By Bob Elliott
A starter or a closer?
Or should it be a closer or a starter?
Which is the greatest need for the Blue Jays.
A year ago today the Jays sat in first place ... eight games over .500.
They went into Thursday night’s series finale against the New York Mets three games over, two games behind the Tampa Bay Rays.
A year ago Rogers Communications didn’t give the Jays any money to add at the non-waiver, July 31 deadline. This time around they have roughly $12 million to spend.
There are 43 days remaining until July 31.
A year ago we were writing that the Blue Jays needed an ace since their best two starters only lit up the radar guns at more than 85 MPH when the wind was at their backs.
Now, this June behind R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle they have Drew Hutchison, Marco Estrada and Scott Copeland.
Sound like a ready for September rotation?
You know the kind of staff with swing-and-miss stuff scouts talk about.
Aaron Sanchez and his strained lat are at the Bobby Mattick facility in Dunedin after his superb, eight-inning 103-pitch outing (one earned run) against the first-place Houston Astros.
Will he start again before the all-star break?
Will each starter be healthy the rest of the year?
Jays starters are a combined 25-20 with a 4.57 ERA 14th in the American League, better than only the Boston Red Sox.
So, you might come to the conclusion ... IT HAS TO BE A STARTER.
Yet, the Jays have the worst record when it comes to converting saves, blowing an AL-high 11 leads and saving a league-low total of eight games.
Brett Cecil had six career saves on opening day and while he has only blown two saves, he now has 10 on his career.
Anyone who remembers the days of Tom Henke and Duane Ward -- and tries to forget the eighth and ninth-inning failures of Roy Lee Jackson, Jesse Jefferson, Dennis Lamp and Bill Caudill -- knows how difficult those final few outs are to record.
We saw it earlier this week at Citi Field.
The Jays went 34 games without a save (from May 5-June 10). Can a contender survive a dry run like that?
So, it’s easy to come to the conclusion ... IT HAS TO BE A CLOSER.
Let’s examine starters on the market first:
Cole Hamels of the woeful Philadelphia Phillies is available and tops the list, but Hamels won’t be waving his no-trade clause to come north, unless of course he gets tired of losing 19-3 every other night. Hamels earns $22.5 million US and has $71.5 Million remaining on his contract.
Cincinnati Reds right-handers Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake are on the market. Both are free agents at the end of the season. Cueto, 29, who earns $10 Million, is 4-4 with a 2.98 ERA in 13 starts striking out 86 and walking 16 in 90 2/3 innings. Last year he won 20 games and led the National League in strikeouts.
Leake, 27, is making $9.97 Million and is 34 with a 4.35 ERA in 13 starts. He’s walked 23 and struck out 48 in 82 2/3 innings.
The Reds want a “pile of prospects” for Cueto? Would you trade say lefty Daniel Norris and outfielder Dalton Pompey for Cueto.
Maybe not thinking big picture.
Yet, this is president Paul Beeston’s final year.
This could be general manager Alex Anthopoulos’s final year.
We haven’t seen any panic moves since the Jays gathered in Dunedin -- aside from placing six rookies on the opening day roster.
Could the Jays make a panic trade?
The Oakland A’s would move Scott Kazmir and maybe even Sonny Gray if overwhelmed as GM Billy Beane tries to re-stock his farm system after his all-in/all-out season of 2014.
Available on the closer front, Phillies Jonathan Papelbon earns $13 million this year. If he finished 100 games in 2014-15 (75 and counting) or 55 this season (23 and counting) his $13 Million option is guaranteed.
Reds’ Aroldis Chapman could be had at the right Cincinnati price and the Jays were interested in him enough to finish in the runner-up spot during free-agent bidding. He earns $8.05 Million this season and is eligible for salary arbitration.
Scouts from the Miami Marlins, Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers were watching the Jays Thursday. “Regular coverage,” was the standard answer.
So, what do the Jays need most?
A starter or a reliever?
“Both,” said one Blue Jay.
Now, the question is it a front-line starter and a tier-II closer, or a front-line closer and a secondary starter?
Only 43 shopping days remain.
And this year the Jays had best shop as they attempt to end their run of 21 years without a post-season appearance.