.
Speedy Davis could leave
The 32-year-old Davis appears to be Toronto's most tradeable position player, as he showed Sunday when he tied a franchise record with four stolen bases in a single game. He's tied for third in the majors in steals (31 going into Monday night's game), despite having far fewer at-bats than anyone else in the top 10.
"His first step is as good as anybody I've ever seen," manager John Gibbons said. "I mean he's really a force when he does get on for you."
Davis, who has been traded twice in his career, isn't worried about the speculation.
"I think that I could help anybody win. Obviously I'm capable of stealing bases," Davis said. "I guess I try not to focus on the things that I can't go control, just try to go out there and focus on the things I can control."
Anthopoulos is the one in control from the Blue Jays' end. Speaking a week before the trade deadline, he said the Blue Jays "don't have anything big going" and tempered expectations of making a move by citing a lack of traction to that point.
"There's some things that are definitely alive," Anthopoulos said. "They're a coin flip right now if they're going to happen. But I think they're conversations that if they don't get done now, they would carry into the off-season."
Anthopoulos prefers to make deals before July 31, which he calls "chaotic" and "rushed."
"It's like last-minute shopping," he said. "The doors of the store are starting to close and everybody's scrambling. And for us, we're going after very specific players and very specific things."
The Blue Jays figure to need starting pitching help, though if Ricky Romero returns to form at some point and Kyle Drabek manages to rebound from his second career Tommy John surgery, Anthopoulos might not need focus on that area when talking about deals.
But even with shortstop Jose Reyes' strong play in the past month since returning, the infield is a place of emphasis. That's why Brett Lawrie has played second base in addition to third, a move that gives Toronto some flexibility in the trade market.
"We're certainly looking to do some things in the infield at the trade deadline," Anthopoulos said. "I'm not saying that we will, but we're actively having dialogue with some teams to see if we can do something there."
As recently as Friday, Gibbons said he likes his team and has confidence in his players. He doesn't see some better performances of late as evidence that players want to be traded to a contender.
"I don't think they're playing better so they can get out of here," Gibbons said. "I think some of them haven't had their normal years, and if they kick it in the rest of the way, I think it's just who they are. ... We got some pretty good guys. Most of the guys out there are proven players in this league at this level. Most guys don't ever want to leave, anyway, to get traded. You've got to uproot and that's never easy, either."
Whether it's this week or in the off-season, the composition of the Jays roster will change. Anthopoulos said he hasn't thought of September call-ups yet and isn't sure if the Blue Jays' 2014 core will look much different than this group.
"You evaluate each player. (Some) you think they're going to bounce back, some you may not be as convinced," he said. "That's where you may see some change. But any time you don't win games and you don't perform, clearly you're going to see some type of changes going forward."