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Blue Jays turn page on Ricciardi years as Anthopoulos sets team on new path


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TORONTO - The easiest thing for new Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos to do this winter would have been to open up the chequebook of team owner Rogers Communications Inc., and try to spend his way into the playoffs.
Imagine how instantly popular he would have been if he had boldly landed John Lackey to pitch behind Roy Halladay in the starting rotation, Chone Figgins to play third base and bat leadoff, and Jason Bay of Trail, B.C., to man left field and the cleanup spot.
Long-suffering fans dreaming of an end to a post-season drought that stretches back to 1993 would be optimistically buzzing about the team's chances of knocking off the World Series champion New York Yankees and wild-card winning Boston Red Sox in the ever-tough American League East. The clubhouse would be energized by the infusion of talent. The Rogers Centre might even be half full, which after last year would be a vast improvement.
What a grand vision for 2010 that would be.
But the reality of things, how rarely such wild spending sprees work without a sufficient base of talent already in place, never escaped the 32-year-old from Montreal. Tempting as it might be to bypass a series of painful decisions, to take shortcuts, he knew that wasn't right approach for the franchise to take right now.
Instead, the Blue Jays under Anthopoulos head into the new year facing what looks like a difficult and trying rebuilding process.
Ownership's chequebook was actually opened, but to invest in scouting and player development rather than marquee free agents. Halladay, a franchise pillar, was traded away for three well-regarded prospects not expected to make a significant impact before 2011. And 2010 looks like it will be a lot worse than the dismal 75-87 record of 2009, a year that also included an ill-advised and damaging public auctioning of Halladay by former GM J.P. Ricciardi and stunning public revelations of clubhouse discontent with iconic manager Cito Gaston.
Right now a new beginning and rock bottom look like the same place for the Blue Jays.
"In a lot of ways this is the end of a generation," team president Paul Beeston said after Halladay was traded. "It's a new book that's being started, a new chapter in an encyclopedia if you like."
And Anthopoulos will be the one authoring it.
One thing that's become clear since he took over from the fired Ricciardi on the final weekend of the season is that the wunderkind has the full support of ownership in a way his predecessor never did.
In his first three months on the job, Anthopoulos has set the team in an unpopular new direction likely to result in dreadful attendance and poor revenue next summer, allowed fan favourites like Marco Scutaro and Rod Barajas to leave as free agents, dealt away Halladay - one of the few reasons to watch the team - and sent US$6 million to the Philadelphia Phillies to help facilitate the trade.
The heavies at Rogers obviously have faith in the rookie general manager's plan.
Whether or not the fans do is another matter.
Unlike Ricciardi, Anthopoulos doesn't like to be in the spotlight and has done relatively few TV interviews since his promotion. They hear him on the radio on occasion and read his words in print, but they don't really know him yet and when he preaches hope, it's hard for them to believe.
"We're on the road to getting back to where we were back in the World Series years," Anthopoulos said at the Halladay news conference. "And really this is the start of it for us."
Still, Anthopoulos has already made a positive impression on his peers and his potentially trend-setting reconstruction of the Blue Jays scouting department has earned him some accolades within the industry.
He's also shown a tendency to learn from the mistakes of Ricciardi, who sought to fast-track his rebuilding process with a free-agent binge after the 2005 season and spoke incessantly about trading Halladay.
Anthopoulos said virtually nothing about Halladay and when faced with the temptation of spending his way out of trouble, he opted for the harder road.
"We haven't been to the playoffs in a long time," Anthopoulos said. "We have had good quality teams but we're trying to win a championship. We're trying to win a World Series. The first step is to get into the playoffs. And we are in the AL East. To get to the playoffs, it looks like we need 95 wins as a floor.
"If you're a 95-win team, you probably have some real exciting players. Right now we have a few exciting players. We added three more (in the Halladay trade). We're going to keep trying to build on that, continuing to build on that philosophy, to build a core of exciting players in their early 20s."
Anthopoulos will also be more open-minded in how to get those type of players than Ricciardi, who had a strong preference toward drafting less risky college players. The Blue Jays intend to take more chances on high school players in future drafts and believe the investments they're making now in scouting can help limit their mistakes.
"We talked about maybe changing up the philosophy," said Anthopoulos. "Really, competing in the AL East, knowing we're trying to get to that 95-win-and-over mark and knowing that we want to get all-stars all over the place, we were going to have to maybe take a little more risk and go high ceiling."
Anthopoulos has also overhauled the way those players will be developed and who will develop them once they get into the Blue Jays system. That new approach will apply first and foremost to pitcher Kyle Drabek, infielder Brett Wallace and catcher Travis d'Arnaud, the three players acquired in return for Halladay.
"We have a development plan in place for all of these guys," said Anthopoulos. "Really, that's the goal with all these young players. It's easy for us to be shortsighted, just to want to get these guys up here to show the fans how exciting they are, but really, we have a plan in place.
"When they do get up here, it's for them to stay. We want to make sure we get the development done. We don't need to rush. This is all about the long-term plan, building a core and developing these guys the right way."
Blue Jays fans will need to be patient and that will be tough to ask since they've already been sold hope for years, always unfulfilled, it bears noting. They'll likely need to see some results from Anthopoulos before they fully buy in.
But perhaps they can take some solace in knowing how dedicated their new GM is. He's getting married on Jan. 2 and will honeymoon in Hawaii right after the wedding.
Also making the trip will be his BlackBerry.
"I've already warned my fiancee that if things come up, I'm certainly going to be available and continue to work," Anthopoulos said. "I don't expect ever to really have a shut-down period."

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