How will Anthopoulos get the Blue Jays on track?

Jose Bautista was defeated by Eric Sogard in the semifinal of the competition.

TORONTO – The time has arrived for the Toronto Blue Jays to start anew, the sight of John Farrell and the Boston Red Sox hoisting the World Series trophy the final insult the 2013 season still had to give. What a remarkably painful year for the locals, the euphoria from an unprecedented winter buildup eroded so quickly, the playoff drought dating back to 1993 so sure to end continuing on unthreatened, the loathed ex-manager and his bearded band capping things by winning the final game. It’s all finally over, and good riddance to that.

A new off-season of business and an opportunity to create a better 2014 for Alex Anthopoulos opened Thursday, and the Blue Jays general manager is in for his toughest winter yet as he enters his fifth year on the job. While the baseball calendar will dictate certain things – already the contract options on Adam Lind, Casey Janssen and Mark DeRosa were exercised, Munenori Kawasaki’s was declined with a call on extending Josh Johnson a qualifying offer due Monday – none of those decisions are guiding-principle determinations, and really, it’s those that are needed.

To that end, what, exactly, is the Blue Jays way?

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Up until last off-season they had been a franchise in asset-gathering mode, carefully trying to build a foundation to leverage when Anthopoulos and his staff deemed the time to be right. That moment came last November in the form of the Marlins blockbuster, and suddenly the club was in win-now mode.

Year 1 of that window blew up in their faces with a 74-88 finish that was last in the American League East. Now the Blue Jays have roughly $120 million in payroll commitments to 16 players for 2014, plus the hefty raises due to arbitration-eligible players like Colby Rasmus, J.P. Arencibia, Esmil Rogers and Brett Cecil.

Even if the payroll soars up to $150 million this year – not a ridiculous notion with some $27 million coming as the new national TV deals kick in – Anthopoulos no longer has the flexibility to take on salary the way he did last off-season. Further, the farm system isn’t as bountiful as it once was, and while the next few seasons are in theory covered by the big-league core, the Blue Jays must be wary of scorching the earth.

All of that is why the challenge is so much more difficult for Anthopoulos this off-season. He needs two quality starting pitchers—the most difficult thing to acquire—having already played several of his best chips. He also needs a second baseman—reports of the Blue Jays’ interest in Gordon Beckham are dated and exaggerated; they would only have interest if the acquisition cost was negligible—perhaps a left-fielder and a catcher. And the thinking is Anthopoulos may only have $15–$20 million to spend, although perhaps he can go to ownership for a special allowance the way he did last year for the Marlins and Dickey deals.

Under those circumstances, the Blue Jays realistically can either start trading pieces off their big-league roster, or continue to gut their farm system—upper-level prospects like Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin have legitimate value, as do younger kids like Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris.

The former would mean a transformative deal featuring someone like Jose Bautista, since their excess of coveted bullpen arms alone won’t be enough to land the impact players they need. And trading Bautista could be a terrible mistake; elite sluggers who provide all he does on the field on such a reasonable contract ($14 million in each of the next two years plus a $14 million option in 2016) are a rare and highly coveted commodity. But if the return for him could solve multiple needs in one fell swoop, it must be considered among other unpalatable alternatives.

On the other hand, the Blue Jays could keep flipping prospects and soon find themselves in a similar spot as the Los Angeles Angels and Philadelphia Phillies, in possession of flawed and aging cores with little of substance coming behind them. Or they could take a shot at Johnson, whose $14.1 million qualifying offer price sounds ridiculous yet offers Toronto a guarantee of a potentially elite but very risky starter while essentially taking control of the decision from his hands (the free agent market is going to be stupid, as evidenced by the $35-million, two-year deal handed to Tim Lincecum). Or they could spend whatever they have on a largely mediocre free-agent class, and hope that, plus internal improvements, makes the difference.

Regardless of which choice they make, they must do something to support the $110 million in commitments they have in place, otherwise they’ll be spending good money after bad. The task for Anthopoulos is to establish a Blue Jays way that guides the path forward, one that finally finds the right track.

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