It's that time of the year that we have become so accustomed to in Jays-land, when the desire to watch significant baseball games means watching someone besides the Blue Jays, and thoughts of the Blue Jays are necessarily focused on "next year" again. Still, since one of the things I like best about baseball is the whole art and science of roster manipulation (I'm an odd gal, sue me) I can roll with that possibly a bit better than others.
Of course the first thing you do, when you set out to rosterbate is anticipate which positions are "in play" so let's run over the obvious available information, reflecting both what we can discern and what Alex Anthopoulos has openly stated.
Catcher - Travis d'Arnaud's injury, while unfortunate, does in fact clarify this situation a bit. the Jays re-signed Jeff Mathis for the bench role, have said nothing to disparage incumbent JP Arencibia, and have indeed spoken of the potential of getting d'Arnaud at bats at DH or even 1B. Make no mistake, the future is d'Arnaud barring something as yet unexpected, but that future is not, in all likelihood, going to arrive next April. Depending on what happens with the DH position, you might in theory see d'Arnaud in June or July, getting at bats as the second catcher (with Mathis serving as an emergency guy) and also either he or JP as DH (with Mathis the obvious reserve in those games). As such, there will be no catcher import this winter. Alternate scenario: JP ends up being the key to a deal which will fill some open position and the Jays ignore the slightly inconvenient timing and make the deal.
First Base - while it's not impossible the Jays would acquire a classic 1B and return Edwin Encarnacion to DH, for the purpose of this exercise we'll pencil EE in as the 1B so as to give ourselves more flexibility with the DH position.
Second Base - will NOT be Kelly Johnson. This one is "in play"
Shortstop - it's impossible at this hour to guess how the Eye-Black Incident will play out, either in the short or long term, it is still not invalid to observe that Yunel Escobar has not hit well enough this year to make the team overlook his eccentricities. He's not a BAD SS, to be sure. His WAR ranks seventh among AL shortstops, but you don't want to create baggage unless you are good enough to make the team overlook it. Still, AA listed SS as a position that's "locked up" (always "brring a trade" of course - that's a standard disclaimer) so we have to pencil him in, with two caveats: 1. the EBI might change everything; and 2. Escobar might be the key to an important trade as non-sucky shortstops are hard to come by and have value. For instance, the Arizona D'Backs may well trade Justin Upton and are known to be seeking a SS. Obviously, if he departs the Jays will go with Adeiny Hechavarria. It's worth noting that Hech in an admittedly small sample, has hit almost exactly as well since August 12 as Starlin Castro has hit for the year, and is a considerably better defender.
ETA: One other thought. It has been said that the Jays were worried about Esco's reaction if they ask him to move to 2B. This bit of drama may put Escobar in a corner where he dare not make waves about such a request. The Jays may well investigate that before making a deal for a 2B.
Third Base - Brett Lawrie, settled, next question. (okay, one tidbit: Lawrie even having lost much time to injury and not having lived up to pre-season offensive expectations, still has the third highest WAR among AL 3B)
Right Field - Jose Bautista. Settled. Next Question. (Bautista's WAR, pro-rated, would rank him #1 among AL RF)
Center Field - Colby Rasmus has fallen into the Adam Lind trap of being very good for short stretches and utterly abysmal for others. Now it's true that there were some mitigating play-through injury circumstance in the second half of this season, but still. At the ASB he was right where you'd have wanted him to be, somewhere in the 5-7 range when the Top AL center fielders are ranked. In fact, for the last 46 games before the break he was arguably the second best CF in the AL (a .971 OPS) depending on how you define Josh Hamilton.
Since the ASB he's hit for a spectacularly bad .520 OPS (and that was worse before he heated up a little over the last couple of weeks). Again, AA lists this as a settled position, and the odds are that the Jays will continue to try to get him to reach his potential until a prospect takes the job from him. but he could have probably earned a multi-year contract before the slide. That won't happen now.
Left Field - obviously in play. Not impossible the team will end up gambling with Gose here but it's not remotely Plan A.
DH - absolutely in play. Lind is around and the team has not completely written him off (although if they have ANY opportunity to make a reasonable trade which includes him they will) but they sound much less confident than they did a year ago, and with good reason. In 43 games since his AAA exile (interrupted by injury) Lind's OPS is .783 which is likely the best guess for where his "true talent" level is. But he's done nothing to prove he can even touch LHP which makes him a platoon player at DH (or 1B) even with the most generous assumptions.David Cooper can (apparently) hit RH more or less as well as Lind has and isn't as lost vs LHP. He's a much cheaper and more flexible back up plan. Still, if the Jays manage to move lind, it will have to be in some situation where they can mitigate the contract. He went unclaimed this summer when any team could have had him for free.
