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Toronto may look to open market for rotation help

Right-hander Jimenez, Japanese star Tanaka headline crop of free-agent starters

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays have at least a few holes on their roster that need to be fixed, but there's little doubt that the more glaring need can be found on the mound.

Toronto's starting rotation was supposed to be one of the league's best in 2013, but instead became one of its worst. The club has since parted ways with the disappointing Josh Johnson, while R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow are the only three with guaranteed jobs heading into the spring.

The general line of thinking is that the Blue Jays would ideally like to add a couple of starters this offseason, but at the very least, they need to acquire one. The fifth spot potentially could be filled by Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, J.A. Happ or Esmil Rogers, but there's a glaring need for another middle-of-the-rotation arm.

Blue Jays generally manager Alex Anthopoulos generally prefers to stay away from the free-agent market, but there are signs that could be changing this offseason. Anthopoulos told reporters at this week's General Managers Meetings in Orlando, Fla., that Toronto has some money to spend, and the preferred route could be using the open market to the club's advantage.

The current market for starters is rather weak in terms of top talent, but there does appear to be a lot of depth. That could work in the Blue Jays' favor, but regardless of whom the club ends up targeting, it's going to come at a hefty price tag.

Here's a closer look at some of the top starters that are available through free agency:

Ubaldo Jimenez: The Blue Jays have been linked to Jimenez in the past, and the rumors will undoubtedly heat up again this offseason. Jimenez was one of the best starters in the game a few of years ago, but he struggled with the Indians in 2011-12. His biggest issue was a lack of command, but he figured things out at the right time by posting an impressive 3.30 ERA in his final season before free agency. Jimenez would appear to fit the mold of what Toronto is looking for and he's still only 29 years old, but there's plenty of risk, considering his previous struggles in Cleveland.

Masahiro Tanaka: Major League Baseball is currently negotiating a new posting-fee agreement with Japan that would impact the status of potential imports such as Tanaka. There have been concerns in the past about the high costs required to submit blind bids, but as of the latest reports, it doesn't appear much will change prior to the 2014 season. That could be good news for the Blue Jays, who could secure negotiating rights with a high bid, instead of having to compete against other teams in an open market where the player would have a final say on his future destination. Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish scouted Tanaka earlier this year in Japan, but it's not immediately clear how much interest Toronto has for a pitcher who doesn't strike out nearly the same number of batters as his countryman, Rangers righty Yu Darvish.

Ervin Santana: The 30-year-old righty reportedly is seeking approximately $100 million through free agency after a season in which he posted a 3.24 ERA over 211 innings for Kansas City. Santana is just one year removed from a disappointing campaign with the Angels, when he struggled to a 9-14 record and a 5.16 ERA. That should raise at least a few red flags, but it was the only year since 2009 that Santana failed to reach at least 200 innings with an ERA below 4.00. It's hard to envision the Blue Jays competing with a $100 million offer, but if the asking price drops, then Toronto could become a potential suitor.

Matt Garza: The well-traveled 29-year-old is a proven commodity in the American League East after spending three seasons with the Rays, from 2008-10. Since leaving Tampa Bay, though, he's battled a variety of injuries and wasn't impressive in a short stint with the Rangers following a trade at the 2013 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Garza's asking price is expected to be high, but considering his checkered past, it should be lower than that of Santana's.

Ricky Nolasco: Baseball is currently flush with cash because of lucrative television contracts, and nowhere else is it more evident than in the asking price of Nolasco. The former Marlins right-hander reportedly is seeking upwards of $80 million on the open market, which seems high considering his career 4.37 ERA. Nolasco was one of the Dodgers' biggest acquisitions prior to the non-waiver Trade Deadline, but when the postseason rolled around, Los Angeles gave him just one start. That's pretty telling, and it seems unlikely Toronto would take the risk unless Nolasco's asking price severely drops.

Scott Kazmir: The 29-year-old lefty is one of the more interesting candidates available in free agency. Kazmir made just one appearance in the Major Leagues from 2011-12, but he received an opportunity with the Indians this year and didn't disappoint. Kazmir resurrected his career by going 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA while striking out 162 over 158 innings. He isn't nearly as enticing as some of the other names on this list, but there is some upside there, and his asking price should be quite a bit less. Kazmir likely will take his time in free agency while waiting for some of the other available pitchers to set the market value.

The best of the rest: Veteran right-handers Bartolo Colon and Tim Hudson are both free agents, but it seems unlikely either player would join Toronto at this stage of their career. Both would require only short-term deals, but they likely will prefer to stay away from the notoriously hitter-friendly Rogers Centre.

Right-hander Bronson Arroyo is another interesting candidate, especially after the Reds declined to make him a qualifying offer. The 36-year-old is one of the most durable pitchers in the game, as evidenced by his 10 consecutive seasons with at least 178 innings pitched. His last two years included ERAs below 3.80, but that should be expected to rise with a transition to the AL.

Johnson will be a reclamation project for someone, but that team won't be the Blue Jays. Toronto appeared to make its message clear by declining to extend a qualifying offer to the former ERA champion, and it appears as though he will head back to the National League, where he can recoup value without the added danger of a designated hitter. Johnson should be able to get close to $10 million, and if Toronto was interested, the club likely would have just guaranteed him the $14.1 million with a qualifying offer.

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB.
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