The addition of the second Wild Card slot in both leagues has certainly increased the intrigue surrounding the playoff race as we enter the stretch drive in August. Plenty of teams still look like they have a shot at earning a chance to play a one-game playoff for a berth in the American League Division Series. Let’s take a look at how the race is shaping up in the American League. GB represents how many games the team is behind in the Wild Card race and does not represent where they sit in their respective division races. Los Angeles Angels | 68-49, +4.5 GB The Angels have a four-and-a-half game cushion for the first of two Wild Card slots, but got dealt a blow to their rotation on Sunday with news that Tyler Skaggs will require season-ending Tommy John surgery. The 23-year was enjoying his first full season of big league action and threw 118 innings across 18 starts. He ends his rookie campaign with a 4.30 ERA, 3.55 FIP, and 3.67 xFIP, and will be shelved for the entire 2015 season as well. LA is rumored to be in the market for a starting pitcher to take the place of Skaggs and will rely on Matt Shoemaker and Hector Santiago in the back of the rotation for the time being. Mike Trout and Erick Aybar have lead the majors’ second best offense with 550 runs scored and Albert Pujols has chipped in a solid season as well now that he’s healthy. Josh Hamilton still remains an x-factor in the Angels offense as he can be a difference-maker when he’s healthy and hitting the ball out of the park like he can, but his 30.5 percent strikeout rate is a problem, even by his standards. The Halos have closed the gap on the division leading Oakland Athletics, but may have to settle for a one-game playoff to stick around in the postseason. They shored up their bullpen prior to the Trade Deadline and aside from the loss of Skaggs, don’t have any significant holes at the moment. Kansas City Royals | 63-53, —- The Royals have been red hot of late and are winners of nine of their previous ten games. Although their offense has been below average, their pitching staff has a 3.58 ERA, good for tenth-best in baseball. Led by free-agent-to-be James Shields, the rotation has gotten excellent production out of Jason Vargas and the emerging Yordano Ventura. The Royals bullpen has also been outstanding with Wade Davis and Greg Holland playing key roles. Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez have lead the offense with some help from outfielder Lorenzo Cain who’s building on a solid 2013 season with a 106 wRC+ and 16 stolen bases. Kansas City made modest deals at the deadline picking up veteran relievers Jason Frasor and Scott Downs but could be in good shape if Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer are able to heat up offensively. The Royals can get by for now on their pitching, but the bats need to start carrying their weight or the postseason drought will continue for the club. [pullquote]The Cleveland Indians took two of three from the Yankees over the weekend and now find themselves five games back in the Wild Card chase, but could take the form of a long shot if they don’t go on a hot streak in the very near future.[/pullquote] Seattle Mariners | 62-55, 1.5 GB Lead by the best pitching staff in the majors, the Mariners have kept themselves in the race despite an offsense that doesn’t show up at least once a week. Felix Hernandez is in the midst of a Cy Young calibre season Hisashi Iwakuma has been as good a No.2 starter as any other team has to offer. The bullpen has also been unbelievable with a 2.33 ERA and the ever-erratic Fernando Rodney who is second in the American League in saves. The club also received a boost with the return of James Paxton to the rotation after he missed the bulk of the season with a lat injury. Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager have been stalwarts in the lineup that received some much needed support on July 31st with the acquisitions of Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia. Dustin Ackley has been red hot the past several weeks and if Kendrys Morales wakes up from his slumber, the M’s could have a playoff-calibre one-through-five in their lineup. Michael Saunders should also return from injury within the next week and will push Endy Chavez, who’s played a regular role in the lineup, to the bench which will further improve the lineup. Seattle’s gotten a near-historic performance from their pitching staff and it would be a shame to see it wasted due to their offensive troubles. If they can keep up the solid play — they just took three of four from the Chicago White Sox — then it’s possible three AL West teams could qualify for playoff spots, but the offense is going to need to step it up for that to happen. Toronto Blue Jays | 63-56, 1.5 GB The Blue Jays were the team to beat heading into the 2013 season, but after a disappointing year lost to injuries, they’re now within arms reach of their first playoff appearance in two decades. The club had lead the AL East for most of the last month-plus, but the resurgent Baltimore Orioles have distances themselves from the pack with a five game lead. Toronto’s offense — fourth best in baseball with 532 runs scored — features a pair of premier sluggers in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, but the latter hit the disabled list in early July and is just setting out on a rehab assignment. Jose Reyes has remained healthy this year and helped offset the lost contributions of Encarnacion, Adam Lind, and Brett Lawrie who’ve all spent significant time on the disabled list. Pitching has been the Jays weakness this year as the staff’s 4.08 ERA is the seventh worst in baseball. R.A. Dickey has been good, but not the ace he was two years ago. Mark Buehrle had an outstanding start to the season that netted him an All-Star selection, but has struggled in his last couple starts. Rookie Marcus Stroman has taken the reigns of the rotation and has been a huge plus for the Jays with his 3.02 FIP in 13 starts including a two-run nine inning performance on Saturday — he was not credited with a complete game since the contest went into extra innings. The bullpen has been steady but unspectacular. Toronto elected to stand pat at the trade deadline despite a clear need for a top of the rotation starter and possibly a middle infielder. They were reluctant to include their top prospects Aaron Sanchez, who’s pitching out of the bullpen, and Stroman and obviously were unwilling to meet the price tags of the elite starters that were available. The club will get a huge boost when Encarnacion returns, but it appears as though their pitching could end up being the reason they don’t reach the postseason. New York Yankees | 61-56, 2.5 GB If there’s one team that you can’t ever count out, it’s the Yankees. Despite having a rotation held together by duct tape — quite literally as Masahiro Tanaka, C.C. Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and Michael Pineda are on the disabled list — New York has gotten another solid season out of veteran starter Hiroki Kuroda and Brandon McCarthy, whom they acquired prior to the deadline, has also pitched well. Dellin Betances and David Robertson have shined in the bullpen while Shane Greene has been effective in his first taste of major league action as well. The Yankees spent big on their offense in the winter adding Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran, but have still gotten below average run production on the year. Derek Jeter, now playing in the final months of his career, has had a decent season at the plate while Brett Gardner has been the team’s most productive batter with his 127 wRC+. Health has once again been a factor for Mark Teixeira who’s put together a decent season with 19 home runs, and the club has managed to patch holes around the infield with Stephen Drew and Chase Headley — both were acquired prior to the deadline. New York wasn’t going to pack it in for the Captain’s final season, but it’s difficult to see them making a serious push considering their lack of pitching depth and aging roster. That could change if Tanaka is able to return, but that’s no sure thing at the moment.Go!

