There is so very much to say here that I'll have to fight hard against the temptation to make a ginormous post out of this. instead I hope to sort it out into a series of posts. also, I'll avoid wasting precious words on introductory fluff.
As we look ahead at the oncoming winter, and the potential for improving this roster, there is a lot to consider.
First, there's the goal - ideally you want to add about 10 wins without sacrificing the future in order to be in the thick of the playoff race. You have to ask yourself, how many of those wins can I get out of the current roster? Hill and Lind will likely rebound, Bautista will obviously slack off some, there will be somewhat of a downgrade at catcher and there might be a balancing upgrade at shorstop. Who's going to be on the roster, how do the plug into the lineup, etc.
Second, where will the improvements from outside the organization come in? AA said today many things but among them was a fairly strong implication that trades were his prefered method, as opposed to free agency. However, trades are notoriously hard to forcast. What we can do is look first at the free agent options, then compare them to what we have in hand, and rule out those (almost all of them) who simply don't represent a substantial upgrade. Then you can look around the league, ruling out players who are obviously not available, and get a sense of which potentially available players match up with the team's needs. The FA evaluation is pretty easy, the trade market analysis is for another day.
Third, while the team is not limited in funds, Alex will no doubt adheres to what he feels is a proper evaluation for each player. It's not enough that, for instance, Edwin Encarnacion have a potential role on the 2011 squad, it's also whether or not his potential contribution justifies the marginal cost over the next best option for that place on the roster.
Finally, there's roster construction. That is, there are roles to be played in the batting order and you have to have puzzle pieces that fit together into a productive offense. One need look no further than the reality of how lack of on-base skills diluted the effect of all the slugging on the 2010 squad in terms of scoring runs. One needs a balanced team.
Looking then, at the hitting positions, let's be clear about a few things: due to obvious talent and/or contract issues, the following players WILL be in the Jays 2011 starting lineup (barring injury): Escobar, Snider, Wells, Lind, Hill, Bautista (with the small but not completely non-existent chance Bautista is dealt). In addition, one other position (catcher) will be filled in a relatively defined manner - so there are essentially two slots in the starting lineup which are "in play" and at least one of those needs to be a lead-off type hitter.
As we examine how the pieces go together, we need to keep in mind that the key offensive improvement that the team is (rightly) seeking is a better on-base percentage.
This is pretty simple, either JP Arencibia will be the starter, with a back-up (who may or may not be Jose Molina) or John Buck will be retained and Arencibia will be "worked in." The latter seems unlikely because Buck would be a fool not to persue a multi-year deal, and the Jays would be foolish to give him one UNLESS they think there's a productive trade to be made by shipping Arencibia. In any case, none of these players provide any prospect of a high OB number, nor do any potential free agents. JPA, at best, will be just what Buck was in 2010. That's the ceiling of what can be expected here, and it's reasonable to suspect he won't do that in his first year so there's likely to be a net loss in WAR from this position.
Will be Yunel Escobar. Period. the most obvious call on the squad. He's got decent OB skills, thugh the results were down in 2010. His career mark, even with the down year, is .364 and he's been as high as .385 so he's an ideal #2 and not a bad choice at all for lead-off (but if he leads off then one of the two variables would need to be a good #2).
Vernon Wells. Say what you want about his immovable contract, he was also the most offensively productive CF in the AL in 2010 as well. His OBP was .331 which is right in line with his career mark. that's not awful, it's not great, and it's not gonna change much.
Everything else is a mix & match dance of movable parts.
Aaron Hill, unless he moves to 3B. One of the nuggets we got from Anthopoulos today was that Hill had said he'd move if it made team building easier and that is HUGE in terms of flexibility. if Hill were to stick to second, then (i'll go into depth on this in a sec) Bautista likely fits best at 3B and your potential 1/2 hitter is very likely gonna have to be an outfielder. and two outfield spots are spoken for. Take for example, the potential trade availability of Kelly Johnson. Johnson had a .370 OBP in his bounce-back 2010 year. He has decent speed and good power. Escobar leading off and Johnson in the 2-hole is a good start. while it is true that Johnson can play left, it's still a good illustration of how having 2B in play helps. Rickie Weeks is another name to consider.
If Hill stays at 2B, then the likelihood that Jose Bautista plays third for the 2011 Jays increases greatly. Edwin Encarnacion is still in house (and don't be TOO quick to assume he gets non-tendered) but Alex admitted today his defense was still disappointing (albeit improved) and it would be a less-than-great winter if EE wasn't pushed out of that role before spring. He does, however, factor into the decisions at 1B and DH.
The reason Bautista slots at 3B despite having a lot of value in RF is because of the dearth of potential upgrades at 3B. The only Free Agent who is worth considering is Adrian Beltre, and you have to note that the last time he had a great offensive season was in a previous contract year. The potential for regression there is strong. if you look at the top performers at 3B by OPS, no one who's higher than .340 (except Beltre) is remotely available.
That means if you import a 3B, it's going to come down to a ready-prospect (I'm not aware that any exists) or a reclamation project (site-favorite Alex Gordon leaps instantly to mind). I'd LOVE to see the Jays throw together a package for Gordon and former Jay-prospect Tim Collins, but even I have to admit that it's a lot bigger gamble than going after Johnson.
You'd think this was a prime slot for an import, but unless the Jays want to throw big money at Jayson Werth (and they don't) it's difficult to see how they do better here than either Bautista or Travis Snider. Despite the opinion of the outgoing manager, the more respected defensive metrics liked Snider this year. While most of his innings came in left, it's not an insane proposition to trust him with RF for a few years. if Bautista is at 3B, snider will almost certainly be in RF unless the Jays can pull of a surprise trade.
