SUNDAY DECEMBER 21, 2014
 
Blog EGOS & ICONS
JAYS' SILENT ASSASSIN MAKES A KILLING
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They’re calling him AA7, the Silent Assassin, for the way he quickly and quietly freed up almost $80 million of payroll in the seven days since I last weighed in on his team. But while he’s got newfound financial flexibility, I still say Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos shouldn’t spend any of it to keep hold of Jose Bautista on a multi-year extension.

The landscape may have shifted, but the principles remain the same. Young and controllable is still better than aging and expensive. This windfall is best saved for what one hopes will be a bright future for the Jays, spread among a stable of young stars instead of tied up in one guy again.

That’s not to say major kudos aren’t due to Anthopoulos for slashing his wage bill in spectacular fashion last Friday, ridding himself of an albatross by trading Vernon Wells to the Angels. Before anyone knew what was up, the shrewd secret agent of a GM had happily handed over the highest-paid player in Blue Jays franchise history, or at least the four years and $86 million left owing on his contract.

As they delightedly discussed the deal on Twitter, Jays fans called their GM the “Silent Assassin” for trading a supposedly untradeable player without even a whisper of rumour beforehand. Anthopoulos didn’t comment on the moniker when Canadian Press reporter Shi Davidi informed him of it during a conference call last Friday night.

Talk? Come on. That’s not how the Silent Assassin rolls.

Of course, he wasn’t totally mute. Anthopoulos went out of his way to make nice about Wells, a lifetime Blue Jay and (sometime) 30-homer slugger, a three-time Gold Glove centre fielder who might have lost a step after years of injuries but was still a classic good guy, volunteering his time for an off-season mini-camp and community appearances. But neither those platitudes, nor the pieces coming back, matter anywhere near as much as the salary relief.

That point was underlined when newcomer Mike Napoli, briefly the second-highest earner on Toronto’s roster, was soon sent packing as well, traded to Texas for closer Frank Francisco. The follow-up move saved Toronto a few million more and bumped outfielder Juan Rivera, the other half of the haul in the Wells trade, up to second-highest paid Blue Jay behind Bautista. After the trade, Anthopoulos told a Toronto radio station he’s done dealing for now, but don’t be surprised if Rivera gets moved as well.

The Silent Assassin may be more about making quiet killings than high-end spending, but he also wants as much cushion as he can get for his young rotation. Francisco becomes Toronto’s fourth right-handed reliever currently on a contract worth more than $3 million for 2011, joining Octavio Dotel, Jason Frasor and Jon Rauch.

What looks like a glut of arms at the back of the bullpen is actually a sound strategy. Even though October baseball remains a major long shot in 2011, the Jays don’t want to blow any more leads than they have to. Shaun Marcum was the old sage of this staff but he’s been traded too, so Toronto’s starting five will be about as green as they come. No disrespect to the holdover relievers, but Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and the rest will be a lot more comfortable handing the ball off to Dotel, Rauch and Francisco for the final few innings than they would giving it to Josh Roenicke, David Purcey and Casey Janssen. Anthopoulos knows how destructive late-game losses can be for young hurlers, how they can make a season “spiral out of control” for an entire team.

The rotation isn’t the only place young players will be blooded. In his long weekend as a Blue Jay, pundits pegged Napoli as insurance at catcher and first base. Now that he’s gone, J.P Arencibia and neophyte infielder Adam Lind are certain to get every opportunity to prove themselves capable at those positions instead.

There’s a misconception that the Yankees, having missed out on Cliff Lee, can be taken this year and that the Rays, having lost several top talents, will fall off the pace in the AL East. Don’t be fooled. Anthopoulos’s two biggest moves this winter haven’t made the Blue Jays any better for 2011. But he continues to do an excellent job of setting the team up for a few years ahead. For now, the hard reality is that Toronto remains no better than the third-best team in its division, maybe fourth-best.  The lessons they learn about their young players this season will let them know when it’s time to make a serious push.

With young talent up and down the system, the hope is they’ll get good and stay good. And now, flush with cash after moving Wells, they can more easily afford to hold onto those promising players, offer new deals to aces in waiting like Morrow and Brett Cecil, emerging talents like Arencibia and Travis Snider, prospects like Brett Lawrie and Anthony Gose when it’s their time, and even pay what’s owed in the years ahead to Lind and Romero, who’ve already signed extensions.

These Blue Jays aren’t ready to draw blood just yet. But with the Silent Assassin pulling the strings the way he has this winter, they’re closer to becoming giant killers.

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