When you're sharing a division with the Yankees, and talk of their 37-year-old shortstop maybe possibly potentially moving to the outfield at some undetermined point in his career somehow becomes major breaking news, it's not difficult to have a quiet offseason by comparison. The Blue Jays, undoubtedly, have had just that, as the only major noise emanating from Toronto this winter was the sound of general manager Alex Anthopoulos unloading an $86 million burden off his back and into a box bound for Anaheim. But Anthopoulos' Blue Jays, it appears, are setting themselves up to eventually make noise when it matters most. Because in granting themselves future financial flexibility, they have the potential to one day augment a burgeoning young core of talent.
Last season, in the wake of the Roy Halladay trade, Toronto largely exceeded even its own expectations in winning 85 games. Yet rather than become indebted to the idea of building around that group, Anthopoulos has instead set about revamping the roster, keeping his eye forever fixed on more fruitful long-term plans for the franchise. Near season's end, the Blue Jays locked Ricky Romero into a long-term deal that bought out his three arbitration years and his first free-agent year and gave the club an option on the left-hander for 2016. At the time, it was fair to wonder why they would go to such lengths with their No. 2 starter, but not their No. 1, Shaun Marcum. But when Marcum, a second-time arbitration-eligible due to cash in after a 13-win season, was traded to the Brewers for promising second-base prospect Brett Lawrie last month, Anthopoulos' course was clear: He opted to sell high on Marcum, before the price tag escalated severely. It's quite possible a similar course might be charted with Jose Bautista before the non-waiver Trade Deadline on July 31. While the reactionary move of signing Bautista, who is in his final year of arbitration eligibility before hitting free agency next fall, to a long-term deal is still possible, the wiser move might be to wait and see whether Bautista regresses from the extreme (54 homers, 124 RBIs) to the mean (.794 career OPS). Thus far, the latter is the move Anthopoulos has taken, for reports indicate there has yet to be any talk of a multiyear extension with Bautista. Anthopoulos learned just last year, as Adam Lind's profound 2009 gave way to a pedestrian '10 in the wake of a contract extension, that negotiating with a guy coming off a career year isn't always the most beneficial business decision. If he applies that lesson to the Bautista situation, it's difficult to fault him. But whether Bautista becomes trade bait or a long-term fixture in Toronto, one look at the Blue Jays' future financial commitments -- at present, a little more than $17 million is guaranteed to seven guys, including potential buyouts for Jon Rauch, Octavio Dotel and Edwin Encarnacion, in 2012 -- makes it clear that this is a team thinking ahead. You have to if you're going to compete with the free-spending Yanks and Red Sox, because you can't simply throw money at every problem. By trimming away the excess fat (and that's putting it lightly) of Alex Rios and Vernon Wells over the last year and a half, Toronto has made room to fatten the payroll a year from now. "We know we're not going to be at the level of New York, per se," newly installed manager John Farrell said when he took the job. "At the same time, there's going to be the ability to compete. At the right time, there is going to be the opportunity to support a very strong payroll and one that will allow us to compete at the highest level." Farrell was one of the game's most highly regarded farm directors. Then he was one of its most accomplished coaches. He had his fair share of managerial opportunities the past couple years, but he was compelled to head north of the border largely because of the Blue Jays' arsenal of young arms. Romero, Brett Cecil and Brandon Morrow combined to go 39-23 with a 4.10 ERA last season. Top prospect Kyle Drabek will crack the Opening Day rotation in 2011 in the No. 4 spot, and Marc Rzepczynski, Jesse Litsch, Brad Mills and Zach Stewart will stage what figures to be an intriguing spring battle for the fifth. A deep Blue Jays farm system will only get deeper in June, when Toronto has seven of the first 80 selections in the First-Year Player Draft. That will certainly help augment the long-term outlook. In the short term, it's difficult to know what to expect from this Blue Jays team in 2011. Certainly, the losses of Kevin Gregg and Scott Downs lead to uncertainty in the back end of the bullpen, though the club countered with the additions of Dotel, Rauch and Frank Francisco. The lineup definitely doesn't look as one-dimensional as it once was, though the Blue Jays will have to find new ways to generate offense when their home run numbers aren't quite as gaudy. On the whole, the potential for the coming season to yield less victories than 2010 is real. But what Anthopoulos has done behind the scenes is real, too. In a difficult division, Toronto is building the right way.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.