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All's Well That Ends Wells: the New Blue Jays Way

Things are looking up for Toronto now that they've unloaded Vernon Wells' massive contract. (AP)

As noted before, last Friday night's transaction action in the AL East made for some of the most interesting moves of the winter. The Rays' signings of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez involved players with higher Q scores and will likely have more impact on the 2011 division race, but the Blue Jays' trade of Vernon Wells to the Angels may go further in shaping the long-term picture of the division.

The Jays have been tough customers in the recent past, finishing above .500 in four of the last five seasons, but they haven't sniffed the playoffs at all during that span. They've finished fourth in each of the past three seasons, fielding a couple of the strongest fourth-place teams of the Wild Card era in 2008 and 2010, but the prize for that isn't even a set of steak knives. Prior to that, they finished third in 2007, the year before the Devil Rays performed their exorcism, and second in 2006, when the Red Sox fell victim to a slew of injuries.

Toronto's 87-75 finish that year wasn't enough to vault the team in Wild Card contention, but it did give general manager J.P. Ricciardi, who'd been on the job since November 2001, justification to continue beefing up the team's payroll after paring it to the majors' sixth-lowest in 2005 ($45.7 million). With the Jays steadily improving (67, 80, 87 wins), Ricciardi opened his checkbook and signed pitchers A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan to five-year deals for $55 million and $47 million, respectively. He took on another big salary in Troy Glaus, acquired from the Diamondbacks for Orlando Hudson and Miguel Batista at a time when Glaus was just one year into a four-year, $45 million deal. Payroll shot to $71.9 million, but second place and a 14 percent bump in attendance justified the expenditure.

The 2006 Jays lost five Type A or B free agents including Ted Lilly and Bengie Molina, and while Ricciardi took a more conservative tack in the free agent market — Frank Thomas' two-year, $18.1 million was by far the most expensive contract he took on — he made a much bigger splash by signing Wells, who'd just won his third straight Gold Glove, to a seven-year, $126 million extension. At the time, the deal, which would take effect beginning in 2008, was the sixth-largest in baseball history.

It was also certifiably insane, even in the days prior to the late-2008 economic downturn. Wells was 27 years old and coming off a wonderful year in which he'd hit 303/.357/.542 with 32 homers, good for a career-high 5.5 WARP, but even so, the 4.2 WARP per year he'd averaged from 2003-2006 hardly screamed for a nine-figure outlay. And that's when the heartaches began. Wells put up just 4.1 WARP from 2007 through 2009 while battling injuries, including a wrist fracture that sidelined him in 2008 and continued to sap his power the following season, in which he hit just .260/.311/.400 and played such subpar defense that he finished 0.3 wins below replacement level.

The Jays continued to get more expensive, with payrolls of $81.9 million in 2007 and $97.8 million in 2008, the majors' 13th highest. Having failed to learn anything from the immediate lessons of Wells' deal, Ricciardi signed right fielder Alex Rios to a seven-year, $69.8 million extension in early 2008, reworking a one-year deal in the process. Rios, who was heading into his age-27 season, had been worth 10.0 WARP over the previous two seasons, and like Wells, he had some pop and could play defense, but he was hardly an on-base machine, topping out with a .354 OBP in 2007. Indeed, as former Ricciardi assistant (and Baseball Prospectus alumnus) Keith Law pointed out, Rios was simply the latest in a long line of players for whom Ricciardi overpaid, trading for or signing them at the peak of their value, often to heavily backloaded deals.

While the upstart Rays swiped a division title in 2008 at the expense of the Yankees, who missed the postseason after 13 consecutive appearances, the Jays' otherwise respectable 86 wins consigned them to a lowly fourth in the AL East. With Burnett opting out of his deal to sign with the Yankees, Ryan slipping into oblivion due to continued arm woes, and several other Jays' pitchers including Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch getting bitten by the injury bug, the Jays squandered 27-14 start and finished below .500 in 2009. Ace Roy Halladay, who'd been signed to a relatively affordable $40 million deal covering the 2008-2010 seasons, expressed his desire to be traded to a contender, but Ricciardi was unable to consummate a midsummer deal, and the controversial GM was fired at season's end. Riccardi did manage one parting gift for Jays fans before going: he was able to unload Rios. Placed on waivers in early August, the outfielder was claimed by the White Sox, who took on roughly $62 million in salary over the remaining over six years, a fairly miraculous disappearing act from the standpoint of the Blue Jays.

