Blue Jays' Window To Win Shrinking

BY @CHRIS_TOMAN

Starting pitching, a catcher and a second baseman were all key positions the Blue Jays needed to target this offseason after finishing in the basement of the American League East last year -- for the first time since 2004 -- with a 74-88 record. The Blue Jays were also in need of a right-handed bat to platoon with Adam Lind, and some bench help in the form of an extra outfielder, too. Although Moises Sierra doesn't look like an ideal fourth outfielder based on his inexperience playing center field, he likely can act as a cheap option at designated hitter vs. lefties and, in theory, play the corners.

But what the Blue Jays needed and what they acquired proved to be two entirely different things. With the exception of signing a new starting catcher in Dioner Navarro -- and Erik Kratz, who was obtained in a deal with the Phillies and made the Opening Day roster after closer Casey Janssen was placed on the 15-day disabled list -- Toronto remained idle and broke camp with a team that's very similar to last season's squad.

WHY IT MADE SENSE TO SPEND THIS YEAR

Like always, the AL East is extremely difficult to predict and this year's outcome could have big ramifications for the 2015 Blue Jays, in my opinion.

By not addressing a hole at second base, the position will once again be an area of need for Toronto next season, unless Ryan Goins performs at a level far beyond than what he's projected to. The team will still need pitching help, too. Yes, some of the young pitchers like Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman, and Aaron Sanchez will be a year older and perhaps more polished, but veterans like R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle will also be a year older which means we shouldn't be expecting them to get any better. The Blue Jays are going to need an arm, preferably someone at the top since no one -- with the exception of Brandon Morrow -- looks like a possible front-of-the-rotation piece for 2015. And even that, we need to see Morrow put together a strong, injury-free year or the temptation of calling him a potential front-line arm will dissipate.

That's going to cost money. Or it's going to cost assets, and a front-line arm is unlikely to be had without Stroman and Sanchez being brought up in trade discussions, two pieces the Blue Jays are probably, and rightfully, very unwilling to part with. Sure, there is a pretty nice list of impending free-agent pitchers [link], but the most attractive ones are going to command big bucks. And if we have learned anything, it's that Toronto's track record of luring impact free-agent pitchers north of the border isn't very strong.

This year is especially important because the Blue Jays aren't guaranteed to have this same collection of talent in-house again next season. If the club finishes in last place again, it's not unreasonable to think ownership might prefer to steer the team in a different direction and halt spending -- something it may have already done this year. Yes, the Blue Jays have a large payroll -- 10th highest in baseball, according to the Associated Press -- but after near assurances from general manager Alex Anthopoulos that the club would address some needs, specifically with regards to its starting rotation, all that happened is the Navarro and Kratz deals.

The Blue Jays are spending more on payroll this season but that's largely because the organization is paying Buehrle, Dickey, and Jose Reyes, just under $20 million more combined than it did in 2013. Financial commitments were going to escalate without any external additions, either way, something the franchise was obviously well aware of when it chose to go all-in.

Colby Rasmus and Melky Cabrera are impending free agents, which means the Blue Jays will need to replace two-thirds of their outfield, too, or spend to retain them. The only internal candidate who seems to have a legitimate chance of taking over a starting role in the outfield is Anthony Gose and, while there is a lot to like about his tools and certain aspects of his game, his results and progression have left a lot to be desired.

We still don't know exactly what Rasmus is but at his best he's a star-level talent who is among the best center fielders in baseball. If his 2014 campaign rivals what he did last season, he could price his way out of Toronto. And he looks even more attractive -- perhaps the top outfielder set to hit the open market -- when comparing him to the rest of the upcoming class of free agents. For the Blue Jays, Rasmus leaving either creates a hole or forces them to commit large money to keep him, and they will also have to spend to get a new left fielder (Gose could potentially fill one of these outfield holes cheaply).

Janssen will also be a free agent, but with Sergio Santos (three club options starting in 2015) and Steve Delabar (not a free agent until 2018) under control, the Blue Jays can find their ninth-inning man from within. Lefty J.A. Happ, meanwhile, has a $6.7 million club option in 2015 that, right now, seems unlikely to be picked up.