If the chips fall such that Hill is at 3B, and Bautista is in RF, this will be Snider. if they fall the other way, then LF is very much in play. it might be Adam Lind, though the presumption is he'll either be at 1B or DH, but more likely it will be that 1/2 hitter we need (if it's not a second baseman). It could still be Fred Lewis, though the Jays don't like his defense and his mouth might punch his ticket out of town.
If you look at free agency, there's really only one guy you covet here and that's Carl Crawford. and while no one could object to adding Crawford to the lineup, the odds that the Jays will go to war with Boston and LA to land him SEEM to be long. laying Crawford aside, there's no FA (without an option) that obviously fits the bill here. If you turn your eyes to potential trades, there are over 30 players (albeit many of them unavailable) among outfielders who have an OPS of at least .340 - a daunting list.
If you cull that list by looking for guys with top of the order speed, those who are not having aberrational seasons, those who are actually potentially available, and those who are controllable for a few years (AA is not gonna give up prospects for a guy he's going to lose in a year or two) you can narrow that down a good bit. One guy who jumps out is Coco Crisp. The A's hold an option on him and one assumes it will be picked up, given that he stole 32 bases in only 75 games. But his best OBP numbers were only ever in the low .340's so you are giving up something there. Still, if the option is declined he's worth a look.
A next revision of that first list would be players who had a noticeably better OBP than Fred Lewis, stole more, had better slugging, and better defense. Now we're down to a bare handful of guys and none of them any more inspiring than Crisp. of course, here again you can gamble on a project, the most notable potential being found in BJ Upton, but the odds of TB trading him just as they are losing Crawford seem small.
Presumably Adam Lind, assuming the jays saw enough rough potential to figure that a full Spring Training at first will make him a serviceable major league first baseman. there'salso the option of bringing back Lyle Overbay. Among free agent 1B, the only guys with solid potential to be an upgrade here are Paul Konerko and Lance Berkman (if you think 2010 was a fluke). No one else on the list is a lock to out-hit Overbay. And neither guy is all that young at 35. There's also Aubry Huff at 34, but he's been up and down over his career as much as Vernon Wells and that makes for a questionable investment. There is, of course, Adam Dunn who sucks at 1B and has a stubborn refusal to DH to count against him, and he won't be cheap. The biggest potential trade target is Prince Fielder but there's the whole question of whether you can sign him, being a Boras client he's almost certain to demand a fantastic sum to skip the Free Agent market.
In short, there are too many options here to reasonably sort through, but each of them individually seem to be unlikely moves for various reasons. That observation made, there are more options for an upgrade here that there are anywhere else.
Could be Lind, could be Lewis, but if you had to put together a starting line-up from in-house options right now, this is probably Edwin Encarnacion. don't laugh too fast, EE's totals pro-rate to 32 homers and almost 80 RBI and that in a season with at least one stretch bad enough to get him DFAed. Encarnacion is in what should be his prime, posted his best career slugging percentage, and had an OBP over .350 in his first two full major league seasons. If he could recapture that ability to make contact, he'd give the Jays about the same value Vlad Guerrero gave Texas this year. Whether or not he does that, if the Jays add a middle-of-the-order stick this winter, that addition should be obviously better than what EE can do because he's the one who will lose his job.
To recap, here's the lineup you'd have to make, IMO, with the available players under control:
C - Arencibia
1B - Lind
2B - Hill
SS - Escobar
3B - Bautista
LF - Lewis
CF - Wells
RF - Snider
DH - Encarnacion
If you add a top of the order guy, Lewis loses out, if you add a middle of the order guy, EE loses out - those are the guys who set the minimum standard a new acquisition has to beat. there are enough movable parts to ensure everyone else here (caveat re catching noted) will be in the line-up next spring barring a shocking trade.
while the one thing I have learned in the past year is to not even TRY to anticipate what Anthopoulos will actually do, here are some obvious potential plays:
1. Go after Kelly Johnson or Ricke Weeks and move Hill and the subsequent dominoes fall.
2. go after Alex Gordon (and try to snag Collins but that's just a fetish of mine) on a "buy-low" gamble and see if you can straighten him out his bat (and glove).
3. add a slugging 1B DH, even if it's expensive, if you believe that player can be productive for 3-5 years. Adam Dunn perhaps being the best free agent bet there if you can live with his glove at 1B or sell him on DHing. Another factorIi haven't yet mentioned here is position changes, such as going after Dan Uggla and moving him to 1B.
That's not to dismiss several other guys who have been mentioned as possibly available (I know lots of folks like to lust after Matt Kemp, for instance) but that list, too, is for a future post. Bottom line, the job on offense is to asses what you have in Encarnacion and Lewis, and then figure out if you can do better than either or both.
Final thought - don't be totally shocked by the idea that there is considerable additional WAR in the lineup listed above. while Bautista will go down for sure and JPA almost certainly won't immediately replicate buck, Hill Escobar, and Lind will certainly rebound, Snider stands to take a potentially big leap forward, and Lewis and EE would add value just by playing every day, and Edwin at least has the potential to add value via OBP. Also, if EE is the everyday DH you'll not suffer the negative WAR he accumulated at 3B. I intend a future post to look into this calculation in more depth but my hunch is you could pick up at lest a few of those 10 wins right there.