With the All-Star Break complete and Major League Baseball’s second half officially underway, nearly all attention turns to the rumor mill as the July 31st non-waiver deadline quickly approaches. The Oakland Athletics set the bar early for contending clubs looking to bolster their roster when they picked up starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Chicago Cubs in a blockbuster deal that sent top prospect Addison Russell to the Cubbies. The Seattle Mariners find themselves with a grip on one of the American League Wild Card spots heading into the weekend and are known to be in the market for an upgrade or two, but could they be the next club to make a franchise-altering trade? Reports throughout the past few days have connected the M’s with David Price and Ben Zobrist of the Tampa Bay Rays, and on Friday I summed up the latest on the trade talks between the two clubs. There appears to be a real possibility that should the Rays choose to deal during a dismal season they could receive a package including Nick Franklin in exchange for the super-utility player. Reports indicated that the clubs have not only discussed a deal for Zobrist, but have expanded trade talks to include Price as well. As expected however, the inclusion of top prospect Taijuan Walker appears to be a sticking point for the Rays if they are to move their ace, and it’s possible that D.J. Peterson could be involved as well. The cost would be high, but consider the boost Zobrist would add to the lineup and a rotation of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Price. That’d be alright, I’d say. Sticking with the trade talk, Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill gives a run down on several potential trade targets for the Mariners. Although Samardzija, Hammel, and Brandon McCarthy have already been dealt and Seth Smith was re-signed by the San Diego Padres, Churchill mentions Matt Joyce and James Loney of the Rays as potential targets as well outfielders Alex Rios, Marlon Byrd, and Josh Willingham. Alex Carson examined Byrd as a possibility in depth this week and opines that the outfielder very much makes sense for the M’s to acquire. Byrd is owed $8 million for the 2015 season and has an $8 million option for 2016 that he would want exercised in exchange for waiving his no-trade clause to come to the Emerald City — Seattle is one of just four teams that he can block trades to. The veteran outfielder may not be able to replicate his performance from the second half of the 2013 season, but Carson argues that he doesn’t have to in order to be a worthwhile acquisition as even adding a slight upgrade over what the M’s have in-house could still end up paying difference-making dividends during the stretch drive. The New York Yankees have now released outfielder and former All-Star Alfonso Soriano and I examined whether or not he would be a fit for the Mariners. James Paxton has slowly been making his way back to the big leagues and made his first rehab start on Thursday with the Everett Aqua Sox. PI’s Brendan Gawlowski was in attendance and reported that the southpaw felt no pain after throwing 42 pitches in two and two-thirds innings pitched; his pitch count was limited to fifty pitches. It’s expected that Paxton will make two or three more rehab starts before he potentially could rejoin the big league rotation. Over on the fantasy side of things, Steve Simas features the prospects selected for this year’s Futures Game in a two-part Nook Nacks series. In part one Simas profiles a quintet of players including Julio Urias who is property of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Josh Bell of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. In part two he has analysis on another five players including Mookie Betts who has since been promoted to the big leagues by the Boston Red Sox and Enny Romero, a left-handed pitcher in the Rays organization. Prospect Insider’s Mariners of the month for June were a pair of the club’s All-Stars: King Felix and Kyle Seager. Fernando Rodney and Robinson Cano also represented the M’s at the midsummer classic. For the rest of baseball it was another pair of All-Stars, Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, picking up the honors of PI’s players of the month for June. Sticking with the major league side of things, Churchill presented his mid-season report card for the Mariners a couple weeks ago. While it’s no surprise to see Hernandez and Cano with A’s beside their names, they aren’t the only one to receive high praise for their first-half performance. Relievers Fernando Rodney, Dominic Leone, and Yoervis Medina all received top grades in a bullpen that has no doubt been a strength of Seattle’s this year. Churchill also rounded up some of the M’s international free agent signings earlier this month when the signing period began. The biggest deal Seattle has given out so far belongs to Brayan Hernandez, an outfielder from Venezuela, who received $1.85 million. PI’s Chris Hervey has a scouting report on Jamie Schultz who is a pitching prospect in the Rays organization as well as plenty of other notes on Rays and Toronto Blue Jays prospects that are definitely worth checking out. I also got a chance to see Miguel Castro and Ryan McBroom who are with the Blue Jays short-season Single-A club while Gawlowski has reports on Alberto Tirado and Franklin Barreto, also top prospects with the Jays.Go!

Last week, the short-season affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays rolled through Everett. The Jays have loaded their Northwest League affiliate with good prospects over the past few seasons, and this year that pattern continues. Right-hander Alberto Tirado and shortstop Franklin Barretto highlight a roster that included a few more intriguing players than I was expecting. Alberto Tirado, RHPAfter a strong 2013 season, Tirado earned a promotion all the way to Single-A Lansing and a spot on Baseball Prospectus’s Top 101 Prospects list. This year though, the promising right-hander has been a mess. He struck out a batter per inning in Lansing but also walked 39 men in 40 frames and was demoted back to short-season ball to find his control again. His start Thursday was another outing to forget, as he walked three in the first and had to depart after throwing 35 pitches. In that inning, Tirado showed flashes of why evaluators are extremely high on him: the 19-year-old’s fastball sat 93-94 and reached 95, he changed speeds effectively with a tight mid-80’s slider, and even threw a decent change up or two. He’s an athletic 6-foot-1 and it was impossible not to notice how quick his arm is or how easy the gas looks when he lets a fastball go. The mystery right now is how to fix Tirado’s control. Unlike some of the less polished arms that populate the Northwest League, Tirado doesn’t have a clunky motion or an obvious hitch in his delivery: in fact, I kind of liked how efficient he was with his legs and thought he repeated a fairly simple delivery well. Tirado wasn’t really wild in the traditional sense either; when I think wild, I envision Colorado ROckies right-hander Peter Tago hitting several batters while spiking fastballs and throwing sliders a good six feet off the plate. That wasn’t really Tirado’s problem — he just had no fastball command and was squeezed by an umpire with a tight and inconsistent strike zone. It’s an open question whether Tirado’s slight frame –- he’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds but looks thinner -– has caused him to wear down over the course of the year and prevented him from taking developmental strides in 2014. This is his longest season as a professional, and he’s already had a start skipped because of arm fatigue, so there are certainly reasons to explain away some recent poor performances. Still, I came away cautiously optimistic about Tirado’s future. While the lack of fastball command at this point in his career is a problem that seriously jeopardizes his chance to start in a big league rotation, his ultimate ceiling hasn’t changed much, even if it appears much more unlikely that he’ll reach it. I wouldn’t be surprised if his command comes around in the future: his delivery doesn’t have any red flags and he’s thrown strikes before. He might ultimately be best off as a reliever, where he’d be free to air out his impressive arsenal while mitigating concerns about his build and, to some extent, his ability to pound the strike zone. Franklin Barreto, SS Just 18 years of age, Barreto is perhaps the best prospect among position players in the Northwest League. For three games, Barreto crushed just about everything he saw, making hard contact against Everett’s best arms. He’s a natural hitter with quick hands and an excellent knack for getting the barrell to the ball. He laced line drives all over the park in both games and batting practice and I was particularly impressed by a couple of well-struck opposite field extra-base hits that landed behind the right fielder. I remember him