The Blue Jays have club options on Morrow and Lind for 2015 -- Lind in 2016, as well -- and club options on Dickey, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion for 2016. Buehrle and Navarro, meanwhile, are off the books after the 2015 season, as is Ricky Romero, unless the Blue Jays pick up his $13.1 million option for 2016, which seems crazy to even contemplate. That's a lot of players, and some good ones, who may not be calling Toronto home for much longer.

Brett Lawrie, who won't reach free agency until 2018, and Reyes, locked up through 2017, represent the only two impact players -- excluding a group of relatively unproven pitchers -- whom the Blue Jays have under team control past 2016. The window to win -- at least with this current crop -- is closing before it feels like it was really opened, which is why the results of last season could have a negative impact on the years to come. A lot could change for the Blue Jays in terms of personnel and economics, which is why it's paramount the team achieves success in 2014.

Not only would it seem possible that the club could start selling off some key players with another last-place finish, it could in fact be the right thing to do. An aging core coming up short for two consecutive seasons is not the definition of a plan gone right.

And let's face it, regardless of the wealth of Rogers Communications, the Blue Jays acting as a big-spending team is a very new concept. There's no guarantee that's the way the organization will continue to operate, which is why the inaction this offseason is potentially troublesome. The Blue Jays are already $130-plus million deep in payroll with a team that could have used some help, and are good enough for that help to have had a massive difference in terms of winning and generated revenue. If Rogers was really willing to spend, as Anthopoulos has said many times over, why didn't the GM act?

WHO'S TO BLAME?

Maybe ownership was reluctant to cough up the resources for a long-term deal when the future of this team -- with so much potential turnover looming -- is very much uncertain. If the Blue Jays were competitive in 2013, perhaps we would have seen the offseason play out much differently. We know the Blue Jays were aggressive for one year of Ervin Santana, and maybe that's because the short-term deal fit with ownership's preferred model of operation; Toronto had the entire offseason to sign Santana and didn't. Toronto's only free-agent signing was Navarro and Anthopoulos said he felt he overpaid for the catcher, as his preference was to ink the backstop on a one-year deal.

An argument can be made that Ubaldo Jimenez is a better option than Santana moving forward but -- even for a team in need of pitching, that said it wanted pitching help, and had protected first-round picks -- the Blue Jays were observers while Jimenez inked a four-year, $50 million deal with Baltimore, a division rival. It could be as simple as the Blue Jays didn't like Jimenez, Santana or Matt Garza and Ricky Nolasco on multi-year contracts but, with the money being thrown around baseball, none of those deals scream overpay. Each of those arms could have helped Toronto and none of the deals they signed are financially crippling, especially to a team deep in resources like the Blue Jays.

Perhaps the results of 2014 will dictate whether Rogers is going to continue spending with the big boys. Who knows -- I certainly don't -- but a lot of money could be generated with a playoff push. The Blue Jays ranked 14th in attendance last season at 2.5 million, drawing their most fans since 1997, and that's a number that could be eclipsed if the team contended, especially out of the gate. Toronto has money coming off the books after this year, a trend that will only continue over the coming seasons. With a lot of short-term money invested into this current group, why not make sure this is an offseason in which you add pieces?

Maybe Anthopoulos is asking that same question.

Trading players off the current roster was never ideal because it would have likely just created a hole in itself, and, after last offseason's moves, further depleting the farm system was not the way to go. The way to get better was to spend. If the window is only a couple seasons, you would think more changes than replacing your starting catcher and firing your hitting coach would have been made.

The Blue Jays are a good team, though. They are stuck in the best division in baseball which boasts potentially four better clubs, but this group has the potential to be in the hunt. And if Toronto is in the playoff picture after a couple months, a key upgrade could still occur via an in-season trade. Further, if this group contends, perhaps the money they should have spent this offseason is still there waiting to be spent.

Improving the rotation and second base would have given the Blue Jays a much better chance to compete, but the club is gambling on the fact that last year was a mirage. The Blue Jays are playing a risky game in a season where it's once again playoffs or bust.