You know it's been a tough off-season for Alex Anthopoulos when the Major League Soccer guy steals all the headlines. I mean, really: "Dioner is Served in 2014" isn't much of a marketing slogan.
Oh, for the return of the Ninja GM! A Cy Young Award winner here, a former batting champ there mixed in with a spectacular Vernon Wells-esque salary dump on some poor, unsuspecting peer. A deal for the accountants mixed with a deal for the seam-heads.
Go on, admit it, you miss the old A.A., don't you?
I asked Anthopoulos's boss, Toronto Blue Jays president and chief executive officer Paul Beeston, if he missed the old A.A.
I asked what he'd done with him. I asked if he felt that – chastened by a buzz-killing, last-place finish – his general manager was being more cautious than usual. "Talk to the guy in the room next to me about that," Beeston said. So I did. I talked to Anthopoulos and – good news, everybody – he is engaged but, unfortunately the process is stuck in neutral.
"Hard to say if I'd call this a 'slow' market, because there are opportunities for a lot of teams to do some things if they really want to," said Anthopoulos, whose major off-season acquisition has been signing free-agent catcher Dioner Navarro.
The easy thing is to say it begins and ends with Masahiro Tanaka, who has arrived in North America for talks with teams, and there is some truth to the notion. The signature free-agent pitchers with major-league service time are Ervin Santana (31 years old), Ubaldo Jimenez (29) and Matt Garza (32).
Tanaka, who pitched for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and went 24-0 with an earned-run average of 1.27, will be 25 on opening day – which, in addition to a new posting system that allows teams to post a maximum $20-million (U.S.) refundable in order to talk to Tanaka instead of a free-for-all, closed-bidding process, has dramatically increased the pool of suitors.
Anthopoulos won't confirm the level of the Blue Jays' interest in Tanaka, but several national media outlets in the U.S. have claimed Toronto will be a player before the Jan. 24 deadline for Tanaka to choose a team.
The Blue Jays have made adding another starting pitcher a priority, but so far they have been linked with Santana and Jimenez more than with Tanaka. Agents for both pitchers told their clients early in the process they might have to wait until the eve of spring training to sign contracts, since Tanaka will be the object of everyone's intentions.
The reason is simple: A team signing Tanaka will not have to surrender a compensatory draft pick. Santana and Jimenez, meanwhile, will cost some teams a draft choice because both the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians offered salary arbitration to the respective pitchers. (Garza was traded mid-season from the Chicago Cubs to the Texas Rangers and is not tied to compensation.)
The Blue Jays have their draft picks protected by virtue of their poor finish in 2013, yet Santana and Jimenez will attract attention eventually from some of the well-established losers in the Tanaka hunt.
Tanaka's age is an oft-overlooked element, yet, as Anthopoulos noted, at a time when young pitching is the coin of the realm there is a premium attached to age – which is why draft picks are more valuable than ever before, since this year's draft choice is next year's pitcher.
"Tanaka's the youngest free-agent pitcher out there," Anthopoulos said. "That has a lot of value. And the draft picks … look, with salaries going up, young players have become more and more valuable. That's why the value of draft picks is increasing, too."
The guess here is the Blue Jays will end up with either Santana or Jimenez if they do not figure in the Tanaka sweepstakes. Much was made of Beeston's self-imposed five-year limit on free-agent contracts, yet an executive with another major-league team said he believes "a surprisingly large number of teams" have quietly imposed a de facto five-year limit in place for pitching – with the exception of Tanaka, who has told people in Japan he's looking for a seven-year deal.
Blue Jays sources are comfortable they can make hay with either Jimenez or Santana, who are looking for between $14-million and $15-million a year.
Anthopoulos wouldn't have to look far back to find a reason for a little bit of caution, however. Those who have known him best during his time around the Blue Jays offices say the off-season between the 2006 and 2007 seasons – when he was an assistant to J.P. Ricciardi – had a profound impact on his world view.
That was the year Ricciardi lost out in a bid to re-sign pitcher Ted Lilly (who ended up accepting a similar four-year, $40-million deal from the Cubs) and watched pitcher Gil Meche take less money (five years, $55-million) for the purgatory that was Kansas City.
Ricciardi took the money he couldn't spend on pitching and put it toward a seven-year, $126-million contract extension for Wells.
Anthopoulos knows he can't afford to similarly lose focus or patience, which, in this off-season, is one and the same.