By ROBERT MACLEOD
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
It was in early December when the rebuilding of the Toronto Blue Jays was starting to take shape and general manager Alex Anthopoulos was finishing up another long day at the Rogers Centre boardroom.
A week earlier, in a move that barely created a ripple in the baseball world, Anthopoulos had dipped into the waiver pool and claimed Justin Smoak from the Seattle Mariners.
A former first-round pick of the Texas Rangers, Smoak's career had stalled and he was looking for a fresh start. He became a free agent after the Blue Jays claimed him and was eligible for salary arbitration.
The Blue Jays had an opening at first base for a decent defender who could hit after Adam Lind was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. Toronto's team of scouts and analytic number crunchers felt Smoak was a perfect fit and were urging the GM to offer the 28-year-old a contract.
Baseball operations analyst Jason Pare was in the room along with baseball information analyst Joe Sheehan. So was assistant general manager Andrew Tinnish.
Day had turned into night had turned into morning, and the group was becoming punchy.
They were pounding the top of the boardroom table with their fists, urging Anthopoulos to sign Smoak.
Finally, Anthopoulos made an odd demand.
He told his assistants if they wanted him to pick up the phone and contact Smoak's agent and make a contract offer, all they had to do was stand up on the boardroom table.
Pare leapt up and was joined by Tinnish, with Sheehan, no doubt questioning the sanity of his boss, finally clambering onto the tabletop.
"It was late, we'd been going at it all night," Anthopoulos recalled with a smile here on Saturday. "It was one in the morning. It was just a little fun we had."
Anthopoulos made the call and Smoak officially joined the Blue Jays' ranks.
Smoak was not really a brand name, but he would become an important part of the mix (stroking 18 home runs) that Anthopoulos was brewing to transform the Blue Jays from perennial afterthoughts to champions of the American League East in 2015.
The brand names would come soon enough in the form of Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin and, later, David Price and Troy Tulowitzki.
It all came together in a memorable whirlwind of a season with the Blue Jays clinching first place in the AL East last week for the first time since 1993.
Toronto's regular season ended here on Sunday and they now return home to begin a best-offive AL Division Series on Thursday at Rogers Centre. Toronto's opponent will be the Texas Rangers, the champions from the AL West.
One of the first people to contact Anthopoulos after clinching was Tony La Russa, currently the chief baseball officer with the Arizona Diamondbacks who won three World Series as a manager with the Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals.
"I talked to him the day after [Toronto won the division] and he told me, he said the hardest thing is to win the division," Anthopoulos said. "You're talking about a guy who's won the World Series, he's been to the postseason.
"Pretty rewarding because it's a long year, it's a grind. It's hard, it really is, especially in this division where all five teams came in trying to make the playoffs."
But only the Blue Jays, as division champs, and the New York Yankees, as a wild-card entrant, get to move on.
Here is the road map to how Anthopoulos built a winner.
Nov. 1, 2014
Perhaps the most sublime move Anthopoulos would make was acquiring pitcher Marco Estrada from the Brewers in exchange for Lind, a long-term fan favourite in Toronto. At that point, Anthopoulos figured Estrada was to be utilized out of the bullpen, but injuries dictated he be shifted into the starting rotation in late April. He has gone on to enjoy a career year in wins (13), game starts (28) and innings pitched (181).
In a shrewd move by the GM, the Blue Jays shipped Anthony Gose to the Detroit Tigers for Devon Travis, a second baseman who had never played above Double-A. Until his season was cut short by a shoulder injury, Travis was on his way to earning AL rookie of the year honours and provided spark to a Blue Jays lineup that struggled early on.
Anthopoulos signed catcher Russell Martin to a five-year, $82-million (U.S.) deal, the most lucrative free agent pact in franchise history. What wasn't there to like about Martin? He was Canadian, born in Toronto and raised in Montreal, and bilingual to boot. And not only that, he was a proven winner. In his 10 MLB seasons, Martin has led four different clubs to the playoffs eight times, including this year with Toronto. Along with solidifying a young pitching staff and proving adept at catching the R.A. Dickey knuckler, Martin also stroked 23 home runs on the year, a career high. "I think he's a game changer for us, for the franchise, for the organization, for the team," Anthopoulos gushed at the time. "And I think obviously it's a real important piece to get this team to where we want to go, which is the playoffs and ultimately to win the World Series."
