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Blue Jays plan to be aggressive this winter

TORONTO -- Alex Anthopoulos is set to embark on what could be the most pivotal offseason of his tenure as the Blue Jays' general manager.

Anthopoulos must fill at least a couple of glaring holes in the starting rotation and around the diamond if he hopes to get his team back on track following a disappointing second half in 2012.

The task won't be easy, with a lot of other teams also in the market for pitching, but whether through free agency or trades, Anthopoulos knows he needs to make some key additions.

"The focus is really on the rotation," Anthopoulos recently said. "It doesn't mean we're not going to look to get better, offensively or in the bullpen, but you see teams that have pitched but didn't score as many runs and [remained] in contention.

"What we did in the middle of the summer, we masked a lot of the issues in the rotation because the offense was performing so well. ... At the Trade Deadline, we were two out of the Wild Card. We've shown the ability to put it together for a while."

Among position players, injuries to Jose Bautista, J.P. Arencibia, Brett Lawrie and Adam Lind derailed postseason aspirations, but the club hopes to improve on its offensive showing in 2013 with a return to health and a few minor adjustments.

The same can't necessarily be said about the rotation, which has some significant holes behind hard-throwing righty Brandon Morrow. The club will need a return to form for left-hander Ricky Romero, but even if that happens, the Blue Jays are in need of at least a couple of arms.

One of the biggest question marks heading into the offseason is whether owner Rogers Communications will approve a level of payroll that might be required to make such necessary upgrades. The Blue Jays don't operate under a set payroll, but they do have a "range" and "parameters" within which Anthopoulos must work.

President Paul Beeston has talked in the past of being able to spend upward of $125 million to $150 million on the club's payroll, but that doesn't appear to be a realistic option in the near future. One thing does seem certain, though -- Toronto's 2013 payroll will be higher than the $75.5 million spent this year.

"Our payroll is going to go up; that I know," Anthopoulos said. "No doubt about it.

"It has climbed each year, and it will continue to climb. To what level does it end up climbing? That remains to be seen. ... I think it will continue to climb into a pretty good area."

Even if the Blue Jays don't make a major splash in free agency, they'll likely be in on almost every big-name starter to become available via the trade market. Last year, the club made a hard push for Gio Gonzalez and Mat Latos, only to be outbid and see each dealt to another team.

Toronto could be in a better position to make a big move this offseason, however. Top prospects such as Justin Nicolino, Aaron Sanchez and Noah Syndergaard are all one step closer to the big leagues, while the system as a whole ranks among the best in baseball.

The talent is there to make a move. It's just a matter of whether the asking price from other teams will be appropriate.

"We made a lot of really good players available," Anthopoulos said of last year's trade market. "At times, it was two, three, four. It's just, 'How many?' and 'Does it make sense?'

"I think we had players that were a little further down in the Minor Leagues, and now they've graduated to a higher level. We know them a little bit better. I think their value around the league should be stronger, because there's no question the prospects that are closer have more value."

Here's a look at how each position breaks down heading into the offseason:

Catcher: The catching position will be one of the most interesting storylines for the Blue Jays this offseason. Arencibia is firmly entrenched as the starter but could become trade bait if top prospect Travis d'Arnaud is deemed ready for the next level. There likely isn't room for both players on the roster at the same time, so one may eventually need to be dealt. Toronto could buy more time on that front by starting d'Arnaud at Triple-A for a second consecutive season, but according to most reports, he could be ready when 2013 begins.

First base: Edwin Encarnacion enjoyed a breakout season at the plate in 2012, surpassing both the 40-homer and 100-RBI plateaus en route to securing a three-year contract extension. The former third baseman was once a defensive liability but established himself at first by displaying impressive range and footwork around the bag. He has become a fixture in the heart of the Blue Jays' lineup and will be a big part of any future success.