swinging and missing but twice all series, which is incredible for a high-school age talent facing veteran college arms 3-5 years his senior. He’s also a 60 runner. While Barreto’s abilities are obvious, the holes in his game at this point are equally apparent. The Venezuelan can make contact with just about any pitch he sees, a skill that he’s a little too keen to take advantage of at present: he’s a free swinger and he probably hasn’t had much experience working counts in his life. He could have a 70 hit tool at peak maturity, but his batting average will play down if he doesn’t develop some patience and learn to lay off pitches that will induce weak putouts. Barreto is currently a shortstop, but a quick glance around the Internet suggests that practically no evaluator thinks he’ll stick there, and I don’t see any reason to disagree with that assessment. His arm isn’t special for the position and while he has plenty of speed, his actions are unrefined. On two occasions Thursday he misplayed grounders by trying to backhand balls he should have got in front of. He also made several bad throws, including one where he threw to the wrong base and another where he dallied after fielding a grounder and ultimately fired wide of first base. It looks like he’ll need some work to stay in the infield, but he certainly has the athleticism to play second or third. If all else fails, I’d bet his bat will play in center. There was one particular pitch that encapsulated Barreto about as well as such a snippet possibly can. In his second to last at-bat of the series, Barreto was up and early in the count, Sam Lindquist threw him a breaking ball headed for the dirt. Barreto made an adjustment and ripped a hard grounder down the line, just foul. It took incredible coordination to not only hit a breaking ball – one that he probably wasn’t expecting, based on the count – but to also put good wood on it and hit it hard. As good as that kind of coordination is though, his decision to swing at an obvious ball also highlights the aggressiveness he’ll need to tame if he’s ever going to be a serious on base threat. It’s an exciting, boom or bust kind of package, and I’m looking forward to monitoring his progress throughout his minor league career.Go!

On Monday night I took in some short season Class-A action between the Vancouver Canadians (TOR) and the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (SFG), a game the Canadians took handily by a score of 10-2. The Northwest League season begins in June and is often the first stop for players drafted out of high school or college once they’re signed. For example, Marcus Stroman who was selected No. 22 overall by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2012 amateur draft made seven appearances for the Canadians in July of that year before being promoted to Double-A New Hampshire. Stroman is a particularly exceptional case of course, as just two short years after pitching for Vancouver he is now a member of the Blue Jays’ major league rotation. Now, on to some scouting reports. Miguel Castro, RHP — Signed as an international free agent on January 5, 2012; $180,000 bonus The scouting report on the 19-year old is simple: he throws hard, very hard. Castro’s fastball sat in the 94-96 mile per hour range on Monday night and he touched 97 on the gun several times in the first few innings. The Dominican native would throw five innings on the night and was able to maintain his high velocity through the fifth inning despite starting to show some control issues at times as he grew fatigued. The right-hander was tagged for a long home run in the first inning, but managed to settle down nicely and strike out the side in the second where he made all three batters look foolish as he mixed in a changeup that sat in the low-to-mid 80’s. Castro’s delivery certainly didn’t look easy and he had a slight pause while pitching from the wind-up, but his 6-foot-5 frame managed to delivery the ball consistently throughout the night and he didn’t appear to be labouring at all. He did run into some control issues and didn’t look as comfortable when he was forced to pitched from the stretch after walking the first batter in the third inning. However he was able to strand the runner at third and assisted on a nice fielding play to get the third out of the inning. Castro was the recipient of the R. Howard Webster Award as the Most Valuable Player for the Dominican Summer League Blue Jays in 2013. He threw 53 innings across 11 appearances, 10 starts, and allowed just eight earned runs for a measly 1.36 ERA; his 1.37 FIP backed up those results. He also issued just 12 walks compared to 71 strikeouts. So far in four starts with the Canadians in 2014 Castro has allowed eight runs in 18 and 1/3 innings while striking out 21 batters and walking eight. It looks very much like the stuff is there for 19-year old, but his tools are very raw. He threw a total of 70 innings in 2013 and it’s likely the Blue Jays will want to see him reach the 85-95 plateau by the end of 2014. Castro has swing-and-miss stuff which he demonstrated by striking out seven Volcanoes hitters on Monday, but the thing that’ll help propel him to the next level is learning how to master the control of his fastball. It’s likely that he’ll add a third pitch to his arsenal in the near future, but this kid has late-inning-power-arm written all over him. Not to say that there isn’t a chance for him to succeed as a starter, however. Castro is listed at 190 pounds so there is still a little bit of room for him to fill out his lanky frame if he wishes. His velocity is obviously the most intriguing tool in his skill set and he’ll be an interesting name to keep an eye on over the next couple years. Remember, he won’t even turn 20-years old until December, so he has plenty of time to develop. Presuming he sticks at Class-A ball with the Canadians for most of the remainder of the season, he should get a chance to face some better hitting with Lansing of the Midwest League (Class-A) or Dunedin of the Florida State League (Class-A Advanced) by 2015 if all goes well. Obviously it’s too early to make a real accurate guess on when or if we might see him in the major leagues, but if his development runs smoothly and he stays healthy, I suppose 2017 could be a reasonable estimate though it would likely be out of the bullpen. Ryan McBroom, 1B — Blue Jays 15th selection, No. 444 overall in 2014 amateur draft: Bonus n/a The 22-year old was originally drafted in the 36th round of the 2013 amateur draft, but elected to finish his senior year at West Virginia University and complete a degree in sport and exercise psychology before re-entering the draft in 2014 — a move that obviously paid off for him. The first basemen has the prototypical slugger build at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds and he hit 12 home runs in his last season of college ball. So far in 2014 the right-handed batter already has three home runs for the Canadians and a .311 batting average in 48 plate appearances which amount to an impressive 172 wRC+ on the season. Perhaps the most notable part of McBroom’s game is his approach. He looked very calm and collected in the batter’s box and was content to wait for his pitch. Excuse the stretch of a comparison, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of a young Albert Pujols when McBroom was at the plate. It was probably just in stance and size since he doesn’t compare to Pujols skill-wise, but the 22-year old looks like the type of player who is comfortable hitting in the middle of the order. And you’d want him there too with his strong, easy swing. For such a patient approach, McBroom only has two walks on the season and both of which came last night. He also grounded out before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the blowout. According to this report, McBroom has really worked at becoming a more complete hitter and his plus-.300 batting average alongside seven extra-base hits reflects that despite the season not even being a month old yet. He’s only struck out seven times in 12 games, but I would like to see him translate some of that plate discipline into more walks. Although that is difficult to do at this level given the very loose strike zone that is often called. He isn’t the most athletic first basemen — and how many really are — but he did make a couple of solid plays in the field including fielding a sharply hit liner on one hop. His teammates in college also spoke very highly of his leadership abilities in the repot and it sounds like he’s well-liked in the clubhouse as well. Overall, McBroom doesn’t appear to have a very high ceiling, but there definitely is some upside here. His maturity at the plate and ability to hit for contact and power are his best tools and should allow him to move up to Lansing or Dunedin by the end of the 2014 season. If he does get a promotion or two before the end of the year it’s likely he’ll see some time at Double-A in 2015 if he continues to hit.Go!

