January 2007

Jays sign Victor Zambrano

The Jays made another low risk, high reward signing on Tuesday, inking right-hander Victor Zambrano to a Minor League deal that includes an invite to Spring Training. The contract also has a club option for 2008. This deal won’t have as immediate of an impact as the Tomo Ohka or John Thomsons signings do, though.

Zambrano is only eight months removed from reconstructive elbow surgery and it could take him until April, May, or later until he’s available to pitch. The bottom line is Toronto was willing to give Zambrano time to rehab, and if he comes back healthy, the club’s rotation depth could get another boost. Zambrano would provide another arm that acts as a contingency plan later in the season if someone gets hurt.

The Jays want to make a run at the division this year and part of that means not having to relying on so many young, unexperienced players. Sure, young players will need to fill a hole here or there, and that’s fine, but it’s not ideal for a team in contention to be overloaded with young guys. Think about last season for Toronto. The Jays had to lean on a number of rookies when A.J. Burnett and Gus Chacin got hurt. The pitchers did a good job, for the most part, but Zambrano could provide a more experienced, better prepared arm in a similar situation this year.

Of course, that means that Jays fans probably won’t see much of Casey Janssen or Dustin McGowan this year if other guys stay healthy — they’ll likely remain at Triple-A for much of the year. John Thomson and Tomo Ohka are leading the pack of pitchers vying for the Nos. 4-5 rotation spots, with Shaun Marcum nipping at their heals. Marcum could also possibly contend for a long relief role in the bullpen. It’s less likely that Josh Towers would be put into a relief role, and he seems to be a long shot to crack the rotation — though stranger things have happened. After all, he did win 13 games two years ago.

ARBITRATION UPDATE:

Toronto still has three arbitration-eligible players — Alex Rios, Reed Johnson and Scott Downs — left unsigned. One thing to keep in mind is that the Jays haven’t gone to an arb. hearing with a player since 1997. Last night, Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi didn’t have nay updates, except to say:

"Today, we’re probably going [to arbitration] on all three. Tomorrow, we could be getting close to getting a deal done. I don’t really panic on these at all. It’s just a process you have to go through. But, you know what? All three of them will be in Toronto this year playing."

So, no real updates, but any Jays fans still worrying about any pending trade involving Rios or Johnson can let out a sigh of relief. Although, when Toronto added Thomson and Ohka, it seemed very unlikely that the Jays were still aggressively pursuing trades. Ricciardi has said he’d rather add to what’s already in place anyway.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE CURRENT ROSTER?

If the season started today, here’s what the roster probably would look like. How do you all think it stacks up with others around the league?

Position Players:

1B Lyle Overbay          LF Reed Johnson        C Gregg Zaun
2B Aaron Hill               CF Vernon Wells         C Jason Phillips
SS Royce Clayton         RF Alex Rios
3B Troy Glaus              OF Matt Stairs
UT John McDonald
UT Jason Smith           DH Frank Thomas

Pitchers:

1. Roy Halladay            LR Scott Downs             CL B.J. Ryan
2. A.J. Burnett             LR Shaun Marcum (?)      SU Brandon League
3. Gustavo Chacin        MR Jason Frasor
4. John Thomson          MR Brian Tallet
5. Tomo Ohka              MR Jeremy Accardo

Jays agree to terms with Ohka

On Tuesday, Toronto reached a preliminary agreement on a one-year deal with free-agent starter Tomo Ohka. The deal is pending a physical, so Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi didn’t want to get into financial specifics until the deal was official. The contract is believed to be worth $1.5 million with another $1.5 million in incentives.

So as it currently stands, Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Gustavo Chacin, John Thomson and Tomo Ohka would make up Toronto’s rotation. Both Thomson and Ohka come with some recent injury history, and both Burnett and Chacin struggled with elbow issues last year, too. So if someone goes down this spring, Shaun Marcum, Josh Towers, Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan could be in the running for a rotation spot.

Marcum and Towers could also be in the running for a long relief role out of the bullpen. Towers isn’t ideal out of the bullpen, but Marcum has experience as a reliever and a starter, making it very possible that he could take that job. Janssen and McGowan seem destined for Triple-A. Anything can happen during Spring Training, though.

The Thomson and Ohka signings are both low risk deals that could turn out to be bargains for Toronto. If both are over their injuries, they are each capable of making 30 starts and logging 180-200 innings — all for the base price of $3 million combined.

For Ohka and his agent, Jim Masteralexis, run support played a big role in the decision. Ohka has a career ERA of 4.04, but a 48-57 record partly because he’s never pitched for a team with a prolific offense. That shouldn’t be an issue with Toronto, which should have one of the best O’s in all of baseball in 2007.

Ohka was initially looking for a three-year deal and he had a number of two-year offers on the table as recent as Monday. The pitcher and his agent decided instead to focus on one-year offers. That way Ohka can possibly benefit from pitching for a competitive team and once again become a free agent in 2008.

