Ever since Colby Rasmus was acquired a few days before the July 31 trade deadline, and top prospect Brett Lawrie was called up to the big leagues, Blue Jays fans have gotten an up-close glimpse of the future.
In making those two moves, the Jays shored up two positions long-term for the team. Centrefield and third base look to be in good hands for the foreseeable future.
What also happened is that many fans are now looking forward to next year. And many fans -- myself included -- are asking themselves: can the Blue Jays contend in 2012?
Let's take a position-by-position look to see what holes the Jays need to fill next season:
Lawrie, the Jays top position prospect, has amazingly performed up to the hype during his (admittedly short) less-than-one-month stint with the team. He's shown both patience and power at the plate, as well as an improving defence at the hot corner, a position he was moved to only at the beginning of this season.
It's certainly too soon to say, but he looks like a guy who can hit in the middle of the line-up for this team. The Jays are set at 3B.
Shortstop is another position about which the Jays do not have to worry. Arguably, Yunel Escobar has been the Jays' second-best hitter this season, behind MVP candidate Jose Bautista.
Along with Rasmus and Lawrie, Escobar is another player that Toronto G.M. Alex Anthopoulos acquired because of perceived 'character issues' with their previous teams. Escobar has had a fantastic 2011 season, and was signed to a team-friendly contract extension earlier this season, that contains club options until 2015.
I've been working on this article for the past couple of days, and big surprise, before I post it, news comes out that the Jays have acquired 2B Kelly Johnson from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for 2B Aaron Hill and INF John McDonald.
Hill has struggled this year (more on that in a bit), and McDonald -- although very popular in Toronto -- is also very expendable as a 36 year-old utility infielder. With that being said, Anthopoulos and McDonald both expressed interest in the veteran infielder returning to the team next year.
Johnson has struggled this year too, hitting .209 with 18 HRS, but he's certainly been more productive than Hill. Johnson is also someone that Anthopoulos has been rumoured to have an eye on for awhile.
I'll be interested to see if Johnson is part of the 2012 plans at 2B for the team next year. Perhaps the rest of August and September are a 'try-out' of sorts for Johnson, to see how well he plays and to see how well he fits in with his teammates (although truth be told, how well he plays means a hell of a lot more than how well he fits in).
Most certainly, second base is the major position of concern for the 2012 Jays. Hill has been a major disappointment in 2011, especially considering that he hit 36 HRs in the 2009 season. But 2010 and 2011 have been dreadful for Hill.
The problem with filling the position is that the free agent market isn't great for 2B. Orlando Hudson and Marco Scutaro, two former Blue Jays, will hit the market, but neither of them will fill the position long-term (a long-term guy isn't necessary, of course, but preferable). Perhaps Johnson is the answer.
The wildcard in this is highly-paid SS prospect Adeiny Hechavarria, who was just promoted to AAA Las Vegas a week ago, and with the trade of Hill and McDonald, could be called up to the big leagues when major league rosters expand in September.
Anthopoulos has said that Hechavarria will play a full season in AAA before being called up to the main team, so he's likely not a candidate for 2B in 2012. However, the $10 million contract Hechavarria signed with the team might pressure Anthopoulos into getting results from him at the big league level. Hechavarria is definitely a name to keep in mind.
My prediction, though, is that the Jays will offer Johnson arbitration (in hopes that he declines, and that they'll net a compensation round draft pick ... but also being comfortable with paying him about $6 million if he accepts a one-year deal), while Anthopoulos aggressively looks at the trade and free agent markets for an upgrade at 2B.
Adam Lind had a hot start to the year, but has cooled off quite a bit since the All-Star break. As of August 24, he's hitting .263/.307/.458/.765, with 22 HRs and 73 RBI. He's signed to a long-term deal that has team options that could run the contract through 2016.
In all, Lind has been OK this year. You want better production at the plate from a first baseman (especially one who is hitting 4th in the line-up), but he's also done very well for himself defensively.
I have a feeling that Lind could be used as trade bait this off-season, either in an effort to upgrade at 1B, or another position. I just don't think he can be counted on long-term. That he hit .237/.287/.425/.712 with 23 HRs and 72 RBI in 2010 plays into that as well.
Perhaps his reasonably-priced contract would be viewed as valuable around the league.
Trading Lind would also open up a spot on the roster for either Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, the two biggest names on the free agent market this off-season, both of whom play 1B.
However, given that both will likely demand multi-year contracts nearing $200 million (or more), I doubt Anthopoulos views either signing as money well-spent. They are both long-shots for the Jays, but the money is there if Rogers and Anthopoulos choose to pull the trigger.
After a slow start to the season at the plate, and a dreadful start in the field at third base, Edwin Encarnacion has been the Jays best hitter for the past month or so. He's gone from a soon-to-be-released guy, to a player who is almost certainly going to be back with the club next season.
The team-option on him for next year is only $3.5 million, and he's certainly worth that. He can play first base as well, and WHEN ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY, he can play a little 3B as well.
Encarnacion's season, then -- as well as his ability to play multiple positions, and having a team-friendly contract -- make Lind expendable in a trade, if Anthopoulos sees fit.
Because Jose Molina currently projects to be a Type B free agent after the season (meaning that the Jays will receive a compensation round draft pick if Molina turns down an arbitration offer from the team and signs elsewhere -- which he would likely do because he's had a great year in a limited role), Molina is probably not back with the club next year. I imagine Anthopoulos values a draft pick more highly than one more year of Molina being the back-up catcher for the Jays.