Paired with the new Mariners of the month feature, Prospect Insider will be highlighting a couple of outstanding performances by players across the major leagues each month as well. Since the M’s players have a seperate feature, they will not be included in these posts. In case you missed it, Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez were the Mariners of the month for May. Let’s take a look at a pair of players who’ve stood out amongst their peers over the past 31 days. Yasiel Puig, OF, LAD — 128 PA, .398/.492/.731, 240 wRC+, 10 2B, 8 HR, 25 RBI Many have come to love the exploits of the Cuban sensation while others can’t stand his antics, but there’s little doubt that Puig has established himself as one of the top hitters in baseball — especially after his performance in May. Puig led all of baseball in batting average and on base percentage and his 240 wRC+ was 23 points higher than Seth Smith, the next highest hitter, who put up a 217 mark of his own. Although his power numbers weren’t as historic as those of Toronto Blue Jays slugger Edwin Encarnacion — his 16 long balls tied the American League record for home runs in the month of May set by Mickey Mantle in 1956 — he did reach base in every single game he played this past month, and carried a streak of 33 games of reaching base safely into Monday night’s game against the Chicago White Sox. Puig’s May also included 12 games with two or more hits and there were only two games in which he did not reach base via the hit. For a little bit of context, the 2.4 fWAR he put up in May was more than the total fWAR that Giancarlo Stanton, Yoenis Cespedes, and Prince Fielder finished the 2013 season with. The sky truly is the limit for the 23-year old, and there really is no predicting what exactly he’ll do next. Runner-UpEdwin Encarnacion, 1B/DH, TOR — 130 PA, .281/.369/.763, 208 wRC+, 5 2B, 16 HR, 33 RBI Corey Kluber, SP, CLE — 6 GS, 4-0, 43 IP, 2.09 ERA, 1.74 FIP, 1.77 xFIP, 60 K, 8 BB The Cleveland Indians’ ace is off to a very strong 2014 after establishing himself as a major league starter last year. In six May starts, the right-hander didn’t complete at least seven innings of work on just one occasion — he lasted just six and two-thirds against the Tampa Bay Rays on May 9. He also struck out at least eight batters in all six of those starts, including 12 and 13 strikeout performances. Kluber’s 12.56 strikeouts per nine innings was the highest of any pitcher in May, and he walked just eight batters compared to 60 punch outs. Only Aaron Harang — yes, that Aaron Harang — had a lower FIP than Kluber did in May, and his xFIP was tops in all of baseball. Perhaps the only real drawback to the 28-year old’s month of May was that he gave up three home runs. Other than that, you’d be hard pressed to find a better pitcher in baseball over the last 31 days. Runner-UpMasahiro Tanaka, SP, NYY — 6 GS, 5-1, 1.88 ERA, 2.20 FIP, 2.50 xFIP, 42 K, 6 BBGo!

As soon as last June’s draft ended — perhaps even well before — the conversation about the class of 2014 started and ended with North Carolina State southpaw Carlos Rodon. He was the clear pre-season No. 1 and entered the season with the best chance to be taken off the board first when the Houston Astros select first for the third straight year. We’re about beyond the halfway point of the amateur season and only one thing is clear and that’s that the top of the draft is far from settled. Rodon hasn’t been what clubs would like to have seen to this point. He’s flashed the firm, mid-90s fastball and showcased the wipeout slider, but his command has been inconsistent as has the velocity and, at times, his delivery. Rodon remains the top college pitching prospect, but East Carolina’s Jeff Hoffman is fresh off a strong outing in front of big-time heat that included at least a pair of scouting directors. Other college arms such as Aaron Nola of LSU, Vanderbilt’s Tyler Beede and left-hganders Kyle Freeland of Evansville and TCU’s Brandon Finnegan are also on the radar in or around the Top 10. A blue chip final half-dozen starts from Beede and he could solidify a Top-5 selection, as could Rodon and Hoffman. Many clubs, however, have San Diego prep left-hander Brady Aiken of Cathedral Catholic Academy (Calif.) atop their draft boards. I spoke to three crosscheckers and two scouting directors from five different clubs who all but confirmed that they were included in the group that sees Aiken as the No. 1 talent in the class. The class as a whole has grown, both in terms of depth and overall strength. With prep pitchers such as right-hander Tyler Kolek of Shepherd High School (Texas), left-hander Sean-Reid Foley of Sandalwood High School (Fla.) and Coral Springs Christian High Schol (Fla.) right-hander Touki Toussaint holding their status as first-round picks — Kolek is likely to be off the board in the top 5 — it’s the pre-season second-tier among the high school arms that has made the biggest impact. Right-hander Grant Holmes (Conway High School, S.C.) has shown big arm strength, hitting 97 mph and sitting 95-98 for scouts in March and holding most of that velocity in April. Holmes is now firmly in the mix in the top 20 or so. The race for No. 1 may be down to a very small handful of candidates. I’m not going to pretend to be in the head of Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow or scouting director Mike Elias, but I Imagine Rodon will stay in the conversation until the final hours, along with Aiken, Kolek and maybe one of the other college arms, particularly if the club can save some pool space with the pick that greatly helps them in later rounds. The Astros selected prep infielder Carlos Correa two years ago and college pitcher Mark Appel last June. The majority of their top prospects right now are pitchers, but outfielder George Springer, a first-round pick in 2011, has a chance to be a star and was just called up to the majors last week, as does Correa, suggesting there is little reason to believe the club will choose to lean in one direction or