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Anthopoulos’s Blue Jays Still a Ways From Contending

After two full years when winning didn't matter, the Jays' young GM may find himself testing the limits of fans' patience in 2012.

The gargoyles that adorn Rogers Centre will calmly await a winning team, even when and if Jays fans get antsy. Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/gardinergirl/249381300/"}gardinergirl{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

This coming Monday, five short days after the Blue Jays put the finishing touches on their season with a win in Chicago, Alex Anthopoulos will celebrate his second anniversary as the team’s general manager.

If he is pleased with his performance over those two years, it is with good reason.

After all, while this year’s version of the team wound up with four fewer victories than the squad that won 85 times in Anthopoulos’s first year on the job, there is almost no one making the argument that 2011 represented a step backward for the young ball club.

Showing remarkable patience in the midst of what is now a 17-season playoff drought, Jays fans seem to have been satisfied with Anthopoulos’s unwavering commitment to rebuilding the team’s roster around young, talented players who haven’t yet had their salaries bloated by free agency, even as the Jays spent their entire summer within easy reach of the .500 mark. The fans accepted that this season’s storylines were the very promising rookie campaigns of J.P. Arencibia, Eric Thames, and Brett Lawrie, the continuing maturation of Ricky Romero and Yunel Escobar, and the emphatic confirmation that Jose Bautista was not simply a spectacular flash in the pan.

Next season, however, will be an entirely different story.

Though Anthopoulos has never given a specific timeline for his rebuild, 2012 has long been believed, by a significant portion of the team’s fan base, to be the year that the Jays begin to compete in earnest. While it is still too early to tell whether or not they’re right, what is certain is that if Anthopoulos disappoints them in this regard, he will face levels of pressure and skepticism which he will find unfamiliar.

To date, the 34-year-old from Montreal has given the fans precious little to criticize.

He has proven himself a master of the deal, unloading Vernon Wells’ burdensome contract, trading for the as-good-as-advertised Lawrie, and picking up Colby Rasmus, a centre fielder with a big upside, for little more than a handful of journeyman types.

He is also, evidently, a savvy contract negotiator, inking the men he believes will be future cornerstones of the team to multi-year contracts at salaries that make them relative bargains. It is a safe bet that Romero, Escobar, and first baseman Adam Lind will be worth more than the $7.5 million, $5 million, and $7.5 million coming to each, respectively, in 2015.

Anthopoulos also seems to have learned from the example of his predecessor and former boss, J.P. Ricciardi, who, although brought on board in 2001 to lead the Jays into the playoffs on a shoestring budget, could scarcely resist the allure of overpriced free agents well into or past their prime.

For Anthopoulos, there have yet been no A.J. Burnetts or Frank Thomases; he has, if anything, appeared almost cautious to a fault about mortgaging the future. Lawrie came over in exchange for a front-half-of-the-rotation pitcher still improving at 28 in Shaun Marcum, while Brett Wallace, a highly regarded first baseman at AAA, was traded away during the 2010 season for Anthony Gose, an even younger prospect, still years away from cracking a major league roster.

So far, Alex Anthopoulos has steered clear of pricey, high-risk free agents, like A.J. Burnett. Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/frigante/1423936925/"}frigante{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Unfortunately, his having made the right moves to this point doesn’t automatically translate into a playoff berth next year or any year.

Rebuilding your roster into a contender in the American League’s East division is possible—just ask the Tampa Bay Rays. But what’s also true is that it requires a near perfect storm of timely player development, avoiding injuries over the course of 162 games, and an off-year by at least one of the division’s two evil superpowers: the Yankees and the Red Sox.

And as much as nothing is ever a sure thing in baseball, building a championship team by projecting major league success onto minor league talent is a little like nailing Jell-O to a wall.

Travis Snider, once thought of as a can’t-miss superstar-in-waiting, has spent parts of four consecutive seasons struggling to learn how to hit major league pitching, and highly touted Kyle Drabek, the centrepiece coming back in Anthopoulos’s Roy Halladay trade, spent much of 2011 with the Jays’ minor league affiliate in Las Vegas.

Even Lawrie, who looks every inch the real deal, has played just 43 major league games in his young career.

With the Yankees and Red Sox showing no signs of slowing down, the Jays’ best chance of playing in October in 2012 may be the league deciding to expand the number of playoff teams from eight to 10.

But regardless of which way that decision come down, Anthopoulos will have his chance to tinker with the roster over the winter months, before spring training and the hope that he and his scouting team have succeeded in picking the diamonds from the rough.

Of course, if it was easy, everybody would do it.

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