As the Blue Jays wrap up one of the most disappointing seasons in the team's history, Alex Anthopoulos is faced with what will be the most important off-season in his tenure.
The optimism that surrounded the Jays heading into 2012 has vanished due to a combination of injuries, stalled development among many of the team's young players and perceived leadership questions that came to a head amidst the team's second half slide and culminated with the Yunel Escobar eye-black situation.
An off-season similar to 2011 -- where Anthopoulos remained primarily stagnant, not willing to part with many of his younger talent -- is not something Blue Jays fans are likely to put up with again.
From his comments, the GM appears ready to take a more aggressive approach and seems to have more flexibility financially to do so, when it comes to adding to his roster via trades or free agency.
"Obviously we'll be in the free-agent market and we'll be filling some of the depth that way," Anthopoulos said. "It doesn't mean we can have everyone we want. We're going to have to be creative and make some things fit, but it's definitely more to work with than we did last year."
Still, after taking a step backwards in 2012, the team appears to have more holes then it did before the year started, making his job all the more challenging.
The question is, which areas are most pressing?
Here's a look at the areas the team needs to improve upon heading into 2013:
Heading into 2011, the Jays were hoping for one of Eric Thames or Travis Snider to step up and solidify the position. As it turned out, both players were traded away mid-season for a pair of relievers and the team was forced to finish the season giving at bats to untested rookies, Anthony Gose and Moises Sierra.
Both players showed glimpses of promise, but will likely need more seasoning at the minor league level before they can be relied on to contribute consistently.
Having gone through the Thames/Snider situation, the Jays are likely hesitant to go down that road again and may look to spend some money on a major league-tested veteran player. There will be plenty of free agent outfielders on the market, so if the team is willing to spend, their outfield could look much improved in 2013.
Potential Free Agents: Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Shane Victorino, Torii Hunter, Melky Cabrera, Cody Ross, Angel Pagan, Ryan Ludwick, Delmon Young
The Jays received sub-par play at both second base and shortstop this season, and will certainly look to improve the club at those positions.
After posting some impressive numbers upon his arrival from the Atlanta Braves, Escobar had a disastrous 2012 season that saw his on base plus slugging percentage drop to .644, which placed him dead-last in the American League among players that qualified at his position. The homophobic slur written on his eye-black may have been the final straw for the soon-to-be 30-year old, who came to Toronto with a history of immaturity.
At second, Kelly Johnson also struggled in his first full season in Toronto, establishing a new club record for strikeouts in a season. With his contract up, Anthopoulos will have to look for a replacement for the contact-averse second basemen, who's shortcomings were amplified as Jays fans watched Aaron Hill – the player (along with John McDonald) Johnson was acquired for – recapture his all-star form in Arizona.
Still, with a lack of quality free agents, and only one potential internal replacement in Adeiny Hechavarria -- who's 32 to 4 strikeout to walk ratio indicates he may not be ready for a full time role -- the Jays may be better forced to turn to the trade route to fix their problems up the middle.
Potential Free Agents: Stephen Drew, Jhonny Peralta, Marco Scutaro, Maicer Izturis, Jeff Keppinger, Scott Hairston
First Base/Designated Hitter:
Following another inconsistent season from Adam Lind, the Jays will likely be in the market for a power bat that can also improve the team's performance against left-handed pitching.
Lind's days as an everyday player are almost certainly over, the only question is whether Anthopoulos is more inclined to lean towards bringing aboard a full-time player that will eat up all the at bats or someone that will work in a lefty/righty platoon.
Potential Free Agents: Lance Berkman, Adam LaRoche, Carlos Lee, Mike Napoli, David Ortiz, Carlos Pena, Mark Reynolds, Kevin Youkilis
The question when it comes to off-season additions being made to the Jays starting rotation is not if changes will be made, but how many.
Anthopoulos has said that only Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero are locks for spots in the rotation next season.
"The two guys with guaranteed contracts (Morrow and Romero) are them, and everybody else, there are guys that will put themselves in a good position, they'll compete," Anthopoulos said. "Depending on what we do, they might get jobs by default, but the goal is going to be to add as much depth as we can."
Fellow incumbents Henderson Alvarez and J.A. Happ will be in the mix for spots, but after that, it's anyone's guess.
With Romero's recent struggles and the injury history of Morrow, the GM will likely look to add pitchers who have posted consistent results over multiple seasons. Those types of hurlers are tough to find, especially when it comes to the free agents available, which means Anthopoulos may have to turn to the trade market, knowing the cost of acquiring such a player will likely mean unloading the top-level prospects he has been reluctant to part with in the past.
Potential Free Agents: Zack Greinke, Edwin Jackson, Jake Peavy, Anibal Sanchez, Hiroki Kuroda, Ryan Dempster, Dan Haren, Kyle Lohse, Shaun Marcum, Andy Pettitte, Hisashi Iwakuma, Ervin Santana, Paul Maholm, Jeremy Guthrie, Brandon McCarthy, Colby Lewis, Gavin Floyd, Francisco Liriano, Carlos Villanueva, Roy Oswalt, Joe Saunders, Erik Bedard, Carlos Zambrano, Randy Wolf, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Joe Blanton
As the losses piled up in the second half of the season for both the Jays and their AL East counterparts, the Boston Red Sox, the rumour mill went into full effect regarding Toronto's second-year manager, John Farrell.
The team's post all-star break struggles worked to highlight some issues within the clubhouse, with recent reports surfacing that pointed to a divide between Farrell and Anthopoulos.
Talking with 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston on Wednesday, MLB Network Analyst Peter Gammons said he thinks the signs point to a change.
"I think there's a clear split between John and Alex Anthopoulos – a divide there – I think Alex would be perfectly happy to have John go on and I know John would like to go back to Boston," Gammons said. "Maybe this thing never happens. My guess is that it does and that it gets resolved fairly quickly because I don't think they'll go into the first of December this year."
Having one year left on his contract, the Jays don't necessarily have to make a move, but if there are issues between the two as Gammons and others have suggested, a split may be inevitable.
Potential Replacements: Brian Butterfield, DeMarlo Hale, Sandy Alomar Jr. (all three were finalists, along with Farrell for Blue Jays managerial position in 2010), Marty Brown, Sal Fasano
Thus far, Anthopoulos has proven he is capable of accumulating young talent, but as his predecessor, J.P. Ricciardi demonstrated, making the next step is always the hardest one for any general manager.
This off-season will go a long way in determining whether Anthopoulos is up to the task in building a club that can contend on a consistent basis.
So which areas should take precedence when it comes to the Jays off-season game plan?
As always, It's Your! Call.