I expect Anthopoulos to acquire another veteran catcher to back-up J.P. Arencibia, in order to give Arencibia another full season behind the plate. Brian Jeroloman, who was just called up from AAA Las Vegas, could also be a back-up option to Arencibia next year.
So far this season, Arencibia has hit 19 HRs, which is great power to get from this position, not to mention from a rookie backstop. Hopefully, his other batting stats will start to match his power stats.
If not, the Jays other best catching prospect, Travis d'Arnaud (acquired in the Roy Halladay trade) is an option for the 2013 season. Anthopoulos has said that d'Arnaud will get a full year at AAA Las Vegas in 2012, so he's not an option with the big club in 2012.
Arencibia could be a major trade chip for the Jays too. Especially if they rate him lower than d'Arnaud (which many scouts do), and they think there is a one-year free agent option that can help them in 2012.
Eric Thames' bat is coming around again. Overall, I've been impressed with Thames, who turned himself from a fringe-prospect a year ago, into the guy Anthopoulos chose to keep with the big club instead of Travis Snider, when making room on the roster for Lawrie.
His defence is troubling, though, and I think Snider has more upside. If Anthopoulos decides it is a contending year in 2012, I think it's possible that neither Thames nor Snider is manning left field for the Jays.
However, if it's not a contending year, I'd like to see Snider be given a FULL year at the big league level. He's never really gotten a fair shake since he was called up for the first time in August 2008 by then-GM J.P. Ricciardi.
He hasn't blown the roof off the Rogers Centre since being acquired in late-July, but Rasmus has proven to have a lot of range in CF, and his smooth swing is finally producing results.
Without any other viable option -- Rajai Davis will likely be the 4th OF next year, and CF prospect Anthony Gose is not ready for the big leagues -- Rasmus will be given ample opportunity to reach his full potential with the Jays.
Barring injury, he'll certainly be the starting CF for the Jays in 2012.
Arguably the best hitter in baseball, Jose Bautista is locked in to play right field for the Jays until 2016. He's not going anywhere. Enough said.
Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Brett Cecil are the only locks to be part of the rotation next season. And even in saying that, I think it's possible that any of those guys (although Romero is the least likely to go), could be part of a larger trade. That's just the way Anthopoulos operates -- he's willing to talk to any other GM about any of his players. He likes getting dialogue going.
After these starters, it gets a little dicey. Carlos Villanueva deserves another look, and will certainly be brought back. The question is whether he's used as a starter or a reliever. I could actually picture him being brought back with a chance to win the job as closer next year, given how well he's pitched this season.
Kyle Drabek, the centrepiece of the Roy Halladay trade, was expected to be a part of the rotation for this season and beyond, but he has struggled this season, and has struggled even worse in Las Vegas since being sent down to the minors.
Drabek cannot be counted on to be part of the rotation in 2012. The same can be said for another top pitching prospect, Henderson Alvarez, who has looked OK in 3 major-league starts. I doubt he plays into 2012 plans, unless he has a fantastic September and Spring Training next year.
Although this could be said for any position on the team, I expect Anthopoulos to look at trade scenarios, and search the free agent market, for help in the rotation.
Expect to see a lot of new faces in the bullpen next season.
I do, though, also expect to see Casey Janssen and Jesse Litsch back. They're under team-controlled inexpensive contracts, and both have done well this year out of the bullpen, when healthy. As I said above, I expect Villanueva back as well, likely in the bullpen. Shawn Camp is another guy who could be brought back, as he would likely accept arbitration if offered by the Jays.
Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch are possibilities too, but I doubt they'll be back. Rauch is more likely to accept an arbitration offer (although the Jays may not offer one considering it would cost $4 millon plus to keep him around), whereas I think Francisco would decline such an offer in hopes of finding a multi-year deal elsewhere.
I think Anthopoulos is smart enough not to get involved with a long-term deal for a free agent closer -- Heath Bell and Jonathan Papelbon are two examples. Relievers are so up-and-down, that very often those long-term deals come back to bite you (see: B.J. Ryan).
Much like this past off-season, I expect Anthopoulos to offer one-year deals (with team options) to two or three free agent relievers, hoping that one or two of them will catch on.
It's better than blowing $60 million (just throwing a number out there) on Papelbon.
The American League East will always be challenging with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the division. Their respective owners are willing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in order to contend for a championship every year. Good for them ... but bad for the fans of the other teams in the division.
The Tampa Bay Rays, too, have found an efficient way to be competitive as well, while spending far less money than New York and Boston.
The Jays are following the Rays model by acquiring high-upside talent at a low cost (See: Rasmus, Escobar, Morrow). They've developed a young core at the major league level, with some veterans sprinkled in. They also have one of the top 3 rated minor league systems in baseball.
Help may soon be on the way in the form of an additional Wild Card spot as well. Most assume that 2 wild card spots per league will be incorporated for the 2012 season. This means that potentially, 2 wild card teams could come from the A.L. East, with 3 playoff teams coming from the division in total.
This is great news for the Jays, obviously. If the Jays team as it sits right now is very similar to the 2012 team, I don't think they can leap-frog the Yankees or Sox, so that second Wild Card spot becomes all the more important.
However, if Anthopoulos does make upgrades at 2B, SP, LF and either 1B/DH, then I definitely think the Jays can contend in 2012. (It might be a lot to ask, I know. But I think Lind, Arencibia, Thames and Cecil are perhaps their main trade chips in an attempt to upgrade these positions, in addition to minor league prospects at lower levels in the system.)
Based on the moves he's made so far, I believe that Anthopoulos will make the right moves this off-season for the Jays in 2012 and beyond.