the other between pitcher or hitter. If it comes down to Rodon or Aiken, it may be about money, particularly if both finish strong. If Rodon is worthy of being the top pick, it may be difficult for Houston to pass on him considering he could team up with Appel, and eventually right-hander Mike Foltynewicz and Lance McCullers, Jr. to form quite the long-term starting rotation. The Chicago Cubs at No. 4 If we assume that Rodon, Aiken and Kolek, in some order, are the first three players selected, the Cubs could be left with a decision between Hoffman, Beede and Rancho Bernardo High School (Calif.) C/OF Alex Jackson. The Cubs chose University of San Diego power bat Kris Bryant last year rather than taking Oklahoma right-hander Jon Gray despite their organization’s weakness being starting pitching. The Cubs, led by Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod and new scouting director Matt Dorey, have never shown a willingness to draft for need — which no club should high in the draft — so Jackson, or perhaps North Carolina State shortstop Trea Turner, prep shortstop Nick Gordon out of Olympia High School in Orlando or Clovis High School (Calif.) Jacob Gatewood, could be the pick. Any of the latter three could be under-slot selections. If Rodon, Aiken or Kolek get to No. 4, one has to imagine they’d be the top player on the Cubs board and ultimately the pick. Seattle at No. 6 The Mariners have gone the way of college players high in the draft every year they’ve had a pick in the Top 11. Last year it was New Mexico’s D.J. Peterson. In 2012 the M’s tabbed Florida catcher Mike Zunino, who is already the club’s starting backstop. In Tom McNamara’s first draft as Seattle’s scouting director he called Dustin Ackley’s name at No. 2 overall. Two years later it was Virginia southpaw Danny Hultzen. This could be the first time McNamara and GM Jack Zduriencik snag a prep bat with big-time upside in the top half of the first round, or a high school pitcher with an ace ceiling. Aiken isn’t getting that far and it’s difficult to believe Kolek will, either. If I had to nail down the club’s most likely names as it stands today I’d put Jackson, Gordon, Turner and Toussaint in the mix. Of course, the pool money may come into play. If it does, Beede, Nola, Freeland, Reid-Foley and outfielders Bradley Zimmer at San Francisco and Michael Conforto at Oregon State could pop up into that range. It’d have to a wild bonus-saving scenario for Seattle to pass on the best player, especially considering the organization’s lack of everyday talent with all-star ceilings. The Blue Jays I have no idea what the Toronto Blue Jays may do in Round 1. They own the No. 9 and No. 11 selections and since the new bonus pool regulations were installed, we’ve seen a few clubs that have two high picks go off the board a little bit with one or both in order to spread around their allotted monies. It’s an organization with a lot of talent, still, despite trading some top prospects to acquire R.A. Dickey and Jose Reyes. The opportunity to add two quick-to-the-bigs college arms is intriguing. Freeland and Nola? Beede and Hartford’s Sean Newcomb? Like I said, I have no feel for the Blue Jays’ preferred philosophy, but they have a chance to add two very good players. J.J. Schwarz Florida commit and Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) High School catcher J.J. Schwarz is the apple of the eye of one area scout down in South Florida. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound backstop “does a little of everything,” the scout said. “He runs well, (has a) solid arm and I love the energy. There’s power there, too, no doubt about it.” Schwarz has the athleticism and present strength to suggest he can stick behind the plate, but there are some potential long-term adjustments necessary at the plate. He over-strides at times, though the scout noted he’s abbreviated that some and has been keeping his hands back better this spring. The handful of clubs I have spoken to about Schwarz have varying degrees of valuation, from Comp Round A to somewhere late in Round 2. Schwarz, who calls his own game,typically ranks as the top pure catching prospects among the prep prospects — Jackson is also viewed as a possible catcher, but not everyone believes he’ll remain there — and among the top two or three catchers in the entire draft, behind only Jackson and Kennesaw State’s Max Pentecost. Indiana’s Kyle Schwarber is listed at catcher but plays a lot of first base and left field and the consensus is that he’s a bat who will move to a corner spot permanently in pro ball. Matt Imhof, LHP Cal Poly ace Matt Imhof has dominated his second-rung schedule this spring but has shown enough in terms of stuff and command that he may garner some comp-round attention. He’ll pitch in the low-90s mostly, but can reach back for 93-94 (and the rare 95) and does a good job mixing in his secondary offerings by working off the fastball early in games. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound junior offers an average breaking ball that most scouts call a curveball with two-plane break, but the pitch teases slider velocity in the 78-82 mph range. The changeup is fringy at best right now but he can throw it for called strikes and keeps it down well. When I saw Imhof in March, he showed an ability to pitch inside to right-handed batters and may have thrown a cutter or two to help him do so. The four-seamer has some natural armside tail. He doesn’t always stay tall in his delivery, however, bending his back leg early and driving toward the plate, flattening out his pitches and likely reducing the chances his breaking ball sharpens into a true slider or power curveball with bigger bite. Still, left-handers who can throw strikes with what projects as three big-league offerings, including above-average-to-plus velocity, don’t grow on trees — trust me, I have checked — suggesting Imhof will intrigue numerous clubs on Day 1 and last no longer than Round 2, most likely. Photo of Alex Jackson by Scott KurtzGo!

