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After huge offseason, Blue Jays know time to win is now

Photo: /Reuters

Newly-acquired Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey give Toronto one of the best rotations in the game.

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Toronto's franchise-defining trade last November unfolded slowly over Twitter, with piece-meal revelations of the identities of new players being involved. It started with the Marlins dealing righthander Josh Johnson, an exciting addition but only a fraction of what was to come.

"Then," Blue Jays starter Rickey Romero recalled, "it turned into a big blockbuster deal." He immediately texted teammates Brandon Morrow and Casey Janssen to compare notes as the trade details further unraveled, with lefthander Mark Buehrle, shortstop Jose Reyes and more added to the mix. Four months later Romero marveled, "I wasn't expecting anything out of this world like [what] happened."

The end result was a trade of historic proportions that took several days to become final. The Marlins shipped Johnson, Buehrle, Reyes, second baseman Emilio Bonifacio and catcher John Buck to the Blue Jays for seven young players, instantly turning the Jays into contenders. They further entrenched themselves as preseason darlings by dealing two prospects to the Mets for reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey in mid-December.

The irony in Toronto's winter of reinvention was that it happened in conflict not only with the players' expectations -- "It's not everyday that those type of trades happen," rightfielder Jose Bautista said, "so for anybody to expect that type of move to fill that many needs would probably have been lying" -- but even the front office's.

"We were hopeful for free agency," general manager Alex Anthopoulos said.

The lesson here is timing, and a willingness to adjust one's course to suit the market. As Bautista notes, it's rare in which a club is willing to dump several stars in one wholesale move while the other participant happens to have a stocked farm system, a core of players under long-term team control, the ability to add payroll and the fortitude to pull the trigger on a trade that would cost them a number of valued prospects. Only Johnson isn't signed for multiple seasons.

"Almost everybody we got, we have under control for quite some time, which complements the core that's currently under control, whether that's [Edwin] Encarnacion, Morrow, Bautista -- timing is a big thing," Anthopoulos said. "I don't know if, as a GM, I'll [again] have two 40-home run hitters with Encarnacion and Bautista together for the next three to four years."

Add in other players with several remaining years of control -- third baseman Brett Lawrie and catcher J.P. Arencibia, to name two others -- and Toronto already had a strong core to which adding a few All-Stars by way of the Marlins was a smart way to capitalize on the in-house talent.

"They're at the prime of their careers," manager John Gibbons said, "so if we're going to do something, it's time to do it now."

In other words, Toronto was strongly motivated by its internal clock, propping open a window of contention for the next couple of years.

But, though there has been public speculation that the Jays pounced because of perceived weaknesses among their division rivals, Anthopoulos flatly said, "There is no window."

In other words, Anthopoulos denied that there is any validity to an external window-of-contention theory, insisting instead the transactions were based only on the Jays' own situation. As support, he noted that the Red Sox and Yankees have vast resources to vault themselves to the top overnight; that his own club went from 89 losses to being considered back in the mix after one offseason's worth of moves; and the unpredictability of some of last year's playoff entrants.

"If people are smart enough to start timing things, who predicted Oakland and the Orioles?" Anthopoulos said. "If you start trying to guess who's going to win, who's not going to win, you have no chance. If you start building your organization that way, I think it's a mistake."

While one can't predict external markets, there is a reliable way to prepare for any eventuality, and that is to stock one's farm system. Having an abundance of good, young talent is always helpful, whether it's to promote them or trade them.

That is something Toronto has excelled at since Anthopoulos took over. He spent considerable dollars on scouting-and-development infrastructure, maneuvering deftly to add extra draft picks and not being afraid to spend on amateur talent, domestically and internationally.

While the new collective bargaining agreement effectively limited the number of supplemental draft picks awarded and capped the signing bonuses for amateurs, the personnel additions should help the Jays through more and better scouting evaluations and more focused development of prospects once they're in the system.

Every organization's decision-makers meet at the end of each year to prepare for the offseason, detailing a list of needs and planning a way to fill them. Nos. 1 and 2 on the Jays' list, Anthopolous said, were starting pitchers, which led to a plan to strike early in the offseason to find some help on the mound after the season-ending injuries to Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchinson and the poor season from Romero that led to a 4.82 team ERA. Toronto parlayed prospects into Johnson -- its initial trade target in Miami -- and Buehrle, along with Reyes and the rest.

"If the rotation didn't improve," Anthopoulos said, "it wasn't going to matter what else we did."

While that was the most compelling area that needed improvement, offensive production at shortstop and leftfield were also lacking last year, prompting the additions of Reyes and, through free agency, Melky Cabrera. Rotation ERA and the team's OPS at those two field positions all ranked in the bottom-third of the majors last season.

The roster has been overhauled and the pieces are in place, and it's anyone's guess how good the Jays will or won't be. They hardly even know, with so many of their players having participated in the World Baseball Classic. Soon, however, Opening Day will arrive, and the clock will start on a new era of Blue Jays baseball.

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