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Blair: Blue Jays swing and miss in free agency

In the end, the Toronto Blue Jays had the sunshine, the win, and the image of Ricky Romero hitting 94 miles an hour on the radar gun. But there was little salve to be found Wednesday, which started off with clouds and rain and the news that general manager Alex Anthopoulos had swung and missed again in free agency.

Ervin Santana is now with the Atlanta Braves, which means the Blue Jays' goal of improving a pitching rotation that averaged 5 2/3 innings per start in 2013 – the third-lowest figure in the majors – depends on some sort of miraculous confluence of events or a trade.

Good luck with the latter scenario. In Fantasy Land, the Blue Jays might be able to turn Colby Rasmus or Jose Bautista into a good 200 innings of starting pitching, but that would only weaken what should be an area of strength – and no contending team will give up a No. 2 starter for either.

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David Price isn't being traded by the Tampa Bay Rays, and a guy like Jeff Samardzija of the Chicago Cubs isn't anything more than a No. 4 in the American League East. In other words, the Blue Jays rotation is what it is, and what it is isn't good enough for the AL East.

Money saved when the organization bid adieu to pitcher Josh Johnson, money due to the organization from Major League Baseball's hefty new television contracts … none of it has gone to improve the rotation. Instead, fans and players are left wondering about an organization that says it has enough money but puts silly, self-imposed rules on off-season business. Five-year limits, a prohibition on incentive clauses … it all seems so – I don't know – 1992 and 1993, doesn't it?

Anthopoulos indicated he believed he had a deal in place for Santana, only to watch Santana take an equivalent amount of money (one year, $14-million U.S.) to join the Braves, a team with a better shot of winning in an easier division (National League East).

"It wasn't terms, it wasn't money," Anthopoulos said, playing the victim card while carefully holding his tongue as he walked through a scenario that included Santana firing his agent (Bean Stringfellow) after a coup within the Proformance agency that has resulted in Santana and Bautista casting their lot with Stringfellow's former colleague, Jay Alou.

It was a tough day for the Blue Jays and their fans. Santana has significant medical and statistical red flags – but all that would do is put him right at home in a rotation that includes seldom-healthy ace Brandon Morrow, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, aging workhorse Mark Buehrle, post-Tommy-John-surgery prospect Drew Hutchison and God knows who after that.

Anthopoulos was asked why the organization simply didn't blow away every other team and offer two or three years.

The response: Santana, 31, wanted one year to re-establish his value and try free agency again – which will do nothing to dissuade folks who think Anthopoulos played it a little too cute and was used for leverage.

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The Braves emerged as players after Kris Medlen developed an elbow injury that is expected to result in a second Tommy John ligament replacement procedure, and starter Brandon Beachy left a game this past Monday with elbow soreness.

The Braves, who, like the Blue Jays (Rogers Communications Inc.) are owned by a publicly-traded company – Liberty Media Corp. – had said they had no room in their budget for Santana. But general manager Frank Wren, whose team moves into a new ballpark in three years, successfully pressed ownership for the money to close the deal.

"I'm excited," Braves catcher Gerald Laird said. "We have a first-class organization. They went out and got it done for us."

This past Saturday, in particular, there was an expectation a deal with the Jays would get done. It was reinforced Wednesday, when, before a 5-4 win over the Rays, Toronto manager John Gibbons told reporters: "Talking about Santana kind of put some things on hold, changed our opinions on some things, but now that he's gone, we're back to where we were."

Enter Romero. A former all-star pitcher who simply lost it this past season, and isn't even on the 40-man roster, worked four innings Wednesday, giving up two hits, striking out three – including a called third strike on Ben Zobrist on a filthy 94-mph inside fastball – and walking two.

"He's moving in the right direction," Gibbons said. "Let's keep it rolling and see where it goes. We've decided to stretch him out … and see where it takes us."

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The Blue Jays will be hard-pressed this morning to convince people that where it will take them isn't over a cliff.

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