As we inch closer and closer to Spring Training 2014, many of us are still anxiously awaiting the Seattle Mariners next big move after they agreed to terms with superstar Robinson Cano. The David Price chatter has quieted for the time being, as have the Matt Kemp rumors. Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports reports that the M’s are still weighing both players as options, but need to, as he says, “persuade” ownership to allow another big move. That shouldn’t be a surprise. While there’s undoubtedly an arduous process an organization goes through to make a high profile move, there’s likely a point when all teams require ownership approval to pass a certain salary threshold even if it’s by a small amount. The Mariners are no different from any other club in that regard. We knew that ownership was very much involved in the Cano signing, as they should be considering the quarter billion dollar investment, and it should come as no surprise that the higher ups would once again need to consent any relatively large deal that may occur. So what needs to be made out of Rosenthal’s latest report? Practically nothing. We know that in 2013 the M’s opening payroll was a little over $84 million, and they’ve already committed $67 million for seven players for 2014. Add in three arbitration estimates and pre-arbitration players, and the payroll looks like it’ll fall around $81 million. Since the Mariners are already close to last years’ payroll and it was another down year for attendance and conceivably profit, it’s reasonable to suggest Seattle is in all likelihood, close to the top of their budget for the coming year. Without going into specific revenue details and whatnot, and by factoring something along the lines of an inflation raise, we could take a shot in the dark and say that the Mariners have a budget of about $90 million. This is by no means accurate, but considering the team was willing to spend on Cano and would have to pay several players raises in the upcoming season, it’s within reason to suggest the M’s planned for a slight increase in their payroll compared to last year. The Mariners don’t really have any obvious non-tender candidates, and the $81 million figure includes 15 players making approximately the MLB minimum. While that number of players could be close to the truth considering the youth of the team, it’s likely that a couple youngsters will be displaced by veteran acquisitions that are still yet to come. If $81 million gives the M’s a 25-man roster, that $9 million difference from our estimated budget ($90 million) would essentially be available for a few possible upgrades. As it stands, three of the five rotation spots could be going to players making half a million each in 2014, and some of that surplus would be well spent on adding a veteran starter or two. When we start looking at upgrades who come with significant salaries such as a Price or a Kemp, barring the removal equivalent salary, payroll would be pushed at least to the $90 million mark, so ownership approval would  probably be necessary at that point anyways. Rosenthal’s report is simply telling us what we already know; ownership will have to approval a budget increase. Perhaps they aren’t too keen on spending much more than last year’s payroll at the moment and that’s why the process has been so slow. Can you blame them though? If history is as good a teacher as they say it is, there’s a very recent example of how spending big doesn’t always equal results. The Toronto Blue Jays entered 2013 as World Series favourites after acquiring Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buerhle from the Miami Marlins, as well as RA Dickey from the New York Mets. The Jays had a 2012 payroll just under $84 million, and began 2013 with a payroll of nearly $120 million after the acquisitions. That’s a $35 million increase in one offseason. How were the end results for the club? Not very good. Toronto managed to be exactly one win better in 2013 than they were in 2012 and find themselves in a difficult position this offseason as they try to make upgrades. Reports suggested that the Jays pushed their payroll to their absolute limits to get to the $120 million mark, and they wouldn’t have much more available in 2014. Perhaps this example is unfair because the Jays’ suffered a host of injuries to practically all of their key parts, and maybe had too lofty expectations. But it does show how difficult improving an under performing squad can be when payroll is stretched to begin with. If you tried telling that to the 2009 New York Yankees and 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers they’d beg to differ, but they’re cares of huge market teams with plenty of star power on the roster already. The 2014 Mariners aren’t adding CC Sabathia, Mark Teixiera, and AJ Burnett to Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and a team that was coming off of an 89 win season like the Yankees were heading into ’09; they’re adding Cano to Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kyle Seager, and a team that hasn’t won 89 games since 2003. If the M’s were adding Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Matt Garza to the three, then we’d have a much different story. That’s not intended to be taken in a derogatory context as I’m as optimistic a Mariners fan as any. It’s simply stating adding a superstar to a 70-ish win team doesn’t equal playoffs. Also, the reality is that a team with a better track record pushing a $150 million payroll to $200 million is a lot easier than a struggling team pushing an $80 million payroll to $100 million. There’s a real possibility that the splurge begins and ends with Cano. Hopefully ownership will see the benefits of pushing the payroll closer to $100 million and allow Jack Zduriencik to acquire another talented player to accompany Cano et al, but based on what the reports are indicating currently, they aren’t quite ready to do that. Their hesitancy is valid, and it’s not unfair to want to allow the youngsters another year to develop, but on the surface it looks like ownership jumped into the water, but got cold feet. It’s worth noting that aside from the handful of top rotation arms, there isn’t really much available on the market right now outside of Nelson Cruz and Kendrys Morales. The trade market hasn’t really developed much at this point, but it’s possible there could be more movement as Spring Training nears. The Mariners do have the resources to overwhelm a team to get what they want, or do what the Jays did and acquire several proven talents. Perhaps it’s not entirely accurate to call Cano the all in move in the first place. Sure there’s an extraordinary financial commitment that could become an albatross down the line, as well as the associated opportunity cost, but in terms of potential talent, the M’s surrendered none.When the Jays made their blockbuster with the Marlins, they still weren’t all in. When they sent top prospects Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard to the Mets for Dickey, that was their all in move. Maybe Seattle wants to play it slow and get a better feel for what younger players like Brad Miller, Taijuan Walker, and Mike Zunino can do in 2014 and aim to make their all in move prior to to 2015. Who knows, if the M’s are reasonably successful this year, it could be a lot easier to get Price to agree to an extension right away. As silly as it is to ‘waste’ a year of Cano’s prime, the M’s simply can’t justify making an all in move like the Jays did at this point. Does acquiring Price for a package that’d likely include Walker and Nick Franklin improve the 2014 club? Yes. Are they now a playoff team? Perhaps. Is this deal going to be worth it two or three years down the road? That’s where all the grey matter exists. The Jays felt they were a playoff team without Dickey, and by adding him they’d become World Series contenders. The intentions of the trades were based on Toronto seeing playoff baseball for the first time in twenty years and possibly more by the time 2015-16 rolled around, and watching the dealt prospects blossom wouldn’t hurt so much. Consider a scenario where Masahiro Tanaka agrees to come to the Emerald City. Would an addition such as that justify a following all in move? Now we got a real debate. First and foremost, getting the approval to sign Tanaka (or an equivalent) may be pushing it as it is. And even if ownership gives the thumbs up and the money is spent, what are the chances the club can further add to what’d likely be a $100 million in 2014? We know the bidding on the Japanese star is going to get crazy, and tacking on an estimated $20 million annually for Tanaka would push that $81 million number into the nine-digit range and past our $90 million estimated budget. Perhaps it’s all Justin Smoak and mirrors and the M’s are simply trying to underplay their hand and make a convincing argument that they are strapped for cash. If that’s the case, they’re doing all the right things at this point. If Cruz is their target, there’s absolutely no reason play their hand and give him any leverage. Same goes for potential trade target XYZ. After Cano was signed, the assumption was that Seattle was going to go out and make more crazy moves, and naturally other teams would want to take advantage of that. Whatever the case may be, we’ll likely begin to see much more clarity as it unfolds over the next six weeks. Once February passes by, the plan may still be unclear, but we’ll probably have our answers for 2014.Go!

