Anthopoulos’ moves put to test in pivotal season

Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos and president and CEO Paul Beeston are pictured. (Nathan Denette/CP)

NEW YORK – The period for analysis and prognostications is over, and now it’s time for what happens on the field to render judgment on the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays, plus the men who put them together.

At this point the fault lines upon which the new campaign rests are well known, and the stakes for general manager Alex Anthopoulos and his crew are clear. The players they’ve assembled either will, or won’t end a post-season drought that dates back to 1993, the longest exile from playoff paradise in the majors, and jobs, not to mention the club’s overall direction, depend on the outcome.

Let’s play ball.

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All that being said, with Paul Beeston’s looming departure as president and CEO this is also a tipping point for the Blue Jays in terms of their foundational strategies and objectives as a business. The three-year competitive window opened up by the Marlins blockbuster in November 2012 ends this season, and in concert with Beeston’s successor, the organization must decide if the club-record payrolls of 2013-15 are sustainable into the future, and whether the current financial model makes sense.

Forbes reported recently that the Blue Jays posted an operating loss of $17.9 million in 2014, an interesting figure given that team owner Rogers Communications Inc. noted in its third quarter earnings report that “higher player salaries of approximately $10 million this quarter and $20 million year to date at the Toronto Blue Jays” contributed to an eight-per-cent rise in Rogers Media’s operating expenses.

Factor in the Canadian dollar’s sharp decline versus the American greenback, and some bigger-picture strategizing on guiding principles under which the Blue Jays should run is coming.

How Anthopoulos, in the final year of his contract, fits into the picture is intriguing.

He has no input on the business end of the team, operating under whatever budget figure Beeston gives him, and has positioned the club well for the future with minimal long-term financial commitments plus an inexpensive core of potentially elite young pitchers.

With more prospects coming and an entirely homegrown rotation a realistic possibility as soon as next season, it’s difficult to argue that the franchise isn’t far healthier now than it was when Anthopoulos took over from J.P. Ricciardi on the penultimate day of the 2009 season.

Still, Anthopoulos has yet to reach the playoffs, and if it doesn’t happen this year, someone else may very well get a chance to push this team over the finish line. Whether that’s fair or not is irrelevant – that’s the business; whether it’s the right thing to do is another discussion.

Certainly the Blue Jays have been innovative under his watch, particularly in the way they built up their asset base in the early years of the regime.

By manipulating the old free-agent compensation rules to build a cache of draft picks, Anthopoulos turned Marco Scutaro into Aaron Sanchez and Justin Nicolino, Rod Barajas into Asher Wojciechowski, Scott Downs into Daniel Norris and Jacob Anderson, Kevin Gregg into Dwight Smith, Miguel Olivo into Kevin Comer, John Buck into Joe Musgrove, Frank Francisco into Matt Smoral, Jon Rauch into Mitch Nay, and Jose Molina into Tyler Gonzales.

The drafts in 2010, ’11 and ’12 quickly restocked a farm system that had minimal inventory, and set the stage for Anthopoulos in the trade market.

Wojciechowski, Comer and Musgrove were used in the trade with Houston that landed J.A. Happ, while Nicolino was part of the blockbuster deal with the Marlins that will be the most remembered move of Anthopoulos’s tenure, and perhaps the one he’s largely judged on.

In acquiring Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Emilio Bonifacio and Buck for Henderson Alvarez, Yunel Escobar, Adeiny Hechavarria, Nicolino, Anthony DeSclafani, Jake Marisnick and Jeff Mathis, Anthopoulos unexpectedly shifted from asset-gathering to win-now mode.

The change in approach re-energized a franchise that was at its low point under Anthopoulos after a dreadful 2012 season in which injuries derailed a promising young team and manager John Farrell bolted for the Boston Red Sox afterwards.

The Marlins deal, which led to the acquisition of R.A. Dickey from the New York Mets for Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud, didn’t work out as planned, with the Blue Jays crashing their way to a 74-88 finish.

Things looked better in 2014 when the Blue Jays led the American League East by six games on June 6, and at the end of July 31 were only 1.5 games behind the division champion Baltimore Orioles plus a three-game edge over the Seattle Mariners for the second wild card.

Again they wilted, and the frustration continued.

This year, Anthopoulos is betting the house on his scouting and player development departments.

The Blue Jays opening day roster featured six rookies, including draft picks Sanchez, Norris and Pompey, international free-agent signings Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro, plus Devon Travis, the fourth incarnation of the third piece from the Roy Halladay trade.

Each of kids will have a significant say in how this season unfolds.

Also playing a crucial role will be Josh Donaldson, acquired from Oakland in the 51st of the 53 trades Anthopoulos has made thus far. The Blue Jays sent Brett Lawrie, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin and Franklin Barreto to the Athletics for the all-star third baseman, and they need him to deliver another MVP-calibre season.

They’re also banking on Russell Martin, who was handed the second-biggest contract in franchise history at $82 million over five years to sign as a free agent. The Canadian catcher is being counted on to draw out all he can from the young pitchers that the franchise’s future hinges on.

Put it all together and Anthopoulos’s body of work offers a pretty interesting debate about whether he merits an extension, regardless of if the Blue Jays make it to the post-season.

Like every GM he has swings and misses on the trade front – foisting Vernon Wells and the $86 million less $5 million he was owed upon the Los Angeles Angels was a masterstroke, sending Yan Gomes and Mike Aviles to the Cleveland Indians for Esmil Rogers was not. Contract extensions for Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion worked out brilliantly, but the ones for Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow failed miserably.

Ultimately, how the Blue Jays perform in 2015 will largely determine whether the ledger lines up the right way, as calculations with major implications are made up and down the organization.

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