May 14, 2012

Guerrero Signs, Encarnacion Trade Looms

The Toronto Blue Jays’ signing of Vladimir Guerrero could be the first domino to fall in a potentially busy season for Alex Anthopoulos.

The 37-year-old was signed to a minor-league deal worth a pro-rated $1.3 million Thursday, and he is being evaluated by the club in extended spring training. If Guerrero can impress the Blue Jays’ management, he could earn a Major League spot as soon as early June.

With a man of this age, there are no guarantees that he will be able to make it this soon, or what kind of impact he would have if he does. The Jays do not have much money committed to Guerrero, so they would have no reservations about using him as a bench player. However, if he shows the brass enough to win their confidence early, he could find himself in the starting lineup not too far from now.

That scenario has one big question attached: who would he replace? Very significant, since anyone who loses their job would immediately be considered expendable. Any such player could theoretically be shipped out in exchange for the proven starting pitcher or the big bat the Blue Jays were rumoured to have been looking for this past winter.

In fact, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports has reported that Anthopoulos has already talked to the Philadelphia Phillies about the availability of Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino. In other words, a proven starting pitcher and a big bat. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. fed the fire a little more, telling FOX that he is at least going to “keep all lines of communication open.”

All this has to be taken with a grain of salt, as all speculation must, but the recent chain of events make a convincing case that something is brewing in the Toronto front office. So this brings us back to wondering who would be dealt for these types of assets.

If Vladimir Guerrero turns out to still be a big league-calibre hitter, it would be a given that a current starter would be shipped out to make room. Since Vlad is no longer capable of playing any sort of defense, he would have to be slotted in as a DH, as he was last year in Baltimore, where he hit .290 with 13 home runs.

That leaves two options for the Jays: trade Lind and put Encarnacion at first base, or simply trade Encarnacion. With their body of work over the first month of the season, most people would assume Adam Lind gets the axe. A .190 batting average with just 3 homers has been a major disappointment for the Opening Day cleanup hitter. Actually, Lind is in a two-year slump, since he hit for a .932 OPS in 2009.

Aside from that, Edwin Encarnacion has hit absolutely everything in April, and he is hitting it hard. He has been far-and-away Toronto’s best hitter, surging to 10 homers in this young campaign. It would be unimaginable trading this guy now; Lind seems to be the blatantly obvious victim.

The thing is, Alex Anthopoulos has never done what is obvious.

Ever since he arrived in Toronto, Anthopoulos has preached his philosophy to “sell high, buy low.” He could see Edwin’s recent tear as his opportunity to get maximum value for the 29-year-old. Still, to get a guy like Hamels or Victorino, he would likely need to be packaged with additional talent, but the Blue Jays would be adding fewer assets than if Lind was the centrepiece.

Besides, Anthopoulos has publicly committed to Adam Lind. He believes that at 28 years old he can get back to his ’09 numbers, and he is willing to be patient with him. This might actually be interpreted by some as a ploy to keep his trade value up. The explanation would be plausible in other cases, but this organization has a history of backing up their word in these situations, the clearest example being Dustin McGowan.

Under these circumstances, in would be a shock if Adam Lind were traded, the only conceivable exception would be if Anthopoulos found an absolutely fantastic deal. Not likely. Taking nothing away from Edwin Encarnacion’s recent tear, his name makes enormously more sense in a potential trade. As tough as it will be for the Toronto front office and fans to let go of such a hot bat, watching a Cole Hamels-type pitcher in the rotation would go a long way to ease the pain.

Of course, all this is contingent on whether Vladimir Guerrero is still a Big League-calibre hitter. Much of that will depend on the kind of shape he has kept in his lengthened offseason. He will not have to beat Edwin’s numbers, which would be entirely unrealistic.

All he needs to do is show that he can minimize the offensive drawback without Encarnacion enough that gains from the bolstered pitching staff will outweigh the losses in the lineup, so the Blue Jays would come out a better team.

Honestly, the odds are Guerrero will not be able to give the Toronto Blue Jays quite that much freedom. He could just as easily become a bench player with sporadic starts. But for $1.3 million, the gamble is irresistible.

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