Marco Estrada deal sets up remainder of Blue Jays’ off-season

Marco Estrada deal sets up remainder of Blue Jays’ off-season
Marco Estrada deal sets up remainder of Blue Jays’ off-season

The Toronto Blue Jays made the first major move of their off-season Friday, locking up Marco Estrada to a two-year contract worth $26 million. Not only does the deal address one of the Blue Jays’ biggest needs, it also sets up the remainder of their off-season.

The shopping list for interim GM Tony LaCava still begins with the rotation, since at least one starter’s needed alongside Estrada, Marcus Stroman and R.A. Dickey. While Drew Hutchison, Roberto Osuna and Aaron Sanchez could get looks in the rotation if needed, the Blue Jays aren’t done shopping yet.

“We’re definitely going to continue to add to that group,” LaCava said Friday. “But there are five guys, and they’re capable guys.”

Beyond that the Blue Jays must add multiple relievers, obtain a backup catcher and build depth with minor league invitees.

The Estrada deal also gives the Blue Jays a clearer sense of how much money they’ll be working with. The club has now committed approximately $115.5 million to the 2016 payroll, according to MLB Trade Rumors’ projections for arbitration-eligible players such as Josh Donaldson and Brett Cecil (that figure doesn’t count non-tenders or players earning the MLB minimum).

While it’s not clear how much LaCava can spend in 2015, he says he expects to have all the resources he needs to assemble a championship-level roster. The Blue Jays have spent upwards of $130 million in recent years, sometimes keeping cash available for mid-season additions such as David Price.

The Blue Jays are open to backloading contracts or signing players to incentive-based deals to create further payroll flexibility if needed. They also discussed a variety of trade scenarios with other teams at the GM Meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., this week, opening up possibilities around the league.

The top of the free agent pitching market includes potentially intriguing arms such as Price, Zack Greinke and Jordan Zimmermann. Mid-tier arms such as Wei-Yin Chen and Jeff Samardzija also have upside, though both are linked to draft pick compensation, a significant cost that must be priced into any potential offer. Mike Leake, Scott Kazmir and Johnny Cueto were traded mid-season, so they were ineligible to receive qualifying offers, a bonus for potentially interested teams.

“Rotation is going to be the priority. That being said, we’re always open for business in other ways,” LaCava said. “We’ll continue to monitor the other position players and relievers and see if there’s any opportunities out there for us.”

The free agent relief market isn’t as deep, although Mark Lowe, Tony Sipp, Shawn Kelley and Darren O’Day are all available. Teams can also consider a trade market featuring the likes of Aroldis Chapman and Mark Melancon. LaCava hasn’t ruled out spending big on a reliever, but the Blue Jays’ biggest need remains in the rotation. Realistically adding two more starters would be ideal.

Behind the plate, the Blue Jays have some interest in bringing Dioner Navarro back to Toronto. At the same time, there’s a shortage of capable free agent catchers now that A.J. Pierzynski and Matt Wieters are off of the free agent market, so Navarro’s chances of landing an everyday job may have increased. It doesn’t appear that the Blue Jays are worried about Estrada’s chances of succeeding without Navarro, who caught him often in 2015.

The Blue Jays have already begun the process of touching base with agents for minor league deal candidates. By combining their scouting and analytical evaluations of players, they hope to uncover an unexpected contributor or two, even if doing so is admittedly challenging.

Ideally the Blue Jays would find a way to add a left-handed bat, yet that’s more of a luxury than a need, and they can at least dream on Michael Saunders.

Add it up and the Blue Jays have lots of work remaining, particularly on the pitching side. But now that they’ve made their first off-season move, charting out the rest of the winter just became a little simpler.

Ben Nicholson-Smith Sportsnet

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Dusty Fields

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