Position Battles

As we inch closer to Spring Training, one thing to look forward to every year is position battles. Last season, Toronto’s roster was pretty much locked in. That’s not the case this year, as there are a few positions that are up in the air.

Here’s a few spots where compeition may heat up:

1. STARTING ROTATION: Obviously, Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett and Gustavo Chacin are locks. John Thomson has also been given a starting job, which is his to lose this spring, as well. So that leaves the No. 5 spot up for grabs.

Leading candidate: RHP Shaun Marcum — He started for the first time as a rookie last year and impressed Toronto down the stretch.

Other candidates: RHP Casey Janssen, RHP Josh Towers and RHP Dustin McGowan.

2. BULLPEN: Six spots seem set with closer B.J. Ryan, and relievers Brandon League, Jason Frasor, Jeremy Accardo, Scott Downs and Brian Tallet. That leaves one spot open.

Leading candidates: There doesn’t appear to be one pitcher that’s a frontrunner for this job. It could be RHP Francisco Rosario, who is out of options, or LHP Davis Romero, who impressed Toronto last year, but would give the Jays four lefties in the ‘pen.

Darkhorse: RHP Geremi Gonzalez — Toronto manager John Gibbons said recently that Gonzalez could be a candidate for a bullpen job. He’s had a good showing in the Venezuelan Winter League and has Major League experience as a starter and as a reliever. He could provide a veteran arm to an otherwise young bullpen.

3. BACKUP CATCHER: Gregg Zaun signed a two-year deal to be Toronto’s starter and he has a vesting option for 2009 based on games caught. So he’ll garner most of the playing time. But the backup job appears to be a battle between two veterans.

Leading candidate: Jason Phillips appears to be the frontrunner for the job. He spent much of 2006 at Triple-A, but spent some time up with the Jays. One plus with Phillips is he can also be a backup at first base.

Other candidate: Sal Fasano recently signed with the Jays and would like to compete for the backup job. He doesn’t mind playing at Triple-A for Toronto, if needed, though. The reality is that the Jays will likely need a third catcher at some point during ’07 and Toronto’s top catching prospect, Curtis Thigpen, isn’t Major League ready, yet.

4. FOURTH OUTFIELDER: Toronto is set with Reed Johnson, Vernon Wells and Alex Rios in left, center and right, respectively. The fourth outfield job could become a competition this spring, though.

Leading candidate: Matt Stairs — Toronto signed Stairs to a Minor League deal in December with the hope that he could be their fourth outfielder. It seems likely that he’ll make the roster, but as with anything, things could change.

Other candidate: Adam Lind — With Johnson set to play everyday in left, Toronto would prefer to get Lind more at-bats at Triple-A. That doesn’t mean that Lind, who impressed Toronto last season, won’t try to crack the Major League roster. If the Jays wanted to platoon in left, Lind would likely split time with Johnson. That doesn’t appear to be an option at this point, though.

5. UTILITY INFIELDER: Toronto is set around the horn with 3B Troy Glaus, SS Royce Clayton/John McDonald, 2B Aaron Hill and 1B Lyle Overbay. Beyond that, though, the Jays could have a few players vying for a job.

Leading candidate: Jason Smith — Toronto picked Smith up in the Rule 5 Draft, hoping he could emerge as their 25th guy — a player who could provide depth at third, short, second and maybe even first. With Smith, though, third base lacks a true backup for Glaus.

Other candidates: Maybe John Hattig? He was decent in his short stint with the Jays last year and he would provide a switch-hitting option off the bench. Toronto also recently claimed switch-hitting shortstop Ray Olmedo off waivers from the Reds. In all likelihood, though, the super utility infielder job is Smith’s, barring something happening this spring. Russ Adams could also have an outside chance at making the roster. He’s set to start the year at Triple-A and Toronto manager John Gibbons sees him as a second baseman now, but he could play either short or second off the bench. He’ll have to show a lot this spring to have a shot at the Opening Day roster, though.

Of these, the starting rotation, bullpen and catcher jobs appear to be the only ones with competition set to take place. The fourth outfielder and utility infielder jobs appear set, but things could change. It’ll be interesting to see how they all pan out, though.

How do you think it will all play out? And who do you like as the top candidates for these positions?

ON ANOTHER NOTE: Congrats to my hometown Chicago Bears on making it to Super Bowl XLI. Maybe after the big game in two weeks, Chicago can have something else to talk about other than the ’85 Bears. I’m very much looking forward to seeing Manning vs. the Monsters.

Jays sign Overbay

Toronto has signed first baseman Lyle Overbay to a four-year deal worth $24 million. Overbay would’ve been eligible to become a free agent after the 2008 season and he likely would’ve garnered a 4-5 year deal on the open market. So securing the 2009-10 seasons in the contract was big for Toronto.