As a personal aside, I'm pretty disappointed in how Lind has turned out. I never expected him to be an MVP candidate, as his career year implied might be possible. but I had taken for granted he would regularly land in the high .800s (for OPS) for several years.
So basically, the leagues best RF, second best 1B, and third best 3B...you have a league average SS and C (more or less) and a CF who could be in the top 5 or 6 if he consistently did what he's capable of...and three gaping holes.
One other consideration that has to play into their thinking: Over the next couple of years, the team will anticipate integrating three high ranking prospects into their offense, while attempting to contend. It's not wise to pencil three rookies, no matter how good, in at once. so d'Arnaud, Gose, and Hech ought, in a best case situation, be staggered. if the Jays add a projected starting outfielder this winter, which seems highly likely, then gose is looking at opening day 2014 (as far as being a starter) at the earliest. Meanwhile, d'Arnaud seems likely to not be the starter from Opening day 2013, but unlikely to wait a full year.
The implication of this is that the Jays, assuming things play out as expected in other areas, see the wisdom in going ahead and clearing the SS position for Hech, just to have him "in place" before the others arrive. but they might just as easily take it as a given he will be the last to be added to the starting lineup (say, by trading the incumbent mid-season 2014 so as to get Hech off the bench). It's impossible for the layperson to guess how they will react, but you can bet the consideration is part of the formula.
Starting rotation - Put Brandon Morrow down as the #1, it's pretty evident at this point. Ricky Romero is the tentative #2 but the right acquisition would push him back to #3 - so say that a 2/3 spot is definitely "in play." JA Happ is well positioned to be the #4 or #5 depending on how the team finishes out the rotation. Personally I'd go for re-signing Carlos Villianueva (the team can afford it, even if they end up paying "starter money" to a guy who's their "#6" starter) under the assumption that all he has to do is get them through 20 starts or so until you begin to have other options available should he fade. and for the record, Villianuva threw over 180 IP in 2006 and I dismiss the idea that he's bound to fade. Also, Dustin McGowan might still fit in here somewhere, and Aaron Laffey remains under team control.
So yes, an opening for a 2/3 guy and one for a 4/5 guy.
You might wonder that i said nothing of Henderson Alvarez. Now that the Blue Jays have Buffalo in the fold as their AAA affiliate, I have a strong suspicion that Plan A is to return Alvarez to the minors next year for more refinement. I think it's likely Chad Jenkins ends up there two, and dark horse candidate John Stilson will join them there.Deck McGuire would have a spring chance to prove he deserves it but he will have to show that 2012 is well behind him.
Bullpen - Pretty much set. these guys WILL be in the 2013 pen, barring trade or injury:
Sergio Santos, Casey Janssen, Brad Lincoln, Steve Delabar, Darren Oliver (option will be exercised, assumes no retirement), and Brett Cecil. That's six of seven spots. Technically that leaves one in play, but unless the re-sign Brandon Lyon (not impossible) or (less likely) Jason Frasor, then they will have a lot of options to address the 7th (and occasionally 8th) spot. start with Aaron Loup, who has a small sample but excellent results. then there's Joel Carreno if he learned from his mistake in 2012, and Chad Beck, and Sam Dyson (one I have my eye on) and Marcus Stroman (who can pitch in ST and would step out from under the suspension if he made the majors), and David Carpenter and Chad Jenkins and maybe even John Stilson. Oh, and Jesse Litsch health permitting.
So I'm not going to envision any potential imports here, as I'm going to suggest they either re-sign a fre agent or stay in-house.
Expect the Jays to attempt to add an upper-rotation starter, and another reliable guy if possible. while there is no assurance that the Jays will fill these holes via free agency, the third and final part of this long post lists some options for each of the clearly existing "in play" positions.
Second Base - The field of potential free agents second baseman is thin, as, in fact, the field of potential additions via trade are. My favorite target is Omar Infante and my second favorite is Jeff Keppinger.His 2.1 WAR would put him in the middle of AL 2B if he hadn't spent most of the year playing 3B. He had a considerably higher OBP than Infante in 2012, which is very relevant, and has a 20 point edge career wise, while Infante has slightly more speed. The tie-breaker is that Infante is 2 years younger. that said, the gap between them is small. The third option, and a worthy one, is the return of Marco Scutaro. The thing that puts him in third place is that he's 4 years older than Keppinger.
