Anthopoulos sees potential of Toronto market

Anthopoulos sees potential of Toronto market

TORONTO -- Alex Anthopoulos has a vision for the Blue Jays, but it's not something that can be put together overnight.

The 33-year-old general manager is in charge of a club that has finished above .500 in four of the past five seasons. Those teams likely would have been in contention for a playoff spot in any division -- except for the American League East.

But to compete against the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox having a good team isn't enough. It has to be better than that.

"Those were good teams and a lot of teams would love to have those types of years but that's not what we're about," Anthopoulos said. "That's not what we're aiming for. We're aiming for the World Series and you need to get to 95 wins (to make the playoffs) ... That's our goal."

When Anthopoulos took over as GM last October, he saw an organization flush with young pitching that most teams would love to have. But perhaps more importantly, he saw an ownership group and a fan base that had the potential to once again become a force in Major League Baseball.

The Greater Toronto Area is the seventh largest metropolis of any Major League team. It's often referred to as a hockey town, but with more than 5.5 million people living in the area, there's clearly room for more than one passionate fan base.

It wasn't that long ago that the Blue Jays led the way in Major League Baseball. Toronto was the first organization in history to have a season's attendance of 4 million, and from 1991-93, more than 12 million people went through the gates of what was then called the SkyDome.

Those numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years. In 2010, the Blue Jays averaged 20,068 fans per game, which ranked 26th in baseball. There have been signs, though, that the fan base is just waiting for something to cheer about. Opening Day attendance consistently approaches 50,000 while a Canada-USA World Baseball Classic game in 2009 attracted 42,314 people.

Anthopoulos knows those passionate fans are still there. He believes the organization, which hasn't made the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1993, just hasn't provided them with enough reason to keep showing up at the ballpark on a consistent basis.

"We need to make sure that we build this team right so we can tap into that market," Anthopoulos said.

"If we try to be short-sighted, and do something that's only built for a year or two, and then we have to tear it down or lose all of our players all over again, we would have basically wasted all of our time."

The Blue Jays operated with the ninth-lowest payroll in 2010. While many fans have called on the team to spend more money, that approach doesn't fit into Anthopoulos' long-term plan. After all, the club has already tried fixing its major flaws with an influx of cash.

During the 2005 offseason, the Blue Jays committed more than 150 million dollars to pitchers A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan, third baseman Troy Glaus and first baseman Lyle Overbay. It helped the Blue Jays win 87 games the following year, but the club still finished 10 games back of the Yankees in the AL East. That window for success didn't stay open for long either, as Ryan went down to injury just one year later and Burnett left for the Yankees after three inconsistent seasons.

Instead of spending heavily in the free-agent market, Anthopoulos is investing in other areas first. Toronto has put an emphasis on acquiring young talent through trades and improving via the First-Year Player Draft. Last year, Anthopoulos spent $11.6 million on Draft signing bonuses, which according to Baseball America is the third-highest amount in Draft history.

"Our focus is to continue to try to build, to continue to try to get core pieces all over the diamond," Anthopoulos said. "That [may have] to impact the short term in order to do it. That's what the [Shaun] Marcum trade was all about -- not a fun trade to have to make, but we feel that Brett Lawrie can be that All-Star caliber player six years and beyond. That makes a whole lot of sense for us, especially with timing of our other young players."

The model for this type of approach can be found in Florida. The Tampa Bay Rays have been consistent playoff contenders for the past three years because they made a concerted effort to develop their Minor League system. During last season's playoffs, 12 of the 25 players on Tampa's roster were developed internally. Others, such as right-hander Matt Garza, were able to be acquired through trades because of the depth of young talent.

The Blue Jays are looking to take a similar approach to building a roster, but Anthopoulos says that's where the similarities end between the two organizations.

Despite winning the American League East twice in three years, Tampa Bay averaged just 23,064 fans per game in 2010. Low attendance is one of the reasons the Rays were unable to pursue any of their top free agents. Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena have already left for other organizations, while Rafael Soriano is all but assured to follow suit. There's also talk the club may have to part ways with top starters like Garza or James Shields.

Anthopoulos insists that scenario won't happen with the Blue Jays if they are able to develop a similar core. The club is owned by Rogers Communications, an organization with seemingly endless resources, and Toronto's GM has been ensured that when the timing is right the money will start flowing -- and he thinks the fans will follow.

"Whenever there has been a buzz, an excitement for baseball in the city, the fans come out," Anthopoulos said. "Some of those other markets have proven they can win, and they've done it for a few years and they still haven't drawn in attendance.

"Our upside will happen if we have that type of success. We'll be able to keep those players and we'll be able to sign them."

The strategy is similar to the one used by former general manager Pat Gillick during the 1970s and 1980s. Gillick treated the Blue Jays like a small-market club during the organization's early years, opting to build the team through the Draft and international scouting.

During the Blue Jays' first eight years of existence, they consistently ranked in the bottom 10 of the Major Leagues in team payroll. By 1985, Gillick felt his team was close to contending and the overall salary increased into the top 10. The end result was the Blue Jays making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Over the next several years, Gillick continued to add payroll, and by 1992 he oversaw a team with the largest budget in the Major Leagues. The progression didn't happen over night and if there's something Anthopoulos can learn from one of his predecessors, it's patience.

"It's a lot easier to go from 75 wins to 85 than it is to go from 85 to 95," Anthopoulos said. "It's a much steeper and greater hill to climb. Incrementally improving two or three games is a big deal."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.