DUNEDIN, Fla.-Imagine what the Rays would look like with the finances to keep all of their best players.
Now stop imagining. Because it is happening. Unfortunately for the Rays, it is not in Tampa Bay. Heck, it is not even in this country.
The Blue Jays, methodically, have assembled a talent base at both the major and minor league levels that has them poised to turn the AL East into a Fearsome Foursome.
That unsettles no one more than what had been the Terrific Trio of New York, Boston and Tampa. As Yankees GM Brian Cashman said, "It is not good for anyone going up against them." In a way, this is about well-kept secrets. For example, do you know that the Blue Jays have averaged 83 wins over the last six years, finishing above .500 in five of them?
Doesn't sound like much, except remember they have amassed those totals playing 18 games annually against each of the Yankees , Red Sox and Rays. That is one-third of an entire schedule.
You know how hard it is to even win 81 games like the Jays did last year when three teams in your division win at least 90? Or win 85 when three others win at least 89 as occurred in 2010? It is like a mathematical trick or - more aptly - symbolic of just how good Toronto has become.
Here is another thing you might not know: Toronto's owner, Rogers Communication, just might be the majors' richest ownership. Thus the money is there to take the payroll to places the Rays could never dream about; keep the homegrown elites that ultimately flee Tampa.
Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos used the Cubs, Red Sox and Angels as examples of teams he thought Toronto could be equivalent to in creating "a top third payroll" once the Jays become serial contenders.
"That isn't a guess, that's a fact," Anthopoulos said. "It's a fact because we have done it before." Indeed they have. In the four years from 1992-95, the Jays had a top-three payroll, including leading the majors in 1993 and 1995. Not coincidentally, the Jays became the first team to draw more than four million in home attendance in 1991 and did so again in 1992 and '93, which were both championship seasons. And Anthopoulos believes if the Jays build it (a title contender) they (the fans) will come again and so will monster TV ratings.
"We have a whole country to draw from," Anthopoulos said.
"The fan base is 30 million across Canada." All that ismissing is the hard part:
Climb from a good team to a superb one. Nothing less will thrive within the AL East. If they were in any NL division, for example, the Jays might be the favorites. But they could still be fourth best in the AL East and yet no worse than the eighth- or ninth-best team in the sport.
"This is not a long-term project anymore," Cashman said. "They are knocking on the door. It is undeniable that they are going to win and win for a while. They are reaping the benefits of great scouting, patience and doing things right." Or as Alex Rodriguez said, "They aren't a secret anymore." Anthopoulos became GM in October 2009. His mandate was to pursue upper-echelon talent, "because in the AL East you either shoot for the moon or it is a waste of time," Anthopoulos said. So he hired just about more scouts than any team. He accumulated high draft picks. He was willing to take chances on skilled players with reputation problems elsewhere such as Yunel Escobar, Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus. And, yes, he benefitted from the ascension of Jose Bautista from utilityman to superstar, plus a strong group of youngsters left behind by predecessor, J.P. Ricciardi, now a Mets executive.
Toronto is viewed as having a top three farm system with one scout calling the Jays' 2011 Double-A team the best he had ever seen. The Jays have formulated "a lineup without an easy out," Mark Teixeira said.
However, they still have youth around the diamond and particularly in the rotation. The "volatility" of youth that Anthopoulos depicts is the caution flag to predicting a playoff spot. "But we have decided to go with war with talent, and this is the best I have ever felt about our talent." Anthopoulos is not alone. The consensus is the Jays have become a looming force - with money in their wallet. If the Yankees thought the Rays were trouble, just wait.