Health biggest key for Blue Jays as season nears

Club execs, Gibbons field questions at annual State of the Franchise event

Health biggest key for Blue Jays as season nears

TORONTO -- If there was a message the Blue Jays tried to deliver to their fan base at the club's annual State of the Franchise event on Wednesday night at Rogers Centre, it was to remain optimistic and have faith that the organization is trying to bring a championship to Toronto.

At this time last year, the Blue Jays were coming off a series of blockbuster moves, and they were tabbed by fans and oddsmakers alike as World Series contenders before finishing in last place in the highly competitive American League East. The disappointing outcome has had fans on edge this offseason, but general manager Alex Anthopoulos reiterated Wednesday that a healthy Blue Jays roster -- perhaps with another addition or two -- has the talent to compete for a postseason berth.

"We would still like to add [a pitcher] if we can," Anthopoulos told a group of reporters before the GM, president and CEO Paul Beeston, and manager John Gibbons fielded questions and mingled with an estimated 900 season-ticket holders in attendance. "Waiting out the free-agent market hasn't been by design."

Among the many topics discussed was the notion of making Rogers Centre a grass-only surface, a common concern among fans, and something Beeston hopes can become a reality for the 2018 season.

The club's policy of not handing out contracts of greater than five years -- something Anthopoulos has said he is flexible on -- was also brought up, but the GM said it has never prevented Toronto from signing a free agent. It was also announced that the recently retired Roy Halladay would eventually be added to the Level of Excellence, which recognizes the franchise's greatest and most-important figures.

But the general theme of the evening was about how the Blue Jays can get better and improve from last season, and most believe that process begins with upgrading the rotation.

The big reason the Blue Jays have yet to strike in free agency, Anthopoulos said, is that the club hasn't felt comfortable agreeing to the asking prices of the prized players on the open market. Anthopoulos did say, however, that prices are starting to drop, and the fact that Toronto has a protected first-round pick in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft makes the organization more willing to target players attached to Draft-pick compensation.

Although the GM would not specifically identify players, the two biggest free-agent pitchers who have yet to sign are right-handers Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez -- both of whom would cost the team that signs them a Draft pick, after the duo each turned down a qualifying offer from their former club at the start of the offseason.

"I think if we had to give up a first-round pick, it would change things in a significant manner," Anthopoulos said. "There is still value in the second-round pick ... but not close to the value of Round 1."

With a number of high-quality players still unsigned, it feels like there is an extra month left in the offseason, Anthopoulos said, and he believes the trade market could still heat up, which gives the Blue Jays another avenue to explore.

"I don't remember it being this open, in terms of trade talks, this late," the GM said. "Teams are still out there having dialogue, because there are still free agents out there.

"There should be an impact with all these players that remain, these signings can force other players to move."

Of course, none of this means the Blue Jays will actually pull the trigger on something. While Toronto appears willing to address any perceived holes in its rotation, the club has more depth and possible back-end options than in recent memory, Anthopoulos said.

With right-handers Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison back in the mix after rehabbing from Tommy John surgery for the majority of last season, it gives the Blue Jays two options they didn't have in 2013. A pair of the club's top prospects, Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin, are further insurance, as are righties Todd Redmond and Esmil Rogers -- both of whom could slot into the No. 5 spot in the rotation.

Left-hander Ricky Romero also is a possibility if he is able to turn things around, Gibbons said.

"You need it," Anthopoulos said about the depth. "Very few teams go through a season with five or six starters. That was one concern we had last year ... and we couldn't overcome it. It's just a more talented group than we have had in years past. We still have confidence in the group that we have.

"We had three-fifths of the rotation not perform at all or not pitch at all, and I don't think we can ever go into a season and expect Brandon Morrow to win two games. That's highly, highly unlikely that that would occur."

Gibbons said lefty J.A. Happ is all but guaranteed to join R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Morrow in the rotation, leaving one spot up for grabs, unless the Blue Jays make an acquisition.

"I like what [Happ] can do for us, and I think he is going to be really big this year," Gibbons said.

The ideal scenario, Gibbons said, would be to have Nolin and Stroman starting in the Minors, with plenty of competition for the fifth spot, if the roster stays as is.

As far as position players go, Anthopoulos appears comfortable with what's in house.

Moises Sierra could be the right side of a platoon at designated hitter with Adam Lind if Toronto doesn't land another right-handed bat, while Ryan Goins, who struggled at the plate during his brief time in the Majors last season, is the front-runner to begin the season as the club's starting second baseman. The rest of the lineup, meanwhile, is set in stone.

"The fact that he's better than above-average [defensively] at second, I think if he were to make the team, it allows us to carry the bat," Anthopoulos said of Goins. "We can afford, if we have a premium defensive guy, we can afford to carry him, and there still might be a little bit of upside. He still has to earn it, and some of the other guys in camp will compete with him, but the defense is exciting."

Even without any major changes to the roster before the start of the season, better health could prove to be a big difference for the club this year.

"This team was not built for one year," Beeston said.

Key players such as Morrow, Josh Johnson -- who signed a free-agent deal with the Padres -- Jose Reyes, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, Melky Cabrera, Sergio Santos and Jose Bautista missed significant time in 2013. Gibbons believes that if the Blue Jays get injury-free seasons out of those that remain in that group, it will be like making a major offseason addition in itself.

"We have a good, solid team," Gibbons said. "But you have to stay healthy in this business. Every team goes through it, but we have to have the sun shine on us a little bit, too.

"Last year was a frustrating year, but it's behind us, and hopefully we bounce back."

Chris Toman is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.