After analyzing how the teams in the AL West shape up heading into the 2014 season in comparison to their 2013 results, it’s time to look at the rest of the American League. The AL East has been heralded as the toughest division in baseball in years past thanks to the presence of perennial contenders the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, as well as the emergence of the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles. The AL Central on the other hand has been dominated by the Detroit Tigers in recent memory. However, the Cleveland Indians emerged as a contender this past year, and the Kansas City Royals weren’t too far behind. -All numbers are provided by FanGraphs. It may be a bit of a surprise to see that the last two American League teams left standing in 2013, the Red Sox and Detroit Tigers, are projected to see the most decline in 2014 among AL teams. The defending World Series champs are looking at a potential decrease of 11.0 fWAR in the batting department alone. Much of that projection is due to the departure of some key free agents; Jacoby Ellsbury left town for the New York Yankees, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia flew south to Miami. Stephen Drew remains unsigned, but it appears that the Red Sox are content to go with in-house replacements unless the shortstop’s market becomes completely saturated. Although the lineup will look different in Boston next season, their pitching staff will remain almost completely intact. Headed by staff ace Jon Lester, the rotation is plenty deep, but that won’t stop the Red Sox from getting involved in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes. The bullpen will also be a position of strength in 2014 as Edward Mujica joins the bulk of 2013’s pen. There’s a reason the Red Sox won it all last season, and they still project to be one of the top teams in the AL. The Tigers have made some interesting changes to their ball club this winter, the most prominent being their trade of Prince Fielder to the Rangers for Ian Kinsler. They also shipped out starter Doug Fister in an attempt to clear some salary and space for other players. Replacing Fister in the rotation with Drew Smyly and the expected regression of Detroit’s other top starters is responsible for a projected decline of 8.4 fWAR for their pitching as a whole; the largest decrease in the entire AL. Elsewhere in the AL East, both the Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays are projected to see improvement in 2014. Aside from signing Ellsbury, the Yanks also picked up Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran as free agents. McCann projects to add 3.2 fWAR to a catching position that struggled mightily last season, while Beltran, despite declining in the field, gives New York an elite outfield with Brett Gardner manning the other spot. Perhaps the biggest wild card for the Yankees right now is the ongoing legal battle with former star, and Seattle Mariner, Alex Rodriguez, who is fighting a 211-game suspension based on his Biogenesis involvement. The Yankees are expected to add a top free agent starter to their rotation as well before this offseason is complete. The Blue Jays have had a quiet offseason to date, especially in comparison to what they were up to last year, as catcher Dioner Navarro marks their only significant addition. The Jays fell fell short of lofty expectations in 2013 thanks to the injury bug and can expect an improved overall performance if players like Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, and Brandon Morrow can maintain their health. The Jays’ pitching projects to be better 2014 with their strong bullpen remaining intact. Third baseman Brett Lawrie is projected to have a breakout year with 3.7 fWAR, and his skill set will play a large role in a potential playoff race. The Blue Jays are likely still in the market for another starter, but appear to be content to go with the depth they have to avoid paying market prices. Times haven’t been good in Minnesota recently, but after adding a trio of free agent starters including Ricky Nolasco, the Twins project to be 9.6 fWAR better in 2014. Former batting champion Joe Mauer is officially making the move from catcher to first base in 2014 to help prevent any concussion-related injuries in the future. The 2009 MVP is projected for a 3.2 fWAR season, less than what he produced in 2013, but the rest of the lineup around him is projected to be much improved. Josh Willingham looks to rebound after a 2013 where he produced exactly 0.0 fWAR and projects to be worth 1.8 fWAR in 2014. It’ll probably be another rebuilding year in the Twin Cities, but there’s reason for excitement in the coming years. The Indians are coming off of a winning season for the first time since 2007 and project to be slightly better in the coming year, most notably in their lineup. While many view the Tigers as favourites to repeat as Central division champs yet again, the Indians should provide a challenge as their young core continues to improve. All three of Jason Kipnis, Yan Gomes, and Carlos Santana are projected for 3.0+ fWAR seasons, as well as starters Justin Masterson and Danny Salazar. It’s been a quiet offseason so far in Cleveland as there doesn’t appear to be a lot of work needed for the club to improve. Under manager Terry Francona’s guidance, as well as some veteran leadership, the Indians should be in the thick of the Wild Card race in 2014. While it’s no surprise to see the Red Sox and Tigers as the early American League favourites, there’s plenty of other teams that have improved themselves so far this winter. There doesn’t appear to be an obvious sleeper choice in the AL right now, but if I were to pick one, it’d be between the Blue Jays and Angels. Obviously their 2014 performances will be based on the health of star players and effectiveness of pitching rotations, but a little good luck and both clubs could be in contention come September.Go!

One of the few names being suggested that the Seattle Mariners have yet to be linked to by any of a variety of sources is Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista. On the surface there’s a match; the Blue Jays are believed to be in the market for young starting pitching, of which the M’s have, perhaps even to spare to some extent, and the Mariners need outfielders with offensive punch. Bautista is signed through the 2015 season with a club option for 2016. Assuming that option is exercised, the 33-year-old would be owed $42 million over three seasons. Bautista was an MVP caliber player in 2010 and 2011 and while he’s dipped a bit in production — and health — the dollars he’s due is well worth it. The Dominican native was given a clean bill of health in November after a hip problem during the season, but even in limited duty over the past two years he’s been worth 3.0 and 4.2 fWAR. He’s a solid-average corner outfield glove when healthy, has a plus throwing arm and it’s far from unreasonable to expect him to remain a 4-5 win player over the next couple of years. Sounds great, right? There is one problem: the young arms the Mariners may have to spare — James Paxton and Brandon Maurer, for example — aren’t surefire 2014 rotation stalwarts, and the Jays have no reason to move Bautista for salary purposes. That may mean the only way the Mariners can acquire Bautista is by parting with top talent Taijuan Walker, whose name has been mentioned in trade talks for Tampa Bay Rays left-hander David Price. It doesn’t appear the two clubs have had such discussions, either, tweets FOXSports.com’s Jon Morosi. And who could blame the Jays for not wanting to deal Bautista? We learned from former NFL head coach Herm Edwards that “you play to win the game” so the Jays, while they have a pitching need, do need to score runs, too, and perhaps GM Alex Anthopoulos isn’t too keen on a lineup highlighted by Colby Rasmus, Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion. Bautista is their anchor. If Anthopoulos was to go out and land another hitter — which would probably have to be an outfielder to replace Bautista — then maybe the situation changes enough for Bautista to be put in play. There is one other obstacle for the Mariners if Bautista becomes available: they certainly would not be the only team interested, and as stated above, they aren’t the perfect fit. Two clubs that might be? The Cleveland Indians, who are said to be open to discussing right-hander Justin Masterson, and their cross-state rival Cincinnati Reds, who may be open to moving Homer Bailey in the right scenario, and may not have much of a shot to retain the services of free agent Shin-Soo Choo. The Texas Rangers may have interest, too, having lost Josh Hamilton a year ago and Nelson Cruz appears to be headed elsewhere this winter. If GM Jack Zduriencik has the chance to move a non-Walker starting pitching prospect to headline a package to acquire Bautista, I imagine he’ll do so. It does seem like a long shot such an opportunity will present itself, however. I will say this, though: I’d rather move Walker in a deal for a healthy Bautista than for Price. In the end, I’d hold off on making the 21-year-old right-hander available in either deal.Go!

