Free agent season is upon us ; the time when every fan is a pundit and every player is a millionaire many times over. We Jays fans can take some kind of perverse pride in the fact that the two first players to ink new contracts both started last year with Toronto: John McDonald and Juan Rivera. Yet we might also start to question the evaluative skills of the Jays braintrust who were so ready to part ways with the pair who apparently became invaluable to their new employers.
One thing not open for debate is that the Jays need to improve in order to compete next season. Alex Anthopolous correctly identified some pressing needs for the team, specifically improving the bullpen and reducing the 25 blown saves tally it posted this year; getting a better starting rotation (a 4.55 ERA doesn’t cut it in today’s defensive-minded game) and finding a second baseman. I would add to that a good backup catcher and one more reliable big bat that can drive in 90 runs no matter what position it comes from. While the Jays current philosophy is to try to avoid the free agent market if possible and certainly the team has enough young talent to enable them to trade for some if not all of the missing pieces, memories of the glory days and the likes of Molitor and Morris remain and rumours abound as to whom the team might entice as free agents. So here I’ll give a bit of free advice on the good the bad and the ugly of the possibilities.
Worth signing at any price: no one. Not from this year’s crop of available talent at least.
Worth taking a good look at : Roy Oswalt. Not the superstar of his Houston days nor that the career 159-93 record and 3.21 ERA might suggest. But still a hard-working, durable starter who’s averaged 177 innings and a sub 3.50 ERA over the past three years and could be a good number three guy behind Romero and perhaps a higher-profile pitcher brought in via trade . (James Shields anyone? Or perhaps Matt Cain?) . However, not worth busting the bank over or signing on for more than a couple of years. But if two years at about $9 or 10 M a season is doable, I’d say go for it.
CJ Wilson. Worth looking at, but probably not worth it. Not because of his dismal performance in the playoffs– he was excellent in the regular season and of course, the Jays will have to make the playoffs before worrying about players handling the pressure in October– but because as the highest ranked pitcher out there, he’s sure to set off a bidding war between the Yankees and his current employer. He’d be a good fit with the team, and his liberal politics a good fit for the city but not at a pricetag of potentially $80 million or more.
Michael Cuddyer: see point on big bat. A player who quietly puts up good numbers every season , is versatile (right field? Check. First base? Check. Left field? Check. Out of pitchers for the day? Yep, Cuddyer has stepped up for that too) and apparently a very good stabilizing effect in clubhouse. Expect that his numbers would rise from the 17 homer and 75 rbis averaged when playing at Target Field (where he’s lacked the supporting bats of Mauer and Morneau for the most part) with a spot in the Toronto lineup. And that with the likes of Fielder, Pujols and Reyes getting the attention, he might just be able to be sneaked in quickly and quietly. A three year deal for upto about $36M would be a bargain. Anything more wouldn’t.
Paul Maholm: a decent groundball-inducing southpaw who always pitches better than his won-lost record would suggest. Pitching for the Pirates will do that to ya. As said with Oswalt, he’d make a good number 3 or 4 starter in Toronto, but he’s not Cliff Lee. If he’s ok with that , sign him.
Joe Nathan: being two years past Tommy John surgery now, he’s potentially in good form to return to form. If other teams assume that too and start a bidding war, pass. But if his phone isn’t ringing off the hook, would be a good gamble for a single year to show everyone he still has it…and cut down some of those 25 blown saves here. Getting Dan wheeler and re-upping Sean Camp for the middle innings might make sense too.
Jim Thome: would have been had he not just signed for baseball’s equivalent of hamster feed in Philly. A solid veteran who could have added maturity and drive—and maybe 20 homers still – to the team as a part time DH.
Forgettaboutit: Yu Darvish. The Jays made waves recently when Alex Anthopolous and others visited Japan to watch this 25 year old superstar on his home turf, and are said to be among the front-runners to acquire perhaps today’s best Asian pitcher . But they would be foolish to do so. Why? Certainly he seems to have talent. But since Hideo Nomo, no Japanese pitcher has come over and matched the success they had there, over here. Case in point , dice K… remember how he was supposed to be better than sliced bread when he arrived? How his unique “gyro pitch” was supposed to be able to slice bread , into 20 slices, and still strikeout the batter? Well, of course the Sox got one good year and a lot of attitude for their near $100M investment. And still did better than the Yankees with Kei Igawa. Darvish apparently has a better work ethic than Dice K, and a great fastball and no doubt could win games in Tampa just as he can in Tokyo. However, the pricetag is prohibitive. By the time his Japanese team is bought out, and he is signed himself, the expectation is for a nine figure contract. CC Sabathia or Cliff Lee money for a guy who’s likely to pitch more like AJ Burnett or Joe Blanton. Pass.
Prince Fielder: myth number one- that Prince wants to play in Toronto because his dad did too briefly. Anyone who knows of the hostility the son has for his father will understand why that isn’t true. Myth number two- toronto should give Fielder a blank cheque and outbid Texas , the Cubs and perhaps even pinstripers from Bronx. Sure Fielder is a great power hitter. He’s not a great fielder though, despite his ironic surname, and he benefitted greatly from playing at Miller Park: .326, a .660 slugging pct and 24 homers at home in ’11, only .272 with 14 home runs and a pedestrian .476 slugging elsewhere. My gut feeling is he’ll go to the Cubs anyway, and if the pricetag is $150 mil or more, they’re very welcome to him.
It’s not a huge crop of useful free agents this year; not for our team at least. So Alex, start making those phone calls- someone must have a good starter to part with for a couple of young kids , or a second baseman for a promising Cuban minor league shortstop.