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Blue Jays to be aggressive in improving roster

Blue Jays to be aggressive in improving roster

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TORONTO -- Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos is expected to take an aggressive approach this offseason as he looks to improve a roster that already has a lot of its core players in place.

Anthopoulos only has a couple of glaring holes to fill at the Major League level, but likely will be looking to find multiple ways to upgrade one of the youngest teams in the Major Leagues.

At the top of his to-do list will be finding a second baseman, closer and front-line starting pitcher.

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"I don't believe that we're one player away, that's probably the best way to put it," Anthopoulos said at his year-end news conference. "But I still think there is value out there and maybe things change if there are trades that develop.

"Your timeline and your calendar can change, too, depending on the way the offseason goes."

Toronto has eight players on its 40-man roster that are eligible for free agency, with the two most prominent being starting second baseman Kelly Johnson and veteran closer Frank Francisco.

Both are expected to be offered arbitration by the club, but likely can find more lucrative deals in free agency. Anthopoulos will keep an open dialogue with their agents, but he's not going to wait for their situations to be resolved before moving on to other matters.

"I think we proved that two years ago we came out of the chute and signed Alex Gonzalez and John McDonald and we still had Marco Scutaro pending in terms of a salary arbitration offer," Anthopoulos said in reference to the 2009 offseason.

"Both players are good players, they are definitely going to be in the mix to be brought back. It really won't impact what we're going to do one way or the other."

Free agency will be an option for the Blue Jays to explore, but Anthopoulos prefers making his major moves through trades. The third-year GM has added the likes of Yunel Escobar, Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie that way while limiting the amount of multiyear contracts handed out via free agency.

It's a way for the Blue Jays to control costs and maintain flexibility with their payroll as they look to move from a rebuilding phase into a hopeful contender for the postseason.

"A lot of times when you're looking at contracts, you're debating," Anthopoulos said. "If it's a five-year contract or a three-year contract, you feel like you're going to get value for all five years? Four years? Two years?

"Most times in free agency you're probably going to find that you're not going to see a lot of value in it. There is the odd time that you will, but you're going to have to feel that it's there, especially for the prime, premium guys."

CONTRACT ISSUES

Free agents: Johnson, 1B/3B Edwin Encarnacion (club option), IF Chris Woodward, OF Dewayne Wise, Francisco, RHP Jon Rauch (club option), RHP Shawn Camp, LHP Rommie Lewis

Eligible for arbitration: CF Colby Rasmus, RHP Brandon Morrow, RHP Jesse Litsch, RHP Casey Janssen, RHP Carlos Villanueva, RHP Dustin McGowan, LHP Jesse Carlson

Non-tender possibilities: LHP Jesse Carlson

AREAS OF NEED

Second base: Johnson is set to hit free agency after spending the final six weeks of the 2011 season in Toronto. The veteran infielder is expected to be offered arbitration by the club, but should be able to find more guaranteed money on the open market. He remains a possibility to return, but if he leaves for another team Anthopoulos likely will have to find a replacement via trade because the free-agent market is particularly thin at second base. Toronto does not have an internal candidate ready to take over as top prospect Adeiny Hechavarria needs more seasoning in the Minor Leagues.

Front-line starter: At the end of the year, manager John Farrell expressed his desire for Toronto to add a front-line starter to the mix this offseason. The Blue Jays aren't expected to be a major player for free agent C.J. Wilson, but could become interested in right-hander Yu Darvish if he opts to leave Japan this winter. Anthopoulos scouted Darvish in 2011, but his overall price tag likely will hover around the $100-million mark. If the Blue Jays take a pass on Darvish, they will likely try to find a starting pitcher through trade or head into Spring Training with the status quo.

Closer: Toronto will be searching for an upgrade at the back end of its bullpen after registering 25 blown saves in 2011. Francisco is eligible for free agency and is expected to depart for another team, which would net Toronto a compensation pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. Janssen is the only legitimate internal candidate, so Anthopoulos likely will look to add at least one veteran reliever through free agency to compete for the job. It's doubtful Toronto would want to break the bank on free agent right-hander Jonathan Papelbon, so look for the club to go after a veteran on a short-term contract.

2012 payroll: Toronto finds itself in a unique position because the club does not operate under a set salary structure. The Blue Jays have possessed a payroll of at least $70 million since 2006, but president Paul Beeston said it's possible the club could spend close to $140-150 million in the future.

That's not expected to happen this season and it's likely the Blue Jays will need to see a jump in attendance before making that type of financial commitment. Until then, Anthopoulos will evaluate each move on a case-by-case basis before getting approval from Beeston and the Rogers ownership group to spend more money.

"I get asked all the time how much we have to spend and so on," Anthopoulos said. "And Paul's words to me are always, 'Make your case,' irrespective of who the player is.

"I don't believe you have 'X' dollars to spend so let's find a way to spend it. You're limiting yourself to one offseason and one pool of players. My case to Paul [theoretically] is this is going to make us a stronger team and the value of the contract makes sense, it lines up long term, it's not going to hamstring us, we'll be in a good position."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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