It sure is looking like it…
When former general manager J.P. Ricciardi was ousted from the Blue Jays in 2009, Alex Anthopoulos (popularly known as AA) inherited a franchise widely viewed as a stagnant also-ran in the ultra-competitive American League East. Perhaps that is an unfair characterization for a team that has now eclipsed the .500 mark in four of the last five seasons despite the stiff competition.
Nevertheless, when Anthopoulos was hired in Oct., 2009, an air of futility had seemingly settled over Toronto as the club struggled to assemble a competitive unit. The Roy Halladay saga was dragging on, with many assuming that the return would ultimately look like the pitiful haul captured by the Twins in return for Johan Santana prior to the 2008 season. Worse yet, the Vernon Wells contract was starting to get pricey, and the farm system lacked can’t-miss talent.
Fast forward to Jan., 2011, and you can almost feel giddy about the franchise’s future. Anthopoulos’ first act as GM was to expand the scouting department. He then wielded the Blackberry to great efficiency, swapping Halladay and cash to the Phillies in return for future rotation fixture Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor, and Travis D’Arnaud.
Taylor was immediately flipped for Brett Wallace, who was in turn flipped mid-season for ultra toolsy prospect/project Anthony Gose. AA also parted with reliever Brandon League in return for the volatile, but talented, Brandon Morrow. More recently, he sent Shaun Marcum to Milwaukee for top prospect Brett Lawrie.
Altogether, his early trade history is promising. The players sent packing have all been talented, but the returns should help build the Jays into a contender. As rated by Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein, the Blue Jays added four of their top nine prospects via trades under Anthopoulos, including Kyle Drabek (No. 1), Brett Lawrie (No. 3), Travis D’Arnaud (No. 4), and Anthony Gose (No. 9).
Of course, it’s the most recent trade that prompted this ode to Alex. Last Friday night, Anthopoulos revealed himself to be an assassin of the rarest breed, the albatross killer. With the invaluable help of Angels GM Tony Reagins, Anthopoulos turned Vernon Wells into Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera.
By now, an analysis of this trade is probably unnecessary. Suffice it to say that this was a heist for Toronto. The Wells contract is one of the worst albatrosses in baseball, yet Toronto managed to pay just $14.5 million for three years of service (and $25.5 million in signing bonuses) while avoiding the final $84 million of the contract. Not only did Anthopoulos avoid paying a dime of the remainder of Wells’ contract, he acquired two potentially useful players in the process.
The best part of the Wells trade is the new-found financial flexibility. According to Cots Contracts, the Jays are currently on the hook for $44 million in 2011, with arbitration decisions on Jose Bautista, Napoli, and Jason Frasor costing somewhere between $16.15 million to $20.33 million. As such, payroll should settle in at just over $60 million in 2011. For a franchise that has operated a player payroll as high as $97.9 million (2008) and averaged an $82 million payroll over the last five seasons, that’s quite a bit of saved change.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Blue Jays leverage the reduced payroll. The most cynical among us might expect increased dividends for the owners, but for the Jays to succeed in the AL East, nearly all of that money should be funneled back into the program. With eight of the first 120 picks in next June’s amateur draft, the Blue Jays could wield their cash to select the best talents available.
Any cash not used to sign draftees could be used in the international talent market. Ideally, the remaining spoils would be stashed (invested) for a future free agent splash. Jays fans have been witnessed throwing the name Albert Pujols around the internet.
In just over a year, Anthopoulos has accomplished much for the Blue Jays franchise. By properly leveraging all the unspoken gains from the Vernon Wells trade, the Blue Jays could acquire enough talent to be within striking distance of the beasts of the East. Thus far, the decision to hire AA has appeared to be a bit of genius.