LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida – A comment Mark DeRosa made in August as he reflected on what, by then, clearly was a failed 2013 Blue Jays' season, is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore looking ahead to the prospects for next year's squad.
"When Brandon Morrow went down, that killed us," said the now former Blue Jay, referring to the forearm injury Morrow suffered in late May that ended his season.
With general manager Alex Anthopoulos uncomfortable, at least for the time being, with the market price for mid-range starting pitching and with no acquisition, either through free agency or via trade, apparently imminent, Morrow's return to health is crucial to the Jays becoming the contender many thought they would be a year ago.
Morrow is throwing in Arizona and early reports on his bullpen sessions and a simulated game are positive.
But can Morrow give Toronto 180 or more innings? He's done it only once in his career (2011) and even if he can is a Morrow, R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle front three enough for the Jays to contend in an American League East that's demise is annually predicted but never realized?
Assuming Morrow, Dickey and Buehrle are the front three, is it the right approach for a club trying to contend now to count on one of Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Sean Nolin or Marcus Stroman to impress enough in spring training to crack the back end of the rotation for a spot alongside J.A. Happ?
Anthopoulos has discussed the need for an improved rotation since the middle of last summer, when he began lamenting the combined ERA of the starting staff which would finish second-worst in baseball, ahead of only lowly Minnesota.
The Twins, whether or not you agree with the moves, have been proactive, inking veteran National Leaguer Ricky Nolasco (four years/$49 million) and former Yankee Phil Hughes (three years/$24 million).
"I think my position has been that as we sit here today the trade market seems more viable," said Anthopoulos. "That's not to say that won't change a week from now or two weeks from now as the prices for free agents change."
In fact, Anthopoulos says, in his most recent conversations he's noticing a shift downward in the price of some free agents. He acknowledges that the names of prospects Stroman and Aaron Sanchez come up in almost all the trade conversation he has but that he's not eager to move his upper level rotation depth.
Free agent right-hander Matt Garza could become more appealing if his arm problems limit him to a shorter term contract. At the very least, he's worth exploring given his past success in the division as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays for three seasons, starting in 2008.
Another option, through a modified form of free agency, is Masahiro Tanaka.
It seems farfetched, however.
Depending on how the posting process is settled for the Japanese phenom, the Jays could get involved. If, as expected, the bidding is capped at $20 million, Toronto could post the maximum. The problem is a number of other clubs, particularly the big market, high spending teams, could and likely would do the same which would create a situation where Tanaka could sign with the high bidder of his choosing. He'd be in prime position to leverage up his contract and select the city in which he wishes to pitch.
Tanaka is only 25 and has two years left on his contract with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. He posted a record of 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and 0.943 WHIP in 2013. That WHIP, incredible for a starting pitcher, isn't even his best. In 2011, Tanaka had a 0.875 WHIP. He's known as a fastball/splitter specialist who, over his seven seasons in Japan, has struck out 4.5 hitters for every walk.
Anthopoulos continues to pursue leads, knowing a rotation of Dickey, Morrow, Buehrle, Happ and (insert rookie here) won't inspire confidence in a fan base counting on a bounce back season.
There remains plenty of work to do. Fortunately, there too remains plenty of time.
THE FIVE-YEAR TERM LIMIT
The Blue Jays are known for their policy on five-year contract limits. Anthopoulos suggests there's wiggle room if the circumstances are right.
"I think we've said, six (years), will you bend a little bit and do something like that, I think we haven't ruled it out," said Anthopoulos. "Our preference is certainly five. We've never really had to deviate from that. We've never looked seriously at doing that."
There are few examples of extended long-term deals that have worked out. Albert Pujols' seven-year, $100 million contract signed with the Cardinals prior to the 2005 season would be one but for each of those, there are more of the Carlos Beltran-Mets type of deals. Beltran had a stellar first four seasons in New York but was plagued by injury during the back half of the contract.
Prince Fielder is another example, traded by the Tigers last month just two years into a nine-year, $214 million deal signed after the 2011 season.
"I don't know that it's that strict a policy but it's certainly a strong guideline that maybe we would stretch a little bit and go to six," said Anthopoulos. "Now, you start getting beyond six, I don't see that occurring."
JAYS ROUND OUT COACHING STAFF
Tim Leiper, who served as a minor league consultant for the Blue Jays last season, is expected to be named the club's new first base coach.
A source close to Leiper confirmed the news to TSN.ca.
Leiper replaces Dwayne Murphy, who retired at the end of the year.
A native of Whittier, California, Leiper, 46, has an extensive coaching background in the minor leagues and with Baseball Canada.
Anthopoulos' familiarity with Leiper dates back more than a decade. Leiper managed the Ottawa Lynx, then the Triple-A affiliate of the Montreal Expos, in 2002. Anthopoulos was working in the Expos front office at the time.
DAVIS SIGNS WITH TIGERS
It was a foregone conclusion Rajai Davis wouldn't be returning to the Blue Jays.
A free agent for the first time, Davis inked a two-year contract with the Detroit Tigers. According to reports, the deal is for $10 million.
Davis spent three seasons with the Blue Jays, compiling a slash line of .252/.299/.369 in 345 games. He stole 125 bases in a Toronto uniform.
The Blue Jays will look to go younger and cheaper to fill Davis' roster spot. Anthony Gose, a less refined base stealer at this point in his career, figures to be the prime candidate to replace Davis.
Moises Sierra, who's out of options and has been playing some first base in Dominican League winter ball, will receive consideration.
Kevin Pillar is another option, although less likely given his offensive struggles as a late-season call-up.