Yesterday on FanGraphs, Dave Cameron pointed out that the Blue Jays only have $33M in guaranteed contracts for 2011 (the vast majority of which is hung up on Vernon Wells. Score!), and including arbitration-eligible players Toronto's payroll going into the 2010-2011 offseason could very well be in the $45-50M range. Assuming that ownership doesn't cut payroll by a significant amount, and with a new, apparently very talented GM in tow in Alex Anthopolous, is there a chance that Toronto could field a legitimately good team as soon as next season?
As always, Cameron did a great job of outlining how Toronto has gotten a good deal of payroll flexibility for 2011 and beyond, thanks primarily to the Roy Halladay, Alex Rios and Scott Rolen deals, although he doesn't mention them specifically. Here's a quick look at what Toronto should have in place for 2011 before dabbling in the open market: Brett Wallace at first base, Aaron Hill at second base, Travis Snider and Vernon Wells in the outfield, Adam Lind at DH or in the final outfield spot, and a bevy of young pitchers led by Ricky Romero, Shaun Marcum, Brandon Morrow, Marc Rzepzczynski and Brett Cecil.
The catcher position could potentially be filled by J.P. Arencibia, although he would need to take some major strides given his plate discipline and contact issues. They could retain Edwin Encarnacion for his final arbitration year as well, but he would likely garner too high of a salary to be worth it. Presumably, the team won't be able to tolerate E-5's glove (or lack there of) for much more than a year. Just ask the Reds why they dealt him.
Overall, the majority of the available funds needs to be put into adding a shortstop, catcher, third baseman, and an outfielder, preferably a center fielder so that Wells can be moved to left field, as well as veteran help for the pitching staff. Obviously, it's worth noting that numerous guys who are currently in line to be free agents will sign extensions, and things can change a lot over the course of nearly a year both in Toronto and throughout the league. But Toronto likely won't be a buyer this year, so if anything, they'll be looking to dump free agents-to-be like Lyle Overbay and Scott Downs when the trade deadline comes around.
Assuming the course projected above, in which the team doesn't give up any of its future assets to contend in 2010, let's look at what Anthopolous and company could do come the winter of 2010, if they chose to take a route similar to the one that Baltimore apparently took this offseason: add a few veteran pieces on one-year deals, keep developing the young guys, hope that some lucky breaks will make next season a good one, and plan on really breaking out the year after that.
Looking at the free agent class, the top catchers are Victor Martinez and Joe Mauer, although both are likely to be too costly for the Blue Jays. They could pursue another veteran like A.J. Pierzynski or Gerald Laird, but retaining John Buck or going after a cheaper guy like Gregg Zaun (assuming his option is declined) would likely suffice. Zaun is a guy who's seemingly perpetually underrated.
The Jays likely can't expect a big upgrade at shortstop either without making a trade, as the biggest names beyond the two New York shortstops, who aren't likely to go anywhere. They can retain Alex Gonzalez for $2.5M, and they already have John McDonald signed through 2011 as well. Offense is definitely lacking there, but the best bat with a chance to hit the market, Jhonny Peralta, won't even be playing shortstop next season. The third base class is similar to the shortstop one: a couple big names at the top that are unlikely to hit the market, and aging veterans with issues beyond that. Guys like Brandon Inge or Christian Guzman could be appealing if the asking prices are right.
The outfield and the pitching staff are the places where the Jays have a shot to really improve their roster. The outfield class for 2011 should be solid, headlined by Carl Crawford and
Canadian slugger native of Illinois Jayson Werth at the top, and the DH class should also once again be plentiful, with Manny, Thome, Matsui, Guerrero, Burrell, Huff and Ortiz due to hit free agency. If the Jays want to spend big to add another outfielder, or a designated hitter to push Adam Lind to left field, they should be able to do so with ease. If they could get Coco Crisp on a one-year deal to push Wells to left, that could be a good move as well.
Toronto could potentially have another excellent pitching staff in place by 2011, which would likely be the main pillar of the team. After dealing away Roy Halladay, the team presumably wouldn't want to spend big to add an ace like Josh Beckett, Javier Vazquez, Brandon Webb or Cliff Lee unless it's a short-term deal, but the market should be flush with options. Ben Sheets and Rich Harden should hit free agency again if they're looking for high-upside innings. Or they could take the middle route, looking at starters like Jorge De La Rosa, Aaron Harang, Ted Lilly and Hiroki Kuroda, solid guys who could give the team a veteran presence and some solid innings, if the injury questions scare them away
It's also worth noting that they could also potentially get some contributions from Kyle Drabek or Zach Stewart if either one of them takes major strides developmentally in the minors in 2010. The bullpen has some good pieces in place in Frasor, Carlson, Janssen, Accardo, Tallet, and Roenicke, and just like this offseason there should be numerous late-inning options on the market, if they choose not to retain Downs.
If the Blue Jays went into 2010 with a lineup of Buck, Wallace, Hill, Inge, Gonzalez/McDonald, Wells, Crisp, Snider and Lind, with a rotation of Romero, Morrow, Marcum, Cecil/Rzepzcynski and one of those free agent arms, who's to say that they couldn't pull out an 85-90 win season if a couple things go right? They could easily fit Inge, Crisp, Gonzalez, and a pitcher into their budget, and Snider and Wallace could help to provide a good deal of the offensive improvement.
All in all, I think that Cameron made a really great point to show that there's reason to be optimistic about what's going on in Toronto. All four of the other teams in the division have taken major strides towards establishing winning ways, and the new management in Toronto has been very impressive this offseason in handling the Halladay deal, as well as making solid moves for Morrow and Buck. The Blue Jays may not have the best farm system, but presumably new management will do a much better job of signing top draft picks than the previous one, and they've already taken major strides in improving their long-term ability to compete.
Of course, the team could also flounder in 2010 and push back their projection window of contention back until Drabek, D'Arnaud, Jenkins, Snider, and company are more established, but it wouldn't be surprising if Toronto took the Baltimore route.
As Cameron said, 2010 may not be the prettiest year in Toronto, but things are really looking up. Toronto could very well be a spender next offseason if Lind, Hill and Romero show that their 2009 performances weren't completely flukes, and they can get some breakout performances from guys like Snider, Wallace, Morrow, Cecil and Roenicke. Toronto is probably still in the worst position of any team in the AL East, but under Anthopolous it appears that their future looks brighter than it has in at least a year.
Now that I'm done with this, I apologize as it got a little lengthy. My bad.