The off-season is barely under way and already the first major item on a busy baseball calendar is coming up for the Toronto Blue Jays.
A decision must be made by the end of Thursday to either accept one of closer Kevin Gregg's two contract options - a $4.5-million (all currency U.S.) deal for next year, or a two-year option for a total of $8.75-million covering 2011 and 2012 - or decline them both and send the 6-foot-6 right-hander into free agency.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos declined to discuss the matter Tuesday beyond saying that the team was still working through the process, and the outcome will be a telling one for how the Blue Jays proceed with their bullpen in the coming weeks and months.
Left-hander Scott Downs and right-hander Jason Frasor are both free agents and no sure things to return since both earned a Type A designation and would fetch two compensatory draft picks should they sign elsewhere. If cut loose Gregg would be a Type B free agent and bring back one pick, and the Blue Jays may find letting all three go appealing given their organizational emphasis on scouting and player development.
But losing all three would also gut some of the most reliable parts of a bullpen that ranked 10th out of 14 teams in earned-run average last season, with no obvious route to replace them.
"I've had some conversations with Alex over the last few weeks but no indication of which way they're going to go," Gregg's agent, Dan Horwits of the Beverly Hills Sports Council, said. "Kevin had a good year and he did it pitching in the toughest division in baseball.
"He's put himself in good position for free agency if the Blue Jays don't pick up one of his two options."
Gregg, 32, recorded a career-high 37 saves last season, and while his earned-run average of 7.90 and 16 walks in 13 2/3 innings pitching on the second day of consecutive outings is a concern, the Blue Jays have no clear successor as closer.
Some feel lefty David Purcey may one day grow into the role - although he'll need to show he can fill Downs's shoes first - or that right-hander Josh Roenicke could be a candidate if he could consistently find the strike zone, but neither is ready to step up right now.
One theory making the rounds links the Blue Jays to a possible run at Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, who is due a big payday in arbitration this year that may be unpalatable to Boston's front office. The lure in Toronto would be reuniting with new manager John Farrell, his pitching coach with the Red Sox.
Like Papelbon, Chicago White Sox closer Bobby Jenks is another candidate to be non-tendered a contract offer ahead of the Dec. 2 deadline for arbitration-eligible players, making him a free agent.
Farrell's Boston ties is also leading to whispers that catcher Jason Varitek might end up with the Blue Jays. All-star John Buck is a Type B free agent and will be one of the most appealing backstops on the market, and it's unclear whether top prospect J.P. Arencibia is ready to handle the full load behind the plate.
As some insurance at catcher, Anthopoulos picked up the $1.2-million 2011 option on Jose Molina last week.
Also on the agenda is filling out Farrell's coaching staff. The return of pitching coach Bruce Walton and third-base coach Brian Butterfield was announced last week after Farrell's hiring, but positions at bench coach, hitting coach, first base coach and bullpen coach remain open.
Anthopoulos said talks with hitting coach Dwayne Murphy continues - the players would like to see him return - and he planned to have everyone in place "sooner rather than later."
Former Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi, meanwhile, has been hired as a special assistant to New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson.
Ricciardi was Toronto's GM from 2001-09 before spending last season as a baseball analyst with ESPN. He worked for the Oakland Athletics from 1986-2001, including 12 years when Alderson was the club's general manager.
The Blue Jays are expected to aggressively pursue trades and Anthopoulos will be able to get in some face-to-face dialogue at the general managers' meetings Nov. 16-17 in Orlando, Fla. The wheeling and dealing could peak at the Dec. 6-9 winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
"I'm talking to GMs right now, canvassing what everyone's needs are," said Anthopoulos. "I've been doing that the last little while on and off, and making my way through the 29 GMs to see where their priorities are to see if we line up in trade."
The Blue Jays could have as many as 15 potential arbitration cases to be dealt with in January, although a handful of them are good candidates to be non-tendered Dec. 2, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, left-handed swingman Brian Tallet and reliever Jeremy Accardo among them.
Also eligible for arbitration are: big-league home run leader Jose Bautista; starters Shaun Marcum, Brandon Morrow, Jesse Litsch, Shawn Hill of Georgetown, Ont., and Dustin McGowan; relievers Shawn Camp, Casey Janssen and Taylor Buchholz; shortstop Yunel Escobar; and outfielders Fred Lewis and Dewayne Wise.
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