Second base: Starter Kelly Johnson is a free agent and appears unlikely to return following a disappointing season at the plate. Both sides are prepared to part ways, which could open the door for Adeiny Hechavarria to start the season at the position. But Hechavarria is a natural shortstop, and sticking him at second would be a disservice to his overall abilities in the field, so it also remains possible the club will consider an alternative option.

Shortstop: Yunel Escobar didn't earn much fan support in Toronto this season. Between a substandard campaign at the plate and a late-season suspension for writing a homophobic slur on his eye-black patches, Escobar had year to forget. Contrary to popular reports, though, the Blue Jays did not actively shop Escobar at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, and he remains the favorite to start at short again next year. His trade value took a hit following this year's controversy, and it's unlikely Toronto would deal him just for the sake of unloading his contract, which is relatively inexpensive.

Third base: Lawrie entered the 2012 season facing unrealistic expectations after his impressive rookie campaign. He understandably went through some growing pains during his sophomore season, but it was his high ground-ball rate and lack of overall power that proved to be most surprising. He still needs to improve his discipline at the plate but should be poised for a step up in 2013.

Left field: This is one of the biggest question marks on the Blue Jays heading into the offseason. Toronto has a club option with Rajai Davis that will likely be picked up, but the Blue Jays would prefer to use him as a fourth outfielder. Rookie Anthony Gose will have a chance to compete for the job during Spring Training if another option is not found from outside the organization.

Center field: Colby Rasmus showed flashes of greatness but ultimately struggled with consistency this past season. During a stretch in June and July, he established himself as one of the best center fielders in the game, only to see his performance drop off in the final two months. If Rasmus is able to put together a full season of strong production, he'll immediately become a core piece of future Toronto clubs, but he's still in the process of proving his doubters in St. Louis wrong.

Right field: For the first time in a couple of years, there will be a level of uncertainty associated with Bautista. The veteran slugger was brilliant again in 2012, but a left wrist injury ended his season after just 92 games. The nature of the injury will generate questions about whether Bautista will be able to regain his power stroke, but the Blue Jays are expecting a full recovery. The three-time All-Star should be ready to go by the start of Spring Training.

Designated hitter: Lind was expected to become a cornerstone of the franchise when he signed a long-term extension back in 2010. Instead, the past three years have mostly resulted in disappointment, and his future with the organization is suddenly in doubt. Lind has one guaranteed year left on his deal, and if no upgrades are made during the offseason, he'll remain the favorite to start, with David Cooper also having an outside shot at the job.

Starting rotation: Upgrading the rotation is Anthopoulos' top priority for the offseason. He's already on record as saying that Morrow and Romero are the only two starters with guaranteed jobs heading into 2013. J.A. Happ, Henderson Alvarez and perhaps even Chad Jenkins will receive consideration in the spring, but who gets the remaining three slots will ultimately depend on how many starters Toronto acquires. The Blue Jays would like to add at least two arms prior to Spring Training. Right-hander Carlos Villanueva enjoyed a successful run as a starter before tailing off at the end of the year, but he's seeking a multiyear contract and will likely depart as a free agent.

Closer: Sergio Santos was acquired prior to the 2012 season to serve as the club's closer for the foreseeable future, but his season came to an end after just six appearances because of a right shoulder injury. Even if Santos is deemed healthy by Spring Training -- which is still somewhat of a question mark -- he won't reclaim the closer's role, at least not immediately. That job will go to right-hander Casey Janssen, who performed admirably as Santos' replacement this season and did nothing at all to justify another change.

Bullpen: During the early stages of 2012, Toronto's bullpen was arguably the weakest component of the team. Anthopoulos set out to change that by acquiring right-handers Steve Delabar and Brad Lincoln prior to the non-waiver Trade Deadline. The Blue Jays have a team option on left-hander Darren Oliver and would love to bring him back in 2013, but there's still an outside chance he opts for retirement. Toronto is also likely to have interest in pending free agent Brandon Lyon, while veteran right-hander Jason Frasor's status remains up in the air as he prepares to hit the open market.

Toronto Blue Jays