TORONTO -- Alex Anthopoulos is about to embark on arguably the most difficult -- and easily the most important -- offseason of his tenure as the Blue Jays' general manager.
In the coming weeks, Toronto will face some very tough decisions on pending free agents and players with club options. It will be about finding the right balance between performance and value on a team that might not be able to add a lot of payroll.
The Blue Jays officially extended a qualifying offer of $15.3 million to left fielder Melky Cabrera on Saturday afternoon. Cabrera has until Nov. 10 to accept the offer or take his chances in free agency. If Cabrera declines, Toronto would receive a compensatory Draft pick in the event he signs with another organization.
"If ultimately we get priced out by years or dollars, that could happen, but that wouldn't have been the intent," Anthopoulos said in late September. "I'm not alluding this specifically to Melky, but there are times ... we may have had discussions with players in the past, whether it's Spring Training, whether it's during the All-Star break, whether it's in season and maybe we couldn't come to terms.
"Sometimes you collectively agree that maybe it's best that they test the market and they get a feel for what's out there, and that breaks the tie for you."
What Anthopoulos is able to do this offseason will be directly tied to the Blue Jays' payroll. Toronto is notoriously tight-lipped about a definitive number, and Anthopoulos insists he's provided with a general range to work from, but there's always an ability to ask ownership for more.
As expected, left-hander J.A. Happ had his $6.7 million option picked up for the 2015 season. That move had essentially been a foregone conclusion since he went 11-11 with a 4.22 ERA in 30 games this past season. Happ projects to be the club's No. 5 starter next season, but it's also possible he's someone the Blue Jays would look to move this winter to fill another area of need.
The news wasn't as good for Brandon Morrow, Dustin McGowan and Sergio Santos. Morrow's $10 million option was bought out for $1 million, McGowan's $4 million option was bought out for $500,000, and Santos' $6 million option was bought out for $750,000.
Once buyouts, club options and arbitration cases are factored in, Toronto will be on pace to have another hefty payroll. Whatever money is left for Anthopoulos to work with, he'll have to fix glaring holes in the bullpen, second base and potentially two spots in the outfield, depending on what happens with Cabrera and the soon-to-be departed Rasmus.
"I feel like we're real close," Blue Jays starter R.A. Dickey said. "We are such a streaky team, if we can just somehow arrest those times when we find ourselves on those negative streaks, I think we would be right in [postseason contention].
"I feel like we have a good contingency of players in here that know each other well enough and are dedicated to the collective goal of winning the pennant. Of course, we're some pieces away, otherwise we would have done it if not. So we have to try to identify what that is and move on."
Here's a closer look at where things stand with the Blue Jays as they head into what could prove to be a very busy offseason:
Arbitration-eligible: C George Kottaras, IF Brett Lawrie, IF Juan Francisco, IF Danny Valencia, IF/OF John Mayberry Jr., IF Dan Johnson, LHP Brett Cecil.
Free agents: OF Cabrera, OF Rasmus, RHP Janssen, IF Munenori Kawasaki, 1B/DH, C Josh Thole ($1.5 million option), 1B Justin Smoak ($3.65 million club option, with $150,000 buyout).
Rotation: The Blue Jays have more certainty in their starting rotation than anywhere else on the roster. The club could look to move veteran lefty Mark Buehrle this winter, but his $19 million salary in 2015 will make that a difficult task. Barring any moves, Buehrle and Dickey will provide the veteran presence on a staff that will include emerging pitchers such as Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchison. Top prospects Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez will be under consideration. Happ's option was picked up to keep him in the fold, while a trade also remains a possibility.
Bullpen: Anthopoulos has a lot of work to do in the bullpen. Janssen is expected to leave as a free agent, and McGowan's $4 million club option was too expensive for his role in middle relief. Sanchez's career would be best served with a return to the starting rotation, and Morrow is expected to explore starting jobs elsewhere before considering a relief option with the Blue Jays. There's strength from the left side in Cecil and Aaron Loup, but not much after that. Toronto will need to not only find a closer, but also a right-handed setup man this winter. Estrada figures to be a long man, unless a spot opens up in the rotation.
Catcher: Veteran Dioner Navarro was the Blue Jays' only significant addition prior to the 2014 season, and he'll once again be returning in a starting role. He proved a lot of people wrong this season by not fading down the stretch despite setting a career high in games played. Navarro has his drawbacks -- blocking balls in the dirt and framing pitches -- but he also has a lot of offensive upside and is well-liked by the pitching staff. Backup Thole also could return as Dickey's personal catcher, but the Blue Jays would be well served to add some depth at this spot in case Navarro goes down with an injury.
First base: The Blue Jays have spent the past several years with Encarnacion and Adam Lind splitting time at first base and DH. Lind was traded to the Brewers for right-hander Marco Estrada, while Toronto claimed Smoak off waivers from Seattle during the World Series.
Second base: This position became somewhat of a revolving door after Aaron Hill was dealt to the D-backs in 2011. Kelly Johnson, Emilio Bonifacio, Maicer Izturis, Ryan Goins and Kawasaki are just a few of the players who have been given a shot at everyday playing time since Hill left. Second base was a position of need last offseason, and it remains one now. Izturis will return next year after missing almost all of 2014 with a knee injury, but he is best served in a utility role, with spot starts against lefties. Lawrie is a fallback option at second, but that would require Anthopoulos to find an upgrade at third.
Shortstop: Jose Reyes battled shoulder and hamstring injuries for most of 2014, but he still was able to appear in more than 125 games for the fourth time in five seasons. The fact that Reyes was able to avoid the DL from mid-April until the end of the year was impressive, but the health issues also appeared to take their toll on the field. There was a noticeable decline in Reyes' range, and while there are no current plans to move him off shortstop, it's something that will need to be addressed in the future. One possible solution is finding an adequate backup so that Reyes can receive more regular time off. Reyes has $66 million and three years remaining on his contract, so he likely isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Third base: Lawrie has yet to find a way to remain healthy, and that's a big problem for the organization. The starting job should once again belong to Lawrie, but Anthopoulos will have to make sure he has a capable backup ready to go in case the health issues return in 2015. When Lawrie played this season, he split his time between second and third, and while that remains a possibility, the organization would like to find him a permanent home. The priority appears to be adding a second baseman this offseason, but if it's a third baseman instead, the club could shift Lawrie up the middle. The fact that Lawrie can provide that kind of versatility is one of his greatest assets.
Outfield: Anthopoulos has a lot of things he needs to take care of this offseason, but nothing is more pressing than his situation in the outfield. Rasmus has played his last game in a Blue Jays uniform, but the organization can only hope that the same can't be said about Cabrera. Despite Toronto extending a qualifying offer worth $15.3 million this offseason, Cabrera is likely to reject it to seek out other potential suitors. Toronto could go with a platoon of Anthony Gose and Kevin Pillar in center field next year, but the lack of offense from that position would become an even bigger issue if Cabrera isn't brought back into the fold.
Designated hitter: Smoak may be in line for the job with Lind being dealt to Milwaukee. The switch-hitting first baseman is coming off a disappointing season in Seattle that saw him hit seven home runs while posting a .202 average before losing his job to Logan Morrison. Mayberry Jr. and Valencia are options vs. left-handed pitchers, but they have more value when used in a platoon with Lind, who could be on his way out after nine years in a Blue Jays uniform.
Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB.