Can the Blue Jays break free of mediocrity?

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Toronto Blue Jays.

2010 record: 85-77
Finish: Fourth place, AL East
2010 final payroll: $86.8 million
Estimated 2011 opening day payroll: $70 million

Offseason action

In a little more than a year as general manager, Alex Anthopoulos has led with his MLB Scout School diploma and countered with his economics degree, a reasonable enough combination to have made the Blue Jays into one of the more interesting franchises in the game.

Alex Anthopoulos

In consecutive offseasons, Anthopoulos traded the team’s best pitcher: Roy Halladay(notes) in Dec. 2009 and, 10 days shy of the one-year anniversary of that, Shaun Marcum(notes).

Going on three weeks ago he off-loaded about $80 million worth of Vernon Wells(notes), the tricky part of that deal being counting to 10 before shouting “Yes, yes, oh God, yes!” so as not to scare off the Angels.

As a winter he called “chaotic” crawled toward spring in Ontario, Anthopoulos had moved out (or lost to free agency) catcher John Buck(notes), first baseman Lyle Overbay(notes), relievers Kevin Gregg(notes) and Scott Downs(notes), along with Wells and Marcum. And he’d taken on Rajai Davis(notes), Juan Rivera(notes), Edwin Encarnacion(notes) and relievers Frank Francisco(notes), Octavio Dotel(notes) and Jon Rauch(notes).

The interesting part is that the Jays won 85 games last season, which is reason for hope everywhere but the AL East, where 85 wins is known as no-man’s land. The last time a team qualified for the postseason out of the AL East with 85 wins was never. So, 85 wins get you neither a contender nor an obvious rebuild. What it gets you, generally, is indecision, which at least is better than false hope.

Octavio Dotel

Except Anthopoulos seemed to recognize those 85 wins for exactly what they were: Worthless. Sure, he could have held on to Wells and Marcum and at least one of those back-end relievers and taken a run at 86 or 87 or even 89 wins, which would have left the Blue Jays nowhere and with little hope of going somewhere quickly.

Instead, he sold high on Marcum and about as high as possible on Wells. At a time when Downs would get $15 million over three seasons from the Angels and Gregg the possibility for $16 million over three with the Orioles, he picked up relievers Francisco, Rauch and Dotel for a total of $11.5 million.

And while none of this will catch the Yankees, Red Sox or Rays today, at least the Jays are going somewhere.

Reality check

It’s 17 years and counting now for the Blue Jays, who haven’t participated in a playoff game since Joe Carter took Mitch Williams deep.

The Jays haven’t won 90 games in a season since, or finished higher than third more than once (second, in 2006). They are on their ninth manager (including Cito Gaston twice), and in that time watched SkyDome clear out, from four million fans in 1993 to 1.5 million in 2010.

It’s not that the Jays have been bad. Far from it. If anything, they are guilty of being average, for years the middle ground between the most celebrated rivalry in baseball and the dregs of the AL East. And of being cornered by the Wells and Alex Rios(notes) contracts, which miraculously came off the books within 17 months of each other.

What remains is something less than a rebuild and something more than a renovation. The Jays are generally considered to have a top 10 farm system – the Halladay and Marcum trades helped – and have five of the top 55 picks in the June draft (the Rays have seven in the first 57). So, change is coming, and not far behind the current promise of twenty-somethings Ricky Romero(notes), Brett Cecil(notes), Brandon Morrow(notes) and Kyle Drabek(notes).

Kyle Drabek

In the short-term, the winter’s turnover will hurt more than it will help. The Jays had one way to score runs in 2010, and that was to hunt fastballs and swing hard. They led baseball with 257 home runs, yet countered that by having the third-worst on-base percentage in the league. Of the seven players who hit at least 20 home runs for them, three – Wells, Overbay and Buck accounted for 71 – won’t be back. New manager John Farrell (No. 9) has promised more aggressiveness and less predictability.

Adam Lind(notes) becomes the regular first baseman, Jose Bautista(notes) the third baseman, J.P. Arencibia(notes) the catcher, Rajai Davis the center fielder and, assuming they don’t flip him the way they did Mike Napoli(notes), Juan Rivera the left fielder. Farrell has his pick of closers among Francisco, Dotel and Rauch, though the job appears to be Francisco’s headed into spring.

Blue Jays in haiku
Anthopoulos to
Rzepczynski: Mind if we stay
On first-name basis?

Next: Boston Red Sox

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Feb 9, 2011