Back in spring training, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, 33, and Padres GM Jed Hoyer, 36, both on the job for a little more than four months, struck up a conversation about what it takes to compete in the American League East. Anthopoulos had been with Toronto since 2003 and Hoyer had worked seven years in the Red Sox front office before he was hired by the Padres, so despite their youthfulness, each of them had seen enough of what Red Sox president Larry Lucchino calls "East Coast Baseball" to understand the challenge. Anthopoulos and Hoyer agreed that to survive in the AL East you have to load up on power pitchers, particularly in the rotation. Pitchers who rely on finesse or getting hitters to chase pitches out of the zone don't play well against patient teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox.
"We talked about how you need pitchers who can get strikeouts and strikes in the strike zone," Anthopoulos said. "All the lineups are really selective and will make you come into the zone. That puts a premium on the ability to get strikes in the strike zone."
Anthopoulos' blueprint was on display Sunday, when Toronto's Brandon Morrow struck out 17 batters and came within one out of no-hitting the Rays. Morrow threw 97 strikes, only 11 of which were put into play. Facing 31 batters, he racked up 45 strikes without contact (25 called, 20 swinging). Morrow, 26, was obtained by Anthopoulos from Seattle last winter for reliever Brandon League and a minor league hitting prospect. Morrow was the fifth overall pick of the 2006 draft and always was regarded as a guy with a big arm, though he never put up big numbers.
"He reminded us a little of A.J. Burnett with his arm action and stuff," Anthopoulos said.
Morrow leads all major league qualifiers in strikeouts per nine innings (10.67). His start Sunday served notice that the Jays, having shed veterans Roy Halladay, Alex Rios and Scott Rolen in the past year, are on to something. Their pitchers lead the league in strikeouts and their hitters lead the world in home runs. In short, they just might be the most dangerous team in baseball down the stretch.
Indeed, the American League East race goes through Toronto, a franchise that hasn't played a playoff game since Joe Carter ended the 1993 World Series with a home run. The Blue Jays, who have the seventh-best record in the AL but are stuck in fourth place in the loaded AL East, play 30 of their final 57 games against the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox. The Jays are already 5-1 into those 30 games with another East showdown that begins tonight in Rogers Centre against Boston.
"It's only two series so far," Anthopoulos said, referring to series wins in New York and at home against Tampa Bay. "But this is my seventh year with Toronto and I haven't seen the city this excited about what the organization is doing and how this team in playing. With young players you can dream on them.
"With young pitching you still don't know. They have the ability to do what Brandon did and they also are getting their feet wet in the big leagues. There's volatility there."
The Jays feature a rotation that includes Ricky Romero, 25, Shaun Marcum, 28, Morrow, 26, and Brett Cecil, 23. Kyle Drabek, 22, obtained from Philadelphia in the Halladay deal, is having a strong year in Double-A (12-9, 2.92). All of them attack hitters with quality stuff, though Marcum does so not with velocity but with a killer change-up.
Anthopoulos said he considered the Rays, with a rotation that is aggressive with fastballs, as "the standard-bearers" of how to build an AL East-worthy pitching staff. "With a collection of young starting pitchers with stuff and a veteran bullpen you can do some damage," he said.
The Jays' blueprint goes beyond collecting young starters with swing-and-miss stuff. When the front office and scouts gathered in their war room for the draft last June, Anthopoulos talked to them about the teams GM Pat Gillick put together to win World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, teams filled what he called "athletic players with baseball skills . . . two-way players." The group included players such as Devon White, Roberto Alomar, Kelly Gruber and Tony Fernandez.
(The Jays used each of their first five picks -- among the top 61 picks overall -- on pitchers. And they are big pitchers: 6-6, 220-pound right-hander William McGuire; 6-4, 190-pound RHP Aaron Sanchez; 6-5, 200-pound RHP Noah Snydergaard; 6-4, 235-pound RHP Asher Wojciechowski and 6-3, 200-pound left-hander Griffin Murphy. They also spent $10 million last April on free agent shortstop Adeiny Hecchavaria from Cuba.)
Anthopoulos has emphasized not only drafting such athletic players, but also acquiring them from other organizations, such as Fred Lewis (added in an April trade with the Giants) and Yunel Escobar (a July trade with the Braves). But the move that most revealed his philosophy was when he traded a big-league ready first baseman, Brett Wallace, to Houston for Anthony Gose, a 19-year-old Class-A center fielder whom the Astros acquired from Philadelphia in the Roy Oswalt deal. Gose has limited power, has great speed but has been thrown out on 47 percent of his steal attempts this year, and owns a career OBP in the minors of .324. But Anthopoulos acquired him because in time he could develop into a premium center fielder.
When the Toronto scouts scoured the Philadelphia system last summer in preparation for a possible Halladay trade, "Gose was not really on our radar," Anthopoulos said. "But every scout we sent out there came back raving about Anthony Gose."
Anthopoulos said he tried to trade for Gose last winter in the Halladay deal, tried again in spring training and again early in the season. It wasn't until he cut a side deal with Houston GM Ed Wade -- it was not a traditional three-way trade -- that he finally got Gose.
"We looked at the free agent classes for the next couple of years and there was something like only three or four center fielders but first-base/DH types there were about 20," Anthopoulos said. "Those guys don't become available."
In his 10 months on the job, Anthopoulos already has put his imprint on the organization. He still has work left to emulate the Rays in order to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox for a playoff spot. But for now he has built a team that has the power, on the mound and at the plate, to be the game's biggest spoiler down the stretch.