Left Field - Wanna gamble on Melky Cabrera? doesn't seem the sort of risk the Blue Jays would take. Otherwise, there's Ryan Ludwick, who's 34 and could either be the Josh Willingham of this class or a serious overpayment. Then you go all the way down to Scott Hairston, who's not awful but he has an ugly OBP and he's a RH hitter (the Jays really need to plug in another quality LH hitter if possible). Looking at CF and RF free agents, there's BJ Upton, who's been awfully average the last five years for the money he will get. But the guy who jumps out at me, despite being RH, is Tori Hunter. If you can convince him to play of turf (he'd be wise not to), he's as productive as ever. Angel Pagan would be a good defender and a solid lead-off option but his ability to play CF makes him attractive elsewhere. and he'd be a very nice option in CF.
All that said, I expect a trade on this one, frankly.
ETA: Overlooked Nick Swisher who, should the Yankees unexpectedly let walk, would seem to be a very smooth fit in this spot.
ETA2: I would not be completely surprised to see the Jays look in on Ichero Suzuki - though not as a starter unless they strike out on younger and better options. If they do, however, they would then turn around and flip Raji Davis to someone else as there's not a place for both on the team.
DH - David Ortiz is obviously the class of this field, and I think he'd be the Jays first choice, and they'd be his second choice. but I'm not assuming a divorce between he and the Red Sox just yet. He might decide to let the winter play out for a few months and see what the Red Sox do by, say, Christmas. One wonders if the Jays will wait that long to try and fill the hole. that said, if he brings to the team the bat he's displayed in Boston, it would be difficult to overstate what he could do for the lineup. Bautista>Ortiz>Encarnacion in the heart of the order would produce quite a few "giggity giggity goo!" reactions among Jays fans.
After that, things get much less thrilling. So much so that you could make a halfway decent case for giving the job to Jim Thome. Which is a way to say that you'd probably need to fill it with a guy who wasn't DHing in 2012, which throws the field of possibilities wide open. Mike Napoli obviously jumps out at you, though he's going to be reluctant to give up catching. There's also Lance Berkman if you can convince him there's no shame in being a DH. In fact, Berkman would be the second best option, by a wide margin, except he doesn't apparently want to do it.
SP - We'll look at the upper rotation possibilities first, then the lower end guys:
Zach Grienke - will want too many years.
Anibel Sanchez -has recovered his footing in the AL, expect him to try for a contract of six or more years.
Jake Peavy - if you can trust his health, and if ou can get him for, say, 4 years, he'd definately be a top of the rotation type. but it's a not insignificant gamble.
Ryan Dempster - hardly ever discussed in the whole "get more Canadians" discussion, but he's worth discussing. Age is an issue but that makes it easier to sign a shorter contract, which the Jays prefer. Don't be fooled by the Texas ERA. He got shelled in two of his first three AL starts, but he's been fine since (2.97 ERA with excellent peripherals).
James Shields - in the unlikely event that the Rays don't pick up the option, this would be an ideal addition.
Dan Haren - Angels may decline $15.5 million option, Haren may seek a one-year deal to re-establish his value. Of course, someone might step up and offer him a five year deal at a price he likes too.
Hiroki Kuroda - one has to assume he re-sings with the Yanks or returns to the Dodgers.
Brandon McCarthy - can the Jays afford this big a health gamble?
Carlos Villianueva - who else on this (second) list inspires visions of a better cost/benefit ratio?
Edwin Jackson - will get paid like a top guy, but results say "average guy"
Shaun Marcum - emotions say "Yes!" Injuries say "hold on a sec..."
Francisco Liriano - since the middle of May he's been good other than being too wild. Assuming the Jays have no problem signing a lefty.
Gavin Floyd - if option is declined. Slowly going backwards. An average guy, but fits the "inning eater" cliche.
Rich Harden - might as well just count on McGowan, no?;
For me, I'd be FINE with Villianueva from the second list, with Marcum and Liriano both being intriguing. From the first list, there's really just too much we don't know yet to get committed to one favorite choice. If you can't get one of the expensive guys, then sign two of these three - that still wouldn't be a bad outcome, just less than ideal.
Again, I speak here only of free agents and there's every possibility that one or more of these positions might be filled by trade. For instance, the Indians still have Cord Phelps languishing behind Jason Kipnis and he shouldn't be terribly expensive (or as good, obviously, but maybe good enough to be league average for the position). There's no way to predict how that will play out.