Friday, December 2, 2011

Winter Meetings Ahoy!

Come sunrise on Monday, we will have once again arrived at one of the most hectic and exciting times of the year for baseball fans -- the Winter Meetings. The Winter Meetings are one of the few times every year that the General Managers of all 30 teams (save for the GM-less Houston Astros) will be in the same place at the same time. The presence goes beyond just General Managers, as countless assistant GM's, farm directors, scouts, agents, beat reporters, national writers, prospect aficionados -- and even fans -- are in attendance. It is truly a four day mecca of baseball. Additionally, these meetings occur during the period of time in which those General Managers have the most roster and payroll flexibility, allowing a vast number of transactions to occur within a short period of time.

The Blue Jays General Manager, Alex Anthopolous, will enter the meetings with a ton of flexibility, but also a number of important positions to fill. The following is a breakdown of what I feel the Toronto representatives should be focusing upon next week in Dallas.

Second Base

Aaron Hill was a blackhole for nearly two seasons, and was shipped to the Arizona Diamondbacks late in the 2011 season for Kelly Johnson. Johnson played well in his 33 games with the club, hitting .270/.364/.417 (.781). The issue with Johnson is that not only is he a free agent, he's perhaps the best free agent at the second base position. KJ could easily find himself the focus of a bidding war, and price himself out of Toronto's comfort zone. Additionally, with draft picks tied to him signing elsewhere, and with draft picks becoming harder to come by, Alex Anthopolous might see more value in letting him walk.

The free agent crop behind Johnson is less than appealing (Mark DeRosa?), so if he chooses not to re-sign, the Blue Jays will have to look elsewhere for a replacement. The farm system is not an option in this regard, as despite having a number of talented middle infield prospects, none of them are ready for full time duty in the major leagues next spring. This leaves the trade market. Howie Kendrick would be the most intriguing option, but the Angels demands could make that difficult. The Tao of Stieb (@TaoofStieb on Twitter) suggests Gordon Beckham as another target. While he lacks the statistical consistency of Kendrick, the cost should be considerably lower.

The Bullpen

Six players from the April 2011 bullpen will not be with the club in April 2012. While this creates a number of opportunities, it also creates a void in the late-inning experience department. While the "closer mentality" is vastly overstated, having a couple of savy veterans in the bullpen does take some of the pressure off the younger arms. They allow the kids to step into the fire when they're ready, as opposed to being thrown into it unprepared.

Toronto has been linked to almost every closer available in both free agency and trade. While some appear to be logical matches (Huston Street, Andrew Bailey for example), others are mind-numbingly clueless connections (Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, Ryan Madson). Alex Anthopolous clearly has a sound understanding of the volatility of relief pitchers, choosing instead to target pitchers who can be had on short term deals, such as Kevin Gregg, Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, and Octavio Dotel. I firmly believe Huston Street would be the best fit for the Blue Jays, as he offers a ton of upside while having only 1 year plus an option remaining on his deal. Andrew Bailey would be another good fit, but if the rumors are true that the Athletics turned down the Reds offer of Yonder Alonso, he could be out of Toronto's price range.

Beyond a closer, Toronto could really use another experienced bullpen arm. Rich Harden, Joel Peralta, LaTroy Hawkins, and Mike Gonzalez all pitched solid 2011 seasons, and would fit very well in a 7th or 8th inning role for Toronto over the next 1-2 seasons (2nd year option?). Brad Lidge is coming off a down season and should only require a 1 year deal, possibly with incentives. There are plenty of possiblities in the relief department, and with a majority of Toronto's in-house alternatives having plenty of option years left, Alex Anthopolous has a lot to work with.

First Base / Designated Hitter

I've said it countless times before, but allow me to repeat it once more: a sub-.300 OBP from your starting first baseman is unacceptable. That is exactly the type of production that Adam Lind has given Toronto in back-to-back seasons, and is why I feel Toronto needs to look for an alternative. Edwin Encarnaction displayed a lot of promise in the second half of last season, and I have no issues with him being handed either the first base or designated hitter job next spring.

Whichever position Encarnaction isn't slated to fill should be addressed in free agency. Prince Fielder is the twinkle in the eye of most Blue Jays fans, but it's doubtful the front office will break the bank on him. Not due to lack of interest, but due to their reported reluctance to hand out six or seven year deals. Beyond Fielder and Pujols (who I don't see as a fit at all), there are a couple other solid alternatives. David Ortiz has been linked to the Blue Jays, and could fit very well in the DH role hitting behind Jose Bautista. Three years would be too much term, but two years with a club option might be amiable for both parties. Carlos Pena is another interesting alternative in free agency. He has posted similar HR and RBI numbers as Lind over the past two years, but unlike Lind has kept an OBP > .300 (.357 in 2011). He should be available on a 1 or 2 year deal. With no immediate successors in the farm system, both Ortiz and Pena could help the short term without negatively effecting the long term.

Bold prediction: My crazy prediction for the Winter Meetings doesn't actual involve the Blue Jays, but instead a player they have reportedly been connected with in the past. I can see Joey Votto being traded to the Athletics in exchange for Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey, and a prospect. Furthermore, I wouldn't be surprised if Billy Beane traded Joey Votto either at the trade deadline or next offseason, in preparation of his salary jumping from 9M to 17M. Just a crazy thought, but it does sort of make sense.

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