TORONTO — Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos made it clear when the season ended that addressing his team’s starting pitching needs would be a top off-season priority.
He delivered on that plan and also dramatically changed the look of the franchise with a trade that is one of the biggest in team history.
The deal between the Blue Jays and Miami Marlins was first reported Tuesday and won’t get final approval until the players involved pass their physicals.
When that happens, Toronto will immediately be considered a legitimate contender for the first time since capturing back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.
According to various reports, right-hander Josh Johnson, left-hander Mark Buehrle and all-star shortstop Jose Reyes are heading north along with infielder Emilio Bonifacio and catcher John Buck.
Shortstop Yunel Escobar is Miami-bound along with infielder Adeiny Hechavarria, right-hander Henderson Alvarez, catcher Jeff Mathis and prospects Anthony DeSclafani, Justin Nicolino and Jake Marisnick.
The deal makes Toronto a player again in the always-tough American League East.
“It’s still got to bear fruit on the field,” said Cary Kaplan, president of Mississauga, Ont.,-based sports management company Cosmos Sports. “But I think people feel very happy today — those that are Blue Jays fans — and I think there are people on the fence that will move to the other side.
“So I think it’s good for the brand, good for the marketing and good for attendance.”
Johnson, Buehrle and Brandon Morrow provide a deep 1-2-3 punch in the starting rotation. Reyes is a big step up from Escobar, Bonifacio should fill a hole at second base and Buck gives the team an experienced hand behind the plate.
Toronto didn’t give up too much from its current roster to make the deal.
In Escobar, the Marlins get a mediocre shortstop who fell out of favour in Toronto after writing an anti-gay slur in Spanish on his eyeblack stickers late in the season.
Mathis was a decent backup and Alvarez posted middling numbers last season but he’s young and could be a stud down the line.
He ate up plenty of innings on a rotation that was decimated by injuries.
The prospect price was heavy as Hechavarria could develop into a star. DeSclafani, Nicolino and Marisnick also have plenty of potential.
After years of playing with an eye to the future, this deal appears to show that the Blue Jays’ time is now.
The team already has a solid nucleus in place with players like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Lawrie and J.P. Arencibia. The rotation has been significantly upgraded and the bullpen looks better.
The new additions make the club much deeper, but they don’t come cheap.
Johnson is owed $13.75 million next season, Reyes has $96 million left on a deal expiring in 2018 and Buehrle has $52 million remaining on a deal expiring in 2015.
Anthopoulos has kept a close eye on the team’s budget in his three years at the helm. His wallet is now clearly open and he might not be done just yet.
Trade talk will reach a higher gear with baseball’s annual winter meetings just a few weeks away. The Blue Jays could still use an upgrade in left field and adding another starter wouldn’t hurt.
Despite the optimism, some big question marks still remain.
The Blue Jays have yet to replace skipper John Farrell, who will manage in Boston next year. How will the team respond to his replacement? Will Reyes be able to stay healthy on the artificial turf at Rogers Centre? What will the vibe be like in the clubhouse?
And, a higher payroll doesn’t always solve problems or result in victories, as the 69-93 Marlins proved last season.
Still, it’s hard for Toronto fans to contain their excitement. The city’s major sports teams are all in extended droughts and pessimism has reigned for years.
“It’s nice to have a positive story relative to Toronto sports,” Kaplan said.
The team’s recent marketing efforts seem to be paying off. The Blue Jays have generated more of a buzz in town and home attendance numbers were noticeably higher in 2012, despite a 73-89 record and fourth-place finish in the AL East.
The Blue Jays haven’t been to the playoffs since 1993 and have played only a handful of meaningful late-season games since that season.
Fans have been waiting a long time for this Toronto team to return to prominence. This trade might just make that happen.
With files from The Associated Press.