This offseason, Sports on Earth is asking baseball writers what they would do if they ran the front office.
Few teams had a buzz like the Toronto Blue Jays going into the 2013 season, and few teams dashed expectations more quickly or efficiently. By May 2, Toronto was already 10.5 games out of first place. An 11-game winning streak in mid-June put the team two games over .500, but that was their high-water mark. They finished in last place, 14 games under .500, and never competed seriously for a postseason berth.
Just about everything that could go wrong went wrong for the Blue Jays in 2013. They'd bend over to pick up a winning lottery ticket and get hit with a falling piano. Jose Reyes missed 69 games, Melky Cabrera missed 74, Brett Lawrie missed over 50, Colby Rasmus and Jose Bautista each missed 44 -- and those are just from their starting lineup. Thirteen different pitchers started games for Toronto, which is a lot.
Quick quiz! Which of these players did not start a game for the Blue Jays in 2013?
A. Ramon Ortiz
B. Sean Nolin
C. Chad Jenkins
D. Franklin MacVeagh
E. Todd Redmond
And the answer is, it doesn't matter, because you've never heard of any of those guys. Todd Redmond started 14 games, and if you've heard of him, then you really need to go for a hike or read a book. (I recommend something by David Rakoff, or the new one by Nathan Rabin.)
OK, the correct answer is Franklin MacVeagh. He didn't start a game for the Blue Jays, because he was Secretary of the Treasury under Woodrow Wilson. But if he were alive and could pitch badly, chances are he would have thrown a few innings before getting pulled for Edgar Gonzalez or Dave Bush. Heck, the desiccated remains of Chien-Ming Wang started six games, and the results were not different from covering old tires with lighter fluid and tossing a lit Chevrolet on top. How do you win games with Sean Nolin or Chad Jenkins on the mound in the first inning? You don't, and we can point to the 2013 Blue Jays for proof.
The 2013 Blue Jays remind me of the 2012 Red Sox. There were lots of injuries and the best players under-performed, which brings us to the point of this piece: turning the 2014 Blue Jays into a contender. The remedy is twofold. First, you have to hope the team gets healthy and performs better. No team can withstand their best players missing tons of time and/or playing badly. For the Blue Jays to win in 2014, they'll need Bautista, Encarnacion, Reyes, Rasmus and Cabrera to stay relatively healthy and play well. Not much you can do to make that happen now besides stock up on rabbit's feet.
What you can do is fill holes in the roster with above-average players and add depth wherever possible, in case some of the stars do miss time. That's where the Blue Jays need work. The Jays got horrendous production from three positions last season: catcher, second base and left field. Melky Cabrera should better his 2013 season in left, and Toronto signed Dioner Navarro to upgrade the catcher position. As long as he doesn't go on the field with Groucho glasses and try to catch each pitch with his eyes closed, that should work out. Ryan Goins, the top second baseman on the depth chart, might be adequate, but he isn't likely to be much of a step forward. Since signing Robinson Cano, the Mariners have Nick Franklin blocked for a decade, so there's a fair chance he's available. If he isn't, that means Brad Miller will be. Either would be a few steps up from last season's production at second base, or from Goins.
As for the pitching, this is where the team can still make a big upgrade. Last season, Toronto had a team ERA of 4.26. Only the Mariners, Phillies, Rockies, Twins and Astros were worse, and no, that's not company that a playoff hopeful should aspire to keep. Still, the Blue Jays have the backbone of a decent if unspectacular rotation with R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and maybe (probably?) Brandon Morrow. Toronto lost Josh Johnson to free agency, but considering ow he pitched last season, that could be an upgrade. His departure leaves J.A. Happ and Kyle Drabek as the next two starters, two guys who shouldn't get 20 starts apiece if you want to contend.
The good news is, there are still lots of good pitchers available. Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza and Ervin Santana remain on the free agent market, and the Blue Jays should be all over Masahiro Tanaka. Yes, he's going to be expensive, but Tanaka moves the Jays rotation from "maybe acceptable" to "maybe very good," because he's young, and he's good, and actually just read this. If I could make the finances work, I would focus on adding Tanaka.
If Toronto doesn't wind up with Tanaka, then adding one of Garza, Jimenez or Santana still improves the rotation. The money probably will be a bit over the top, but that's the going rate for No. 3 pitchers nowadays. Alternatively, the Jays could check the trade market, but it's doubtful they have enough to pry Max Scherzer from Detroit, or David Price from Tampa (or that the Rays would trade him within the division); either would instantly upgrade the Jays to contender status. One intriguing name on the trade market is Jeff Samardzija. He won't cost as much as Price or Scherzer, because he's not as good, but he'd be an upgrade, and the Jays wouldn't have to pay free agent prices to do it. Samardzija isn't likely to recapture his 2011 form, but he's a strong improvement over Happ and Drabek.
More than anything, the Blue Jays need to plug holes in their roster and load up on depth players, both on the bench and in the minors. They can't withstand massive holes at three positions like last season and expect to contend. They didn't get Cano (nor did they try), but they can make use of that situation by bringing in a good young player at a position of need, and there are still big upgrades for the starting rotation to be had, on both the trade and free agent markets. Those moves, along with some health and good play from their best players, should have the Blue Jays where they thought they'd be last season, in the middle of a tough AL East race.