Jays highlight new direction with fans

Jays highlight new direction with fans

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays have asked their fans for patience as the organization heads in a new direction, and that is exactly what the club received from the season-ticket holders who braved a cold night to attend the State of the Franchise event on Thursday at Rogers Centre.

If there is any lingering anger or frustration -- fueled by a forgettable season a year ago, the loss of a franchise icon in ace Roy Halladay this winter or the low expectations for 2010 -- it was apparently absent from the occupied seats within the ballpark's 100 level.

As members of the Blue Jays brass sat perched atop the home dugout, fielding questions in a unique town hall-style setting, they received few complaints about the club's direction. One fan in particular took to the mic and praised the early work of rookie general manager Alex Anthopoulos.

"I commend you for that refreshing attitude," he said. "You project it. We hear it, baseball hears it and, after the last eight years, it's a very positive thing. So, thanks for what you've done so far."

That was representative of the overall feeling conveyed from the group of fans who took advantage of the rare chance to discuss the team's situation face-to-face with its decision-makers. To Anthopoulos' right sat club president and CEO Paul Beeston and, further down, manager Cito Gaston.

Before entering into the question-and-answer portion of the evening, each member of Toronto's hierarchy delivered a brief message about the current state of the Blue Jays organization. Coming off a 75-win season, and in the wake of trading Halladay to Philadelphia in a complex deal that netted three top prospects, the Jays are thinking long term.

Just how long it will take for the Blue Jays to turn things around, making the climb from fourth place in the American League East to realistic contender, is a matter of opinion. With the 32-year-old Anthopoulos at the helm -- after the Jays parted ways with former GM J.P. Ricciardi in December -- Beeston believes the reversal of fortunes has the potential to be swift.

"It's not going to be easy," Beeston told the fans. "But it might come quicker than everybody thinks here, because we're not in a rebuild mode. We're in build mode. We've got some very good young players. What Alex has done in the offseason here, to add to the farm system with the young talent that we have there, is something that we're all going to be enjoying."

By trading Halladay -- the unequivocal face of the Blue Jays franchise for the better part of the past decade -- the Blue Jays acquired three prized talents in pitcher Kyle Drabek, first baseman Brett Wallace and catcher Travis d'Arnaud. The hope is that the new trio of talented farmhands can help strengthen a young core that already has shown promise.

Though last season was disappointing for Toronto, second baseman Aaron Hill emerged as an All-Star and Adam Lind quietly proved to be one of the elite hitters in the American League. The Jays believe young outfielder Travis Snider has similar potential. On the mound, the Jays had young starters Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil and Marc Rzepczynski, among others, show promise as well.

"We have some young kids that you guys are going to just fall in love with," Gaston said.

One fan did ask about the revolving door at shortstop -- a position the Jays have struggled to fill with a young star for years. Anthopoulos said that is a spot that has been a focus of his all offseason and he's tried for months to pry some of the game's elite shortstops away from other clubs.

"There was one GM that I kept calling," Anthopoulos said with a laugh. "I wore him out probably -- just trying to find ways and work three-ways [trades] and four-ways and five-ways. ... It's definitely at the top of our list."

Financially, the Blue Jays have pared their team payroll down to approximately $60-63 million -- roughly a $20 million decrease from 2009. Beeston was quick to note that the club has poured far more funds into scouting in player development, though, adding that Jays ownership, Rogers Communications Inc., is willing and able to provide more resources when it makes sense.

Beeston said that the Jays have a "huge budget for our free agents this year," but that does not mean Toronto will spend for the sake of spending. First, the Blue Jays want to form an established core of young talent. Once the club feels it is only a few moves short of being a true contender, it will then pump more money into pursuing high-profile free agents.

Beeston was asked by a fan how he planned on attracting such stars to Toronto.

"We have no problem attracting players here," he replied. "They like this city. They will come here. The agents know about it. Baseball knows about us. That's not the issue. Most of those players will all go where they have a shot to win. So, what we have to do is build the team, and then add them."

That message was echoed by Anthopoulos.

"We will be tireless in the front office," Anthopoulos said. "We'll be tireless with player development. We're going to be tireless with scouting in continuing to try to improve this team. The upside of this place is huge. When you look at the market and the fans and what we have here in place, when we do start winning, and winning big, we're going to be able to carry a wave straight through and it's going to go across Canada."

Gaston was peppered with questions about the makeup of the roster: John Buck will be the starting catcher, Jose Bautista is currently in the plans as the leadoff man and the closer's role is up for grabs this spring. Anthopoulos was asked about the status of some recovering pitchers: Shaun Marcum (right elbow) has no restrictions, Dustin McGowan (right shoulder) is due for a mound session on Friday and Jesse Litsch (right elbow) is expected back by June or July.

Anthopoulos and Gaston both were asked about a pair of free agents that are still on the open market -- outfielder Johnny Damon and slugger Carlos Delgado. Anthopoulos admitted that he has contacted Damon's agent, Scott Boras, but said he didn't want to "build any expectations or hope." Gaston expressed that he'd love to see Delgado return to Toronto.

"We haven't forgotten him," Gaston said with a smile. "I'm a big Carlos fan, so it would be nice to have him back here and to see him also perhaps go into that Hall of Fame with a Blue Jays uniform on. That would be great."

That stirred some loud cheers from the crowd.

The main issues aired by a few fans dealt with the club's marketing plan for the upcoming season. With a down year expected on the field, fans said they hoped the team's interaction with its followers at the ballpark and in the community was improved. Beeston praised the players' efforts behind the scenes and noted that the Jays Care Foundation is heavily involved on multiple fronts.

That said, Beeston knows things can always be better.

"We want everybody to walk way from here entertained, whether they're the young kids who come on the weekends or the people who come during the week," Beeston responded. "I take your comments very, very seriously and I don't think we've done a good job with it. I don't think we've done what we should be doing."

That type of honesty was prevalent throughout the evening. That aspect was important for Anthopoulos.

"When it's a season-seat holder that comes in, you want to give them as much as you can," he said. "They're the ones who are supporting you day-in-and-day-out. It's tough, though. ... When I can give them information and tell them things, I'm going to try to.

"There's no question, winning is what it's all about. To try to spin things and sell something, I just don't think that's the right path. I think you've got to be honest."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.