In an upcoming book detailing the Toronto Blue Jays disastrous 2013 season from sportsnet.ca’s Shi Davidi and John Lott, an interesting tidbit is dropped regarding summer trade talks between the Jays and Seattle Mariners. Blue Jays’ GM Alex Anthopolous said that his club was pursuing an acquisition of starter Hisashi Iwakuma and third baseman Kyle Seager. While teams often ask about each other’s top players for no other reason than due diligence, this is a rather interesting rumour to give some second thought. The apparent trade talks occurred during a period in which the Jays were battling injuries throughout their rotation, and holes on the left side of their infield due to injuries to Jose Reyes and Brett Lawrie, which means a Seager/Iwakuma acquisition would have made sense. The Jays were building to compete now, and both Seager and Iwakuma would have provided immediate value. Since the talks didn’t register much for headlines in the summer, we can likely deduce that the Mariners placed a huge price tag on both players, or are more interested in using them as building blocks towards a winner. I believe both factors were in play here given the ages and salaries of Iwakuma and Seager. Iwakuma, who turns 33 next April, will earn just $13.5MM for 2014-15 provided his $7 million team option for 2015 is picked up. Seager turned 26 this past week and will be arbitration eligible for the first time after the 2014 season. I would think that the M’s would be willing to explore extensions for both players this winter, but won’t be too worried about leaving talks shelved for an extra year. Iwakuma is coming off of a 7.0 WAR season by Baseball-Reference, and a 4.2 WAR season by FanGraphs, and it may be worth seeing if how much he regresses, if any, before locking him up long-term. He is under team control through 2017 regardless. There’s less discrepancy between Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs when it comes to Seager’s value as both saw him worth about 3.5 WAR in 2012, and worth 4.1 WAR in 2013 (BR 4.9 WAR and FG 3.4 WAR). It’s likely Iwakuma and Seager hold more value to the Mariners when the tall task of replacing their production is considered. Seattle isn’t a free agent’s dream right now, and GM Jack Zduriencik doesn’t have the best history in the trade market, either. The phrase, “it would take an overwhelming offer for the team to trade so-and-so” fits well here because of that. Between the two, I’d think Seager is the more likely to be examined for a long-term deal this winter before he reaches arbitration. While there aren’t a lot of comparable players to Seager, we could point to the extension Pablo Sandoval signed with the Giants prior to the 2012 season, for 3 years and $17.15MM, as a comparable. It’s not an ideal comparison of course, but Kung Fu Panda’s deal worked out to salaries of $3.2MM, $5.7MM, and $8.25MM for his three arbitration years, and I could see a good case being made for Seager to receive a similar deal covering his arbitration years. A lot can change though in one year’s time, so there’s minimal downside for letting him play his last pre-arb season for less than a million bucks and without an extension. It’s also worth noting that it’s more valuable to the team to buy out at least one year of a player’s free agent years, but when doing so it comes at a much higher cost. As the M’s hang on to both players, the Blue Jays will still be in the market searching for similar players. The Jays are expected to be busy this winter after a disappointing 2013 season that came with high expectations after their blockbuster trades with the Miami Marlins and New York Mets last winter. Injuries shattered the playoff dreams for Toronto fans. The Jays will provide some competition for the Mariners in free agency as they also need to shore up their starting rotation. They’re expected to be involved in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes, as well as other free agents such as right-handers Ubaldo Jimenez and Matt Garza. Second base is another large hole for the Blue Jays after Maicer Izturis, Emilio Bonafacio, and Mark DeRosa failed to generate much production in 2013. The market for free agent infielders is looking pretty barren this winter outside of baseball’s next likely $200 million player, Robinson Cano. Omar Infante, Gordon Beckham and Brandon Phillips are rumored to be available via trade this winter, and the Jays have been connected to Beckham in the past. A very real possibility for the Jays is bringing in a third baseman and shifting Lawrie back to second base, even though that would come with some possible downsides. It seems that the Jays prefer slugger Jose Bautista’s arm in right field, so moving him back to third is unlikely, but could be considered in the right scenario. If the Blue Jays do manage to bring in another third baseman, there’s a possibility Lawrie could be shopped around for some rotation help this winter. The Mariners and Blue Jays could find themselves in a position to deal this offseason, even if Iwakuma and Seager are off the table. Only one of Nick Franklin and Dustin Ackley will be the M’s starting second baseman for 2014, and the other would represent a valuable trade asset. The Jays have a similar situation in center field with Colby Rasmus and Anthony Gose vying for the starting job in 2014, although Rasmus has the clear upper hand. Rasmus, 27, has been up and down for most of his five-year career, but the former first-round pick has established himself as a 20-homer threat while playing an above average center field. He’s arbitration eligible for the last time and will hit free agency after next season. Gose, on the other hand, is one of Toronto’s top prospects and has seen big league action in the previous two seasons. The 23-year-old hasn’t quite developed with the bat yet, but is a superb fielder who has above average speed, and still less than one year of accumulated service time. A trade based on Franklin and Gose, for example, could represent an interesting proposition. While Franklin is a bit more established than is Gose, we can see how a deal along these lines would be beneficial for both clubs as each are dealing from a surplus to fill a need. Personally, I think the Mariners should aim for Rasmus instead of Gose for obvious reasons. Seattle could prove to be a great place for Rasmus to establish consistency to his game with less pressure to perform and 2014 being a contract year. It’d probably require more than just Franklin or Ackley to get Rasmus from the Jays, but I think it’s an interesting place to start talks.Go!