Wednesday, January 19, 2011

*Anthopoulos is Aces (so far...)

The sporting landscape in Toronto looks like a scene out of "The Road"; A barren, desolate landscape, devoid of warmth or sunlight, where the inhabitants are restlessly scouring the earth for some sort of hope, or at least sustenance to make it through another day. A little much? Well, when in Rome.

Let's examine the evidence:

Bryan Colangelo came dripping swagger into power with the Raptors, but as we approach the fifth anniversary of his hiring we have seen a team in constant flux with an almost yearly house cleaning and very little results. They currently sit 12th in the east.

Brian Burke came aboard as Maple Leafs GM with similar hype and confidence, and although he seems to make all the right moves, he is dealing with a franchise so deeply entangled in futility that he may not even last to see the fruits of his labour finally pay off. They currently sit 12th in the east.

Toronto FC...well, it says something about your state of affairs when your star captain (a Toronto native) gives your team the big F.U. to tryout for another club without permission or notice. They finished with 9 wins in 30 games and have yet to make the playoffs in their existence.

The Toronto Blue Jays finished 4th yet again in the AL East, but for good reason this statistic is somewhat misleading. They finished 4th in the toughest division in baseball while having a 10 win improvement over the previous season, and after losing the best pitcher in baseball. Not too shabby, and the reason for this startling forward progression is because of the astute vision of rookie GM Alex Anthopoulos.

Upon his hiring in 2009 Anthopoulos had a daunting task placed in front of him as his first order of business; trade Roy Halladay, arguably the best pitcher in the league and the heart, soul, and face of the franchise for umpteen years. He handled the task with veteran panache, scoring one of the top young pitching prospects available in Kyle Drabek. He followed that up by fleecing the dumbstruck Mariners by acquiring ace starter Brandon Morrow for average middle reliever Brandon League. Not a bad start.

Moving forward Anthopoulos outlined a legitimate and feasible vision for how the team was going to be handled, and has stuck to his word to a tee. The focus would be to stockpile young assets and to focus on building from within, while having a strong focus on pitching depth. With the acquisitions of players such as Drabek, Yunel Escobar, Adeiney Hechavarria, Travis D'Arnaud, and Brett Lawrie he did just that. Lawrie, considered by many to be a blue-chip prospect, came in a high-risk deal that sent Shaun Marcum to Milwaukee. This move was met with question marks by many fans and pundits, but it speaks to the confidence AA has in his young starting rotation, and you don't often get high rewards without taking high risks. The kid's got balls.

Going into this latest off-season the Jays had several roster holes needing solutions. The corner infield positions were in flux, as was the catching situation, the team lacked a legitimate closer, and needed to add speed to the top of the order. Triple-A MVP J.P. Arencibia and veteran back-up Jose Molina will take care of the catching duties. A re-tooled Aaron Hill and a cheaper Edwin Encarnacion will handle 3rd base, and the latter will double as a first baseman in a platoon situation with Adam Lind. The acquisition of Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch creates a solid internal battle for the closer's position and adds depth to the bullpen. Free agent singing Rajai Davis will add forty to fifty stolen bases and outfield mobility. Check, check, check and check, and all within the plan he set in place when he started out.

Beyond all of those roster questions, Anthopoulos also had to replace an outgoing potential hall of fame manager in Cito Gaston. Over fifty candidates were interviewed for the position with no stone being left unturned in the search for the right synergy. In the end AA settled on John Farrell, a man with no Major League management experience. Dumb move? Think again. John Farrell has a resume that includes five years as a head of player development in Cleveland, and four years as the pitching coach for Boston. A track record that directly mirrors the game plan of the Anthopoulos regime. Me thinks me sees a trend here.

The only hurdle left to conquer this off season is the arbitration of reigning Major League home run king Jose Bautista, which according to sources should only be a formality as Bautista is very happy in Toronto and will likely re-sign. AA also avoided going to arbitration with Escobar and Jason Frasor, signing both to one-year deals, taking care of the team's short-term needs at their respective positions while giving the team flexibility in the long-term.

It is still far too early to grade the job Anthopoulos has done with these Blue Jays. There are too many what-ifs and yet-to-be-seens to know exactly how deep an impact he will make on a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since the World Series glory days of 1993. There is however, one distinct attribute these Jays can boast that no Jays team has been able to over that span: direction. Alex Anthopoulos is a man with a plan, and even though the arms race in the AL East is always the toughest, this team looks poised to compete.

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