Anthopoulos, Jays must shop if they want to win

Like Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays need to swing for the fences if they want to compete in the big-spending AL. (Photo: Chris Young/CP)

As Alex Anthopoulos readies himself for the most pivotal off-season of his career the questions he’ll be answering have less to do with who he needs to acquire and more about what kind of franchise the Toronto Blue Jays want to be.

It’s existential in nature, but the answer lies in the cold, hard economics of MLB, a rich sport getting richer and where the real players—as the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers demonstrated this week—are wearing big-boy pants stuffed with money.

Anthopoulos made his early mark as a value shopper and a long-term thinker. He was the crafty dealmaker who exploited the vanity and the deep pockets of clubs like the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and convinced them to take on the bulk of Vernon Wells’s monster $126-million contract.

He was the general manager who saw into the future, took a deep breath and signed Jose Bautista to a five-year, $65-million contract on the strength of a single breakout season and has been rewarded with one of the most club-friendly deals in the game. He then outdid himself when he extended then-emerging slugger Edwin Encarnacion in 2012 for a mere $27 million over three years, an extraordinary value for a hitter who rocked 78 home runs the past two seasons.

That Anthopoulos was making these moves while generally going about the business of hoarding draft picks and developing prospects contributed to the impression that he was striving to build a more robust, financially muscular version of the Tampa Bay Rays: a smart-money team that could spend to exploit opportunities.

The waiting was frustrating for some, but at least Anthopoulos was consistent. Two years ago the two shiniest baubles in the free-agent market were Prince Fielder and Yu Darvish, a stud middle-of-the-order bat and a superstar Japanese pitcher with impeccable credentials. Both required huge bets, and the Blue Jays—despite feigning interest—weren’t ready to make them.

The moment of readiness finally arrived a year ago when Anthopoulos pushed his prospect chips to the centre of the table and took on $203 million in payroll in deals for R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera.

It didn’t work, as the Blue Jays’ 74-88 record proves, but the really scary part for Anthopoulos and his team’s owners is that the first $200 million or so was just the cover charge. Getting into the champagne room is going to cost a lot more than that.

Without getting into the minutiae of who Anthopoulos can land to fill gaping holes at catcher and second base while securing at least one front-of-the-rotation starter, the reality of the situation is pretty plain: It’s going to take balls and it’s going to cost money.

It’s nice to think that trading an asset like Jose Bautista can fill more than one need, but if the Blue Jays are serious about competing trading assets is not the solution; accumulating them should be the goal.

The Tigers and the Rangers have both money and conviction and that’s the competition—and that’s without even mentioning the Angels and the Yankees and the Red Sox, the real heavy spenders in the AL.

Two years ago, while the Blue Jays sat on their hands, the Tigers committed $214-million to Fielder as they sought to pair him with Miguel Cabrera in the middle of their lineup. It was a bet that paid off, if not as richly as the Tigers would have liked given that Fielder couldn’t win them a World Series in his two seasons in Detroit.

But sending him away doesn’t mean Detroit is retreating. By trading him for the Rangers’ Ian Kinsler they fill a position of need by taking on one of baseball’s most expensive second basemen and in doing so they agreed to send $30 million to Texas to off-set the last year of Fielder’s deal.

And the $76 million they’re “saving”? That’s already ear-marked to help pay for either the $100-million-plus extension they’d like to sign with Cy Young winner Max Scherzer or the kabillion-dollar extension they’ll soon need to put in front of Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter on earth.

Meanwhile the Rangers—AL champions in 2010 and 2011—end up with Darvish and Fielder, or both prizes from the 2011 off-season. They commanded a total investment of $315 million at the time and the Rangers are serious enough about winning that they’re now comfortable footing the bill for both.

Those are the waters that Anthopoulos has to swim in over the next few weeks. They could get deeper still presuming MLB’s arbitrator upholds the 211-game suspension commissioner Bud Selig handed to Alex Rodriguez for alleged PED use. With A-Rod’s $26-million salary off the books for 2014 the Yankees will be well on their way to being under the $189-million payroll tax threshold they’ve been working towards.

Regardless, pitching-starved New York is expected to be the most aggressive bidders in the posting process for Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka, as the estimated $50 million or more it will take to win the right to sign a contract with Tanaka wouldn’t count against the Yankees’ payroll.

The Blue Jays’ fan base has done their part—attendance was up by 20 percent last season as more than 2.5 million fans filed into the Rogers Centre. As well, television ratings climbed about 20 percent year-over-year to nearly 650,000 viewers a game, even though the Jays were once again competitively irrelevant by Aug. 1.

Now it’s time for Anthopoulos and Blue Jays ownership to deliver. The well-liked general manager made his mark as a value shopper but came up with lemons when he moved into the luxury market a year ago. It’s a tough deal, but that’s what baseball is: a high-end boutique catering to those who don’t really need to look at the price tags.

Do the Blue Jays really want to shop there? They have no choice if they really want to win. Last we checked the Yankees, Rangers, Tigers and other clubs were in the American League, and only one team gets to advance to the World Series.

If Anthopoulos is going to move the Blue Jays up-market it’s up to him to spend wisely; but ultimately he’s going to have to spend. Come up empty again and it will likely be that last time he gets to go shopping.

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