For the second year in a row Blue Jays G.M. Alex Anthopoulos took advantage of a team that had a poor relationship with a good, young player to make a great deal for his club. In 2010 he stole shortstop Yunel Escobar from the Braves for aging shortstop and OBP sinkhole Alex Gonzalez and lefthanded reliever Tim Collins. This time Anthopoulos leveraged the deep pockets of Rogers Communications, which owns the Jays, and his loaded bullpen to engineer a three-way trade that landed him centerfielder Colby Rasmus for, essentially, prospect Zach Stewart and a handful of nonstar relief pitchers.
Roster magic has become a specialty of the 34-year-old Anthopoulos, whether snagging prime-age up-the-middle talent at low cost (between them, Escobar and Rasmus will make $3.34 million this season) or jettisoning the game's worst contract from his payroll. By dumping Vernon Wells on the Angels over the winter and eating none of the $86 million owed to the veteran outfielder, Anthopoulos severed the team's last significant ties to J.P. Ricciardi's tenure as G.M., freed up $20 million a year for use on better players and advanced a building—not rebuilding—program by at least a year. In less than two years on the job Anthopoulos has won not only the Escobar and Wells swaps but also turned power-armed reliever Brandon League into power-armed starter Brandon Morrow; received a strong package of prospects for Roy Halladay, despite Halladay's no-trade clause; and even acquired a potential Canadian star in prospect Brett Lawrie, native of British Columbia, who made his MLB debut last week.
Anthopoulos, Montreal-born himself, has been aggressive on the amateur level as well. The Jays, who held seven of the top 80 picks in the 2011 draft (thanks to allowing a number of free agents to walk after 2010), selected high-ceiling high school players projected to be difficult signs, such as righthander Tyler Beede and southpaw Daniel Norris. Anthopoulos seems determined to act as if he's the G.M. not of a struggling mid-market franchise but of a large-market monster. After all, he has the only MLB team in a nation of 34 million people, playing in a metropolitan area of more than five million—the largest in the country—owned by a media company worth more than $18 billion. Comparisons with the Rays and their efforts in the AL East fall flat; the Jays don't have to be the Little Engine That Could. It was less than 20 years ago that Toronto ran the highest payroll in MLB while winning back-to-back World Series. This is a franchise that can and should spend money.
Every G.M. needs a little luck, though, and Anthopoulos's came in a gift left over from the waning days of the Ricciardi Era. Jose Bautista arrived in Toronto in 2008 as a broken prospect and spent most of '09 as the same moderately disappointing player he'd been since cracking the majors five years earlier. After Bautista hit 54 homers last year, Anthopoulos signed him to a five-year, $65 million contract that seemed wildly optimistic. After all, no player had gone from being a washout at 28 to a superstar at 29 and held onto those gains. Bautista, though, got better—he leads the AL in homers, OBP and slugging this year. He has been the best player in baseball, and the contract looks like a bargain.
The best G.M.'s have the courage of their convictions and the resources with which to act upon them. In acquiring Escobar and Rasmus, in drafting Beede and Norris, in signing Bautista long-term, Anthopoulos has shown that he's not going to cower while the Yankees and the Red Sox run roughshod over his division. He's going to acquire the best players he can, spend money where it makes sense to do so and pull the trigger when he sees a deal that can help his team. Anthopoulos is moving rapidly up the lists of the best G.M.'s in the game, the architect of baseball's next It franchise.
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BRAD WHITE/ICON SMI (ESCOBAR)
EH, PLUS Anthopoulos (inset) gets high marks for cutting payroll while stealing Escobar (left) and Rasmus.
MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS (ANTHOPOULOS)
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CLAUS ANDERSEN/GETTY IMAGES (RASMUS)
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