Prince Fielder will not be a Toronto Blue Jay in 2012.
Neither will Albert Pujols, David Ortiz or Jonathan Papelbon.
But not landing a big-name free agent doesn't mean the Blue Jays have to resign themselves to another fourth-place finish in the American League East next season.
Given the recent upheaval in Boston, the fact the New York Yankees are aging and the possibility that another wild card team will be added before next season, the Jays have a reasonable shot at ending their post-season drought in 2012.
But to capitalize on their AL East rivals' vulnerability, the Jays need to acquire some solid, if not headline-grabbing, talent this off-season.
Teams can negotiate exclusively with their free agents until midnight ET Wednesday, so players will likely begin signing with different clubs soon after.
The Jays finished 10 games out of the AL wild card spot and nine games behind the Red Sox, who would've claimed the second wild card spot in 2011.
Armed with the AL's best hitter (Jose Bautista), an all-star worthy shortstop (Yunel Escobar) and one of the AL's top pitchers (Ricky Romero), the Jays boast a strong nucleus. The club can also expect improvement from Brett Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia, Henderson Alvarez and Brandon Morrow, and 2012 can't be any worse than this season was for Brett Cecil, Travis Snider and Colby Rasmus.
But via free agency or trade, the Jays need to land an everyday second baseman, a dependable veteran for the starting rotation and a reliable closer. Some believe they also need a backup catcher, but Brian Jeroloman can fill that role.
Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos should consider adding the following players:
The Jays will offer Kelly Johnson arbitration. And while it's hard to imagine someone who hit .222 in 2011 declining an arbitration offer, Johnson might do so. But the second baseman's Type-A status - which means that a club might have to part with their first round pick in 2012 to sign him - is bound to deter suitors. On the other hand, the free agent market for second basemen is thin, so if Anthopoulos truly wants to retain Johnson, rather than collect the compensatory draft picks, he may have to tender a multi-year deal.
Type-B free agents that could serve as short-term solutions at second base include Clint Barmes, Mark Ellis, former Blue Jay Aaron Hill and Rafael Furcal, who might be willing to transition from shortstop to second base. One of the more intriguing options is White Sox infielder Gordon Beckham. The much-heralded 25-year-old has disappointed in the Windy City, but he's the type of buy-low, high-end talent that Anthopoulos often covets, and reports indicate the White Sox will listen to offers for him.
Best Option(s): Offer Johnson arbitration, but let him walk and collect the draft picks if he doesn't accept. If Johnson departs, try to trade for Beckham.
Veteran Starting Pitcher
Romero, Morrow and Alvarez seem to be locks for the rotation in 2012. Cecil, Kyle Drabek and Dustin McGowan will also be in the mix. The Jays' minor league system is loaded with top-end pitching prospects - including Deck McGuire, Nestor Molina and Drew Hutchison - that should be ready for the big leagues by 2013.
But the Jays should add a dependable veteran to their rotation. It's unlikely they will pursue Type-A free agents C.J. Wilson or Roy Oswalt, and even though Anthopoulos has scouted Japanese phenom Yu Darvish, the reported $50 million US it would take to speak with the hurler, is likely to scare the Jays away.
Type-B free agents Edwin Jackson, Aaron Harang and Hiroki Kuroda might be more affordable options, while Erik Bedard and Rich Harden - two high-end but injury prone Canadians - are also available. Jair Jurrjens, John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Jonathan Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco and Fausto Carmona are all starters whose names have surfaced in trade talks.
Best Option(s): Pursue a trade with the White Sox for Floyd. Sign Harden and Bedard to incentive-laden deals. Harden would also be a good fit for the bullpen.
With 25 blown saves in 2011, the Jays' bullpen clearly needs to improve. Frank Francisco's second-half performance (1.37 ERA, 0.835 WHIP) proved that he was capable of being an effective closer. But the burly right-hander is a Type-B free agent, and while the Jays will offer him arbitration, he's bound to bolt for a multi-year deal with another club.
Right-handers Jon Rauch and Shawn Camp are also Type-B free agents. Rauch, whose ERA ballooned to 4.85 last season, had his $3.75-million team option for 2012 declined on Monday and will probably not be offered arbitration. The rubber-armed Camp, who had a 0.93 ERA in September, is likely to receive an arbitration offer.
Right-handers Casey Janssen, Joel Carreno, Jesse Litsch, Carlos Villanueva and Luis Perez will return to the bullpen, but it's still unclear who will close games.
I previously lobbied for the Jays to pursue Papelbon (Type-A free agent), but I've since reconsidered. Spending over $12 million a season on a closer - not to mention parting with a 2012 first rounder for signing a Type-A free agent - probably doesn't make sense, especially after watching the St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series with a patchwork bullpen.
The Jays could offer an incentive-laden deal to Joe Nathan or Jonathan Broxton, two free agent closers not requiring compensation that are looking to reclaim ninth-inning roles.
Two interesting internal closer candidates are Carreno (who struck 152 batters in 134 2/3 innings at AA) and McGowan who fanned 20 batters in 21 innings in September.
Best Option(s): Sign Nathan and Harden to incentive-laden deals. Convert Harden into a reliever. Groom Carreno as the closer of the future.
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