TORONTO — Some big free-agent dominoes could fall at the upcoming baseball winter meetings near Washington.
Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said Thursday he expects teams and agents will soon become a little more active, adding it'll likely take a couple big player signings or moves to put things in motion. Whether Toronto will be involved remains a question mark.
Atkins, speaking at a luncheon with members of the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, said it's hard to say whether anything is imminent.
"We were close the first day of the off-season as well," he said. "You're always close but nothing is done until it's done. It's really hard to say on how I see (the meetings) going. But we feel with (Kendrys) Morales here that we're in a good position to stay aggressive on the players that we feel are closer to ideal fits, more seriously consider on a daily basis all the guys that were here. And also, because Morales is here, we also feel like we will be in a position to be more opportunistic later in the off-season."
Morales, who had 30 homers and 93 RBIs last season for the Kansas City Royals, inked a US$33-million, three-year contract with the Blue Jays last month. He will likely serve primarily as a designated hitter and could inject some needed pop in the lineup, especially if free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion doesn't return.
Encarnacion is coming off another big season and is one of top jewels in this year's free-agent crop. He had 42 homers and 127 RBIs last season for Toronto and is set to cash in with a very lucrative multi-year deal.
Atkins, like he said after Morales was signed, knows the odds of Encarnacion's return have been lowered.
"Two guys that do similar things is less than ideal for a team and money has been spent," Atkins said. "So it doesn't make it impossible but it certainly made it less likely. We realized that the day we made the move and we talked to Edwin about that as well."
Toronto finished the regular season with an 89-73 record and qualified for the playoffs for the second straight year. The Blue Jays defeated the Baltimore Orioles in the wild-card game and swept the Texas Rangers before being eliminated in the American League Championship Series by the Cleveland Indians.
The potential loss of Encarnacion at the DH/first base position isn't the only roster hole that needs to be addressed.
Corner outfielders Michael Saunders and Jose Bautista are also free agents. The pitching staff was weakened with the free-agent departures of southpaw reliever Brett Cecil (St. Louis Cardinals) and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (Atlanta Braves).
The team could use some more speed on the basepaths, a backup catcher, and left-handed hitting depth.
Reliever Joe Biagini may be stretched out as a starter but that would create another hole in the bullpen. The Blue Jays picked up the team option on Jason Grilli's contract but veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit is a free agent.
However, Toronto still has a solid core in place and is expected to contend in 2017. Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin provide a solid nucleus and starters Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada and Marcus Stroman anchor a deep rotation.
The Blue Jays also signed Cuban free-agent prospect Lourdes Gurriel Jr., to a $22-million, seven-year deal last month and are expected to have the financial wherewithal needed to make roster improvements as needed. Toronto had an active team payroll of about $137 million last season.
The winter meetings are set for Dec. 4-8 at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. The gathering will be held just days after a tentative five-year labour deal was reached between players and owners.
Also Thursday, Donaldson was named player of the year in voting by Toronto's BBWAA chapter. Biagini was named rookie of the year and Sanchez took the nod for pitcher of the year and most improved player.
Pitching coach Pete Walker was named recipient of the John Cerutti Award. It's given to a person associated with the club who exemplifies goodwill, co-operation and character.