Nonetheless, the impact of the Wells and Rios deals had kept the Jays from surrounding Halladay with enough talent to get over the hump, so it fell to former Ricciardi assistant Alex Anthopoulos to do the dirty work of finally trading the ace. He sent Halladay to the Phillies in a four-team blockbuster, netting blue chip pitching prospect Kyle Drabek as well as catcher Travis d'Arnaud and outfielder Michael Taylor, who was immediately flipped to the A's for infielder Brett Wallace. When the dust had settled, Anthopoulos had also acquired Brandon Morrow from the Mariners in what was essentially a coda to the previous deal.

With an opening day payroll of $62.2 million, 22nd in the majors, the Halladay-less Jays rebounded to an 85-77 record in 2010. Led by Jose Bautista's 54 homers and featuring seven players with at least 20 homers, they went yard 257 times, tied for the third-highest total of all time. Morrow, who'd been endlessly yo-yoed back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation by the Mariners, whiffed an MLB-high 10.9 per nine as the team's fourth starter, Marcum made a strong return from Tommy John surgery, and Ricky Romero — the team's number one pick in a stacked 2005 draft, but the one whom Ricciardi had taken ahead of Troy Tulowitzki, and the last one of the top seven picks to reach the majors — continued to pitch well, too. In all, the Jays were a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of runs scored (sixth) and allowed (ninth), but once you adjust for the quality of competition — namely playing the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays a total of 57 times — they ranked as the majors' seventh-strongest team on the year-end Prospectus Hit List.

Nonetheless, it was difficult to look at the team's roster going into the winter and conclude that they were simply a tweak or two away from challenging the division's big three for a playoff spot, and it was impossible to overlook the $86 million remaining commitment to Wells even after he'd put up a 4.0 WARP season, his strongest since 2006, hitting .273/.331/.515 with 31 homers and playing more or less average defense in center field. So for Anthopoulos to foist the entirety of the remaining deal on the Angels AND get back two useful (if somewhat flawed) players in Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera qualifies as a major coup, not to mention a shocking lapse of judgement out in Anaheim. The move doesn't make the Jays into a bona fide threat in 2011, though they won't be a weak sister, either.

Rotation: Romero, Morrow, Brett Cecil, Drabek, Litsch/Mark Rzepczynski/Brad Mills
Bullpen: Frank Francisco, Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch, Shawn Camp, Jason Frasor, Casey Janssen, et al.
C: J.P. Arencibia / Jose Molina
1B: Adam Lind
2B: Aaron Hill
SS: Yunel Escobar
3B: Bautista
LF: Rivera / Fred Lewis
CF: Rajai Davis
RF: Travis Snider
DH: Edwin Encarnacion

That's not a championship caliber ballclub, but it's not a bunch of pushovers. The rotation lacks a bona fide ace, but both Morrow and Drabek are front-of-the-rotation types in the making, and either Litsch (if healthy) or the 'Zepper are preferable to Sergio Mitre or whomever the Yankees are currently pretending their fifth starter is. The rotation would be even stronger if it still had Marcum, recently traded to the Brewers for prospect Brett Lawrie, an excellent pure hitter who's still in search of a position — another strong indicator of Anthopoulos shifting the Jays' focus beyond 2011. Arencibia is a well-regarded prospect who enjoyed a breakout year at Triple-A; initial fears that he'd be blocked by Napoli were quelled when the former Angel was quickly flipped to the Rangers in exchange for Francisco, one of four experienced closers in that bullpen (Dotel, Rauch and Frasor being the others), and undoubtedly the best chair-tosser of the bunch.

Both Lind (who's learning first base) and Hill are coming off ugly seasons in which they appear to have taken hitting coach Dwayne Murphy's swing-for-the-fences modus operandi a little too seriously. Hill, who socked 36 homers and hit .286/.330/.499 in 2009, spent much of the year with his batting average below the Mendoza Line, and finished at .205/.271/.394. While he still homered 26 times, his batting average on balls in play dropped from .288 in 2009 to an impossibly low .196 last year. Lind, who hit .305/.370/.562 with 35 homers in 2009, slipped to .237/.287/.425 with 23 homers, accompanied by a substantial BABIP crash of his own (.323 to .277); he even earned a spot as the DH on my Replacement-Level Killers team, an all-star squad of ignominy stocked with players whose subpar production helped doom their clubs' hopes of contending. Escobar is coming off a disappointing campaign as well, one in which he was run out of Atlanta on a rail after clashing with Bobby Cox, but he's just 28 and the owner of a lifetime .289/.364/.397 line.

To say that Bautista is coming off a career year is an understatement; after averaging 15 homers a year from 2006 through 2009 and never topping 16, he took Murphy's advice to heart and not only clubbed 54 homers but drew 100 walks as well en route to a .260/.378/.617 line. He's no great shakes afield, but with plenty of experience at the hot corner and both outfield corners, he allows the Jays to make another deal or two which could shift him to another position. Rivera, a former Yankee product, is coming off a down year (.252/.312/.409) at age 31, and is probably better suited to a fourth outfielder role, but he's nonetheless a lifetime .280/.328/.461 hitter. Davis is a speedster who stole 50 bases in 61 attempts last year, but his on-base skills are lacking; he's drawn just 55 walks over the past two seasons while hitting a combined .293/.337/.397 with Oakland. He's a plus defender, however, and over the past two years has been worth a combined 6.1 WARP, which dwarfs the 3.7 Wells compiled in that span, and — do I really need to say it? — at a fraction of the cost.

Snider was once a highly-touted rookie; he's now seen as something of a disappointment after failing to stick in the majors in either of the past two seasons, but he's still days away from his 23rd birthday, and at the very least, his .255/.318/.446 line through 675 big league plate appearances suggests he's got plenty of power and room to grow if he can solve the contact woes which have led to 180 strikeouts in that span. Encarnacion is similarly hacktastic, enough of a hazard with the glove that he's better suited to DHing. He could easily be bumped into a bench role if a better DH option comes along. Vlad Guerrero, who rebounded from an injury-marred 2009 to hit .300/.345/.496 with 29 homers for the Rangers last year, is an option, particularly with a return to Texas ruled out by the acquisitions of Adrian Beltre and Napoli and the ongoing presence of Michael Young.

As you've probably noticed, a recurring theme among the Jays' regulars is players coming off subpar 2010 campaigns. While it's almost always a bad idea to catch a falling knife, the good news is that the disappointments in question are, with the exception of Snider and Rivera, between 27 (Lind) and 30 (Davis), not 33 or 35. Where Anthopoulos has bought, he's bought low, and the holdovers he's banking on to rebound are still under club control and relatively inexpensive. In fact, most of the roster is under club control; Rivera, Frasor and reserve infielder John McDonald are the only players with enough service time to qualify for free agency after the 2011 season. Romero and Lind are locked up in reasonable long-term deals (5/$30.1 mil for the former, 4/$18 mil for the latter, both with additional club options) which buy out their arbitration years. Right now the team has just $44 million committed to payroll for 2011, with only Rivera, Lind and Hill making $5 million or more. Bautista could join those ranks via arbitration or a longer-term deal, though it's notable that Anthopoulos has taken his sweet time on the latter, where Ricciardi would have pounced.

Beyond the big league roster, the Jays' farm system, which has already proven it can churn out effective pitchers, is considered among the game's deepest; the aforementioned Law just ranked them fourth behind only the Royals, Rays (gulp) and Braves. After Drabek, Arencibia and Lawrie, the number four prospect is d'Arnaud, who spent 2010 in High-A ball; Goldstein's rankings also include an even younger catcher, Carlos Perez, at number six. There's a good amount of pitching, headed by 2010 first-rounder Deck McGuire, who was considered one of the most polished starters in the draft, a glove-ly shortstop (Adeiny Hechavarria), an athletic center fielder in Anthony Gose, chosen in the second round in 2008 and acquired from the Astros for Wallace, and further down, Dickie Joe Thon, the son of a former major league shortstop whose all-too-brief peak was marred by a beaning.

The Jays can't spend the dollars that the Yankees or Blue Jays can, so they'll have to compete on the strength of their smarts, just as the Rays do. Payroll flexibility and a productive farm system are key building blocks in such a plan, and Anthopolous has done much during his short time on the job — capped by the Wells trade — to ensure that they maintain both. The Jays may not push their way into the 2011 playoff picture, but the day when they could just got a whole lot closer.