Blue Jays memories hit for Angels GM Perry Minasian ahead of Dunedin opener

The refurbished TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla., will make its debut as the Blue Jays' 2021 regular-season home on Thursday. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

TORONTO – Two teams came to mind for Perry Minasian as he considered the situation of the Los Angeles Angels and scrolled through his mental Rolodex in search of comparable clubs. First up were the 1995 Texas Rangers, a talented group wanting in spots yet still somewhat less than what should have been the collective sum of their parts. Next came the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays, who also very much fit that same description.

“After ‘14, we needed to make some additions, change the makeup of the club and we did that,” says Minasian, the rookie Angels GM who spent nine years with the Blue Jays and was pro scouting director at the time. “The '95 Rangers, kind of the same thing for me. Both teams had a lot of talent. We had some big-time players. But until we added some of those veteran guys, that’s what changed it. So that was kind of the thought behind this place. There are some really good players here. This is not a 100-loss team, five-, six-, eight-year rebuild.

"This is a team that could be competitive with some moves that make sense. I thought some veteran leadership was really important. And that was the game-plan going in.”

The moves made by the Rangers ahead the 1996 season and the Blue Jays before 2015 paid off with trips to the post-season, and Angels fans would love for that pattern to continue this fall, carrying superstar Mike Trout back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

A week into Minasian’s remake, the Angels are off to a solid start at 4-2 heading into Thursday’s home opener for the 3-3 Blue Jays, when TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla., makes its regular-season debut. The place underwent a refurbishment completed last spring and has since had a few more upgrades, most notably four supplementary light trucks to brighten the field and add more height for ball-tracking at night. Player lockers have been distanced in the home clubhouse, dining has been moved outdoors and there’s more workout space outside.

On the visitors’ end, a temporary tent structure similar to the one used at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field last year has added more space to ensure protocol compliance.

Minasian spent more than his fair share of days at the place, but may not recognize much of it in its current form. Still, before the game starts, he plans to head up toward the corner seats near the press box where he used to watch games with Mel Didier, the longtime Blue Jays senior advisor and beloved presence who died in 2017. “I'll go sit there and take five minutes,” he says. “He was a big influence on my career, a huge mentor for me, somebody I loved talking to day-in and day-out. He knew as much about the game as anybody I've ever met.”

A baseball-lifer himself, raised in the Rangers clubhouse his father Zack used to run before working up the game’s executive ranks, Minasian ended up turning over nearly half of the Angels roster, seeking to finally give Trout, two-way star Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon a sufficient supporting cast.

Quickly, he cornered the Iglesias market with a pair of trades to land closer Raisel from Cincinnati and shortstop Jose from Baltimore. Starter Alex Cobb arrived from Baltimore and outfielder Dexter Fowler from St. Louis in trades subsidized by the originating club. Jose Quintana, Kurt Suzuki and Alex Claudio were signed as free agents while Steve Cishek and Tony Watson were late spring adds that bolstered a remade bullpen.

In that way, Minasian spread the wealth across the roster instead rather than diving in for the single bold stroke of a Trevor Bauer signing often clamoured for in Orange County.

"There were different ways to go,” he says. “I know a lot of people wanted us to do the big splash, that was talked about a ton. For me, it was more building the floor, improving the bottom of the roster, improving the depth, overall just adding quality people who have been there and done that. I thought that was really, really important for this club.”

Suzuki, Fowler, Cobb, Quintana, Cishek and Watson all fall into the been-there-done-that club “that was kind of the theme,” explains Minasian, but the Angels also “wanted to bring a little toughness and a little bit of an edge, too.”

“Both Iglesiases kind of bring that. They play with a little swagger, a little strut,” he continues. “We were able to do some things that we liked. We'll see how it goes.”

There’s an opening for the Angels in the AL West with the Houston Astros losing George Springer and the Oakland Athletics parting with Marcus Semien, both of whom ended up with the Blue Jays. And if they aren’t able to capitalize this season, Minasian will have lots of flexibility next winter with 13 pending free agents on the roster, including Albert Pujols and his $30 million.

A core of Trout, Rendon, Ohtani and David Fletcher gives the Angels a reasonable window to be competitive, but they’ll need Ohtani, Griffin Canning, who starts Thursday, Jaime Barria and other arms to emerge with Dylan Bundy, Andrew Heaney, Cobb and Quintana all up.

“Having a year to evaluate things is really important,” says Minasian, who left the Blue Jays after the 2017 season to rejoin Alex Anthopoulos in Atlanta as senior vice-president, baseball operations and assistant GM. “We did that in Atlanta before we did anything extreme. We took basically '18 and we had a lot of internal improvements and we made some shrewd moves with the Anibal Sanchezes of the world, But we didn't do any type of huge, long-term signing or anything like that.

"So I think the year will help. The good thing here is we have the resources to extend the right people and do things to continuously improve the club. That's comforting.”

So too is the group of people he was able to bring over to the Angels front office, including two names Blue Jays fans may remember. Brian Parker, who fought for and drafted Bo Bichette in the second round of the 2016 draft as amateur scouting director, was lured over from the Los Angeles Dodgers to be Minasian’s senior director of international scouting. And David Haynes, a key part of the Blue Jays’ decision-making process on player transactions as manager baseball operations and professional scouting, went cross-country to become director, player procurement.

While both are links to his past with the Blue Jays, he’s expecting a wave of nostalgia to hit once he arrives at TD Ballpark now running his own team.

“I love Toronto. I love the city. I think it's one of the top three cities in North America. I loved every minute there,” says Minasian, pointing to Dana Brown, Andrew Tinnish, Tony LaCava, Paul Beeston, Mike Shaw, Ron Sandelli, Kevin Malloy and Jeff Ross, among others, as some of the people that made up “a really special group.”

"There were a couple of moments that really stood out for me,” he adds. “Winning the division in 2015, that felt like an unbelievable accomplishment, just because the AL East is so difficult and you're facing some teams that maybe had more resources than we did, but we never used that as an excuse. It took us a little while but Alex did an unbelievable job of building a team that could contend and had a chance to play in the ALCS.

"If the ball bounced the right way a couple of times maybe things would have turned out differently. To do that in '15 and then go back there in '16, those are experiences I'll never forget.”

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