In a stunning trade that shocked baseball, Anthopoulos pried allstar third baseman Josh Donaldson from the Oakland A's in a four-for-one trade that included sending Brett Lawrie to the West Coast club. In one fell swoop, the culture of the Blue Jays would be forever changed. "Ever since I was five years old, my teams have won," Donaldson boldly asserted after the trade. "I'm not saying that's necessarily just me that's causing that, but I think there's a mentality about winning. Most guys - and I'm not comparing myself to Michael Jordan at all - but when you join Michael Jordan's team you were going to win because he would instill that mentality and he was a great player. I just hope to be able to come in and instill that winning mentality and guys can see that."
Bringer of Rain would bring his A-game, putting himself squarely in the most-valuable-player debate, slugging 41 home runs on the season, driving in 123 runs while hitting close to .300.
April 6, 2015
The Blue Jays began the season with a 6-1 win over the Yankees in New York. A preseason knee injury to Michael Saunders, another Anthopoulos acquisition who was never really able to get healthy enough to come back, meant that Kevin Pillar would start the year in left field with a rookie, Canadian Dalton Pompey, in centre beside right-field stalwart Jose Bautista. The Pompey experiment would last less than a month, with the overmatched rookie getting sent back down to the minors for additional seasoning. Pillar would shift into centre, where he would become a defensive sensation with a rotation of Chris Colabello, Danny Valencia and Ezequiel Carrera being utilized in left.
Jose Reyes, the brittle shortstop, cracked a rib checking his swing and went on the 15-day disabled list. Toronto's leadoff hitter, Reyes's declining defensive skills were evident over the first month of the season, paving the way for future moves that Anthopoulos would make. The absence of Reyes would open up a spot for Ryan Goins, who cemented his status as a super sub at both shortstop and second base after Travis started struggling with shoulder pain in May.
Aaron Sanchez, who was making a successful transition from closer in 2014 to starter in 2015, landed on the DL with a lat strain.
When he returned in late July, the Blue Jays felt his talents were better suited to the bullpen and the 23-year-old became a dependable late-inning setup man.
Roberto Osuna, a surprise roster addition out of spring training at the tender age of 20, earned his first Major League Baseball save, getting a groundout and two strikeouts in the ninth inning in an 8-5 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. The Blue Jays had been experimenting with fellow rookie Miguel Castro as closer along with Brett Cecil. But the job would soon fall to cool-as-a-cucumber Osuna. Osuna would go on to record 20 saves on the season, becoming the first Blue Jays rookie since Billy Koch (31) in 1999 to record 20 or more saves in a season.
With MLB's trade deadline just three days away, the Blue Jays were not exactly in panic mode, but Anthopoulos realized he needed to make a couple of moves if the team was to challenge for the playoffs. The Blue Jays, despite an 11-game win streak in June, were spinning their wheels, flirting with a .500 record despite a league-best 104 run differential. In a decisive move, Anthopoulos convinced the Colorado Rockies to part with Troy Tulowitzki, baseball's best overall shortstop, along with veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins. In the process, Anthopoulos was able to trade the declining Reyes and three right-handed pitching prospects in a deal that has been more than worth it from the Blue Jays' perspective.
In his second blockbuster in three days, the Blue Jays landed Price, a certifiable ace, in a tradedeadline deal from the Detroit Tigers. All the tall lefty would do over the next two months for Toronto was go 9-1 with a 2.30 earned run average to lead the surging Blue Jays into first place over the Yankees.
The fortification continued as Anthopoulos swung two more deals in advance of the trade deadline, getting dependable reliever Mark Lowe from the Seattle Mariners and Ben Revere from the Philadelphia Phillies. The speedy, slap-hitting Revere would become the Toronto leadoff batter and solidify the Toronto defence out in left field.
Defying all the medical opinions, Marcus Stroman made his first start of the season in New York against the Yankees, six months after undergoing knee surgery that was thought to have ended his season. Stroman earned the win in a 10-7 victory and he has never looked back, going 4-0 in four starts over the final month with a 1.67 ERA. The duo of Price and Stroman give Toronto a formidable one-two punch heading into the postseason.
The Blue Jays ended the season with a 12-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays and a record of 93-69. The 93 wins represent their highest win total since 1993, when the Blue Jays last made the playoffs and won the World Series. By far the most potent offence in the major leagues, the trio of Donaldson (41 home runs, 123 runs batted in), Bautista (40, 114) and Edwin Encarnacion (39, 111) are the first Blue Jays trio since Jose Canseco, Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green in 1998 to hit the 30 home run/100 RBI plateau.
With diligence, perseverance and nerve, Blue Jays' GM Alex Anthopoulos pieced together a winning combination.
KEVIN VAN PAASSEN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL