Jeff Blair

Blue Jays' free-agent strategy: Overpay for the short term

Toronto — The Globe and Mail

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos will soon begin the process of trying to improve his pitching staff. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette (Nathan Denette/CANADIAN PRESS)

Soon, the announcements will no longer be about housekeeping. Soon, it will be about more than not allowing front-office personnel to accept lateral moves or picking up a $3.5-million option on Edwin Encarnacion and declining an option on Jon Rauch, and that means they will get to the meat of the Toronto Blue Jays’ off-season.

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The Blue Jays need arms – both another power arm for the rotation and at least two for the back end of the bullpen. Second base is a pressing concern. And general manager Alex Anthopoulos could not have been clearer on Tuesday: anybody expecting a signature move ought to expect it to be in the form of a trade.



The free-agent market opens Thursday, and the Blue Jays will hold firm to maximum offers of five or six years to any free agent. Contract length is an issue for the organization, both Anthopoulos and president Paul Beeston have said, more so than the average annual value of a deal.



The approach will be simple: The Blue Jays are willing to overpay for a free agent in return for that player giving in on contract length – and Anthopoulos thinks he can sell it in this market.



There are dynamics at work here beyond the Blue Jays influence, of course.



CC Sabathia’s decision to extend with the New York Yankees rather than go into the free-agent market altered the plans of teams, as will Albert Pujols’s whim. If Frank McCourt does the honourable thing and works with baseball to expedite his exit from ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers, that, too, might unleash a big player into free agency. And beware the Chicago Cubs and new team president Theo Epstein.



But there is another factor that bears watching, too. Baseball and its players’ union are just a détente on draft bonuses away from a new collective bargaining agreement that will ensure labour peace for at least five more years, at a time when the system is flush with cash.



Think back to what was unleashed in the immediate aftermath of the last CBA.



Signed on Oct. 25, 2006, in the middle of the World Series, and within months, clubs celebrated by dealing out such free-agent gems as a seven-year, $128-million (U.S.) contract to Barry Zito, eight years and $136-million to Alfonso Soriano, six years and $100-million to Carlos Lee, five years and $70-million to J.D. Drew, five years and $55-million to Gary Matthews Jr.



Baseball commissioner Bud Selig told lieutenants he was thankful he didn’t take the game’s advanced media properties into what was a rumoured $2.5-billion IPO two years earlier, for fear of what dough-head owners would have done with that revenue.



The Blue Jays did their part, too. After signing slugger Frank Thomas to a two-year, $18.2-million contract, the Blue Jays put a full-court press on pitcher Gil Meche – only to see him sign a five-year, $55-million deal with the Kansas City Royals.



Then-GM J.P. Ricciardi found a use for the money, however: He gave outfielder Vernon Wells a seven-year, $126-million contract extension that makes everybody’s top-three list of the worst baseball contracts of all time. It hung around the franchise like a bad smell until Anthopoulos foisted the contract on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim last season.



C.J. Wilson might be this year’s Zito. Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish could be this year’s Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was in the middle of a cash battle between the Yankees and Boston Red Sox in that same post-CBA winter.



And make no mistake, landmines like the Matthews Jr. contract are also out there.



For each exciting prospect lies a cautionary tale. Too often those contracts turn into baseball’s version of Old Maid, and you can ask Tony Reagins what happens to the person left holding the toxic last card.



He resigned as the Angels GM at the end of the 2011 season, that Wells contract still in his hands.