Jays camp report: Young GM builds a team (and not the 2012 Marlins)

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- There are reasons that the 2013 Blue Jays aren't the 2012 Marlins revisited.

You can understand why some people think they are, and not just because some of the biggest names are the same. Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson were there, part of the South Florida experiment that went so wrong, and now Reyes and Buehrle and Johnson are here, part of a Canadian experiment that still has a real chance of going right.

The Marlins were the team that spent big and dreamed big.

"No team had more talent than us last year, coming into opening day," Reyes said Sunday.

The Blue Jays are the team that spent this past winter spending and thinking and dreaming biggest of all.

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"It's just good to be a part of this great team, or what should be a great team," Jose Bautista said, on the day the new Jays went through their first full-squad workout of the spring.

"On paper, it looks great," manager John Gibbons said. "But it looks even better when you see them out there on the field."

There's excitement, just as with the Marlins last year. The workouts are drawing bigger crowds, just as with the Marlins last year.

But the Blue Jays aren't the Marlins.

Gibbons isn't Ozzie Guillen. Bautista, the holdover veteran in the clubhouse, isn't Hanley Ramirez, the holdover veteran in the Marlins clubhouse.

And the guy driving the decisions here isn't Jeffrey Loria.

If the 2012 Marlins were built according to Loria's dreams, the 2013 Blue Jays are a product of Alex Anthopoulos' developing vision.

Anthopoulos is the general manager, not the owner. He didn't authorize the big increase in payroll (the Jays took on more than $200 million in salary commitments over the winter, and they will see their payroll rise from $84 million last year to over $110 million this season), but he set the scene for it.

And when it came time to make the two big trades that transformed this team and possibly the American League East along with it, it was the 35-year-old Anthopoulos who had to pull the trigger.

He might not have been able to do it a year before.

Anthopoulos speaks regularly of "growing on the job," and he's not afraid to admit that he solicits and accepts advice from his peers.

There was a conversation last summer with A's general manager Billy Beane that stands out, one in which Beane reminded Anthopoulos that a good general manager can't be afraid of trading away talent.

Last spring, Anthopoulos admitted to agonizing over his trade for Sergio Santos, because it hurt him so much to trade away Nestor Molina, a mid-level prospect.

This spring, he looked out at a team that became a contender by trading for Reyes, Buehrle, Johnson and eventually R.A. Dickey, at the cost of multiple prospects who were much more highly regarded and much more prized than Molina ever was.

In fact, when the Blue Jays staff discussed the deal with the Marlins last November, there were some strong voices in the room who opposed making the trade, because of how much the Jays had to give up.

The young general manager, the one who once agonized over a much smaller deal, steered this one through. Days later, Anthopoulos re-hired Gibbons as manager, saying that he had learned to trust his gut, rather than worry about what the public and media reaction would be.

Still later, he traded for Dickey, a move he said the Blue Jays never would have made if they hadn't done the Marlins trade first. There would have been no reason to surrender top prospects for a 38-year-old pitcher, except that the Blue Jays had already made moves to set themselves up for contention.

In a way, the Jays were coming through on a promise they had long made to their fans, and even to their own players. When Bautista signed his five-year, $65 million contract in February 2011, management told him they would spend "when the time was right."

They said the same thing publicly, but not everyone believed them.

Anthopoulos says now that the time was right in part because of that Bautista deal, and also because of last summer's decision to keep Edwin Encarnacion. He felt that the emergence and signing of those two had helped open a window for the Jays to try to win.

Others have said many times that the Blue Jays were trying to take advantage of an opening in the American League East, with the Yankees practicing temporary (and semi-) fiscal responsibility, and with the Red Sox in what seems to be something of a lull.

Anthopoulos insists that's not the case, that what the Blue Jays have done was driven by their own circumstances, and not at all by what is happening with their rivals.

"In this division, you can never say you have a window," he said.

The strength of the division keeps the Blue Jays from promising success, something Loria's Marlins were always happy to do (and not able to deliver).

For some, even some in the Blue Jays clubhouse, the example of the Marlins is another reason for being careful with predictions. For Anthopoulos, even the example of the 2012 Blue Jays is worth remembering.

"I cringe when people say we're going to do this or do that," he said. "We haven't played a game yet. Last spring, we had a good spring and everyone was excited.

"What the Marlins players went through, and what we went through, I hope there's a humility that's developed. We're talented, but those other teams are talented, too."

Humility wasn't a word that the Loria Marlins used very often, and it certainly was never something the owner himself practiced.

But the Blue Jays of Alex Anthopoulos are not the Marlins of Jeffrey Loria.

What the Jays are trying may not work. But if it doesn't, this experiment shouldn't end with an ugly crash.

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