Overbay will make $4.2 million in 2007, including $3.8 million paid as a signing bonus. He is then scheduled to make $5.8 million in 2008 and $7 million in 2009 and 2010. The signing is also good because Overbay might’ve garnered more in 2008 through arbitration.

  • The contract for John Thomson has a base salary of $500,000, but it will jump to $1.5 million should he make the Major League roster out of Spring Training. Also, Thomson can make as much as $3.75 million — not the previously reported $4 million — if he can make 34 starts this year. If he makes 30 starts, Thomson would make $2 million and he’d make $2.5 million if he logs 32 starts.

Jays add Thomson and other notes

On Tuesday, Toronto signed 33-year-old right-hander John Thomson to a one-year deal worth $500,000. The contract also includes performances bonuses based on starts that could push Thomson’s salary up to around $4 million. Adding Thomson with an incentive-based deal is a good plan for the Jays. Toronto needs to replace the 180-odd innings that left with Ted Lilly’s departure and Thomson notched near or more than 200 innings in each of the 2003-04 seasons with Atlanta.

If he is truly over his history of injury woes — shoulder inflammation that cost him two months last year, a blister on his middle finger that sidelined him earlier in the season, mild elbow soreness near the end of last Spring Training, a more serious finger tendon injury that cost him three months in 2005, and surgery on his rotator cuff in ’99 — then this could be a bargain for Toronto. Should Thomson emerge as the No. 3 starter the Jays have been searching for, the Jays rotation could be in better shape than it was a year ago.

Also, if Thomson can successfully become the No. 3 starter, that would keep lefty Gustavo Chacin as the No. 4, which is where he is probably better suited. Thomson said he was under the impression that he was heading into Spring Training with a job to lose — not to compete for a job.

So if he pitches well, that leaves Shaun Marcum, Casey Janssen, Josh Towers and Dustin McGowan left competing for the last rotation spot. Marcum appears to be the frontrunner. Toronto was impressed with how he finished last season and he was more consistent than the other three pitchers. Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi has already stated that McGowan will most likely begin at Triple-A (Toronto secured that fourth option year for him). Towers could be a solid fifth starter if he can find his 2005 form, but who knows how likely that is after his 2-10 showing a year ago. Towers and McGowan will have to really show something this spring to realistically have a shot.

OTHER NOTES:

–All Thomson had to say on his conference call today was that a couple of reasons he chose Toronto was that he has been impressed with the outfield defense, which is led by three-time Gold Glover Vernon Wells, and the pitcher liked the prospect of pitching to catcher Gregg Zaun. In fact, Thomson did say both of those things. Thomson added some other unnecessary shots at the Mets and catcher Paul Lo Duca, though. New York was the only club other than Toronto to offer Thomson a Major League contract, but the starter liked what he saw with the Jays better:

"As far as just looking at Paul Lo Duca across the field, I’m not really into how he acts behind the plate," Thomson said. "I know a bit about Gregg Zaun and I know he wants to win and he’s not going to let anything get in his way to do that, and I like that. And then with Vernon Wells in centre field, I’m not really concerned about the outfield with him out there.  . . . Just watching the Mets outfield, if Cliff Floyd is out there it’s not a real good fit for him out there. He can hit the ball but as far as defence, he’s a little shaky. I just liked what’s happening in Toronto."

–The Globe and Mail’s Jeff Blair writes on his blog that, "The Blue Jays will invite [Robbie] Alomar to Toronto this summer to herald his induction onto the team’s Level of Excellence at the Rogers Centre. The club wanted to do it this past season when the Philadelphia Phillies were in town for an interleague series between June 30-July 2 — Phillies general manager Pat Gillick and former president Paul Beeston were to be part of the ceremony — but couldn’t get all the ducks lined up."

Also on Tuesday, Toronto agreed to terms on a one-year deal worth $825,000 with reliever Jason Frasor, thus avoiding arbitration. Now, Scott Downs, Reed Johnson, Alex Rios and Lyle Overbay remain as the only unsigned arb-eligible players for the Jays. The Blue Jays have talked with the agents for each player and Toronto is considering the possibility of a multi-year deal with Overbay.

–One pitcher to pay attention to this spring is reliever Francisco Rosario. The right-hander is out of options and will be in the running for a bullpen job. Barring injury, B.J. Ryan, Brandon League, Jeremy Accardo, Brian Tallet, Downs and Frasor all appear to be locks for the bullpen. That leaves one open spot, which Toronto manager John Gibbons said could go to either lefty Davis Romero, newly acquired righty Geremi Gonzalez or Rosario. If Romero won the job, Toronto would have four lefties and three righties in the bullpen. If Rosario doesn’t get the job, he’d have to clear waivers before being sent to Triple-A Syracuse.

That’s all for right now. I hope everyone had a good holiday and a happy new year. I’ve booked my flight to Florida, rented my car and got my living arrangements all set up for Spring Training. Now, if only that reporting date could come quicker so I could be down south soaking up the sun.

Stay tuned for more…

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