Alex Anthopoulos is guilty of being an optimist.
In trading Vernon Wells to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Toronto Blue Jays' general manager has not only ridded the team of what was considered to be one of the worst contracts of all time, he has also sent a message to the team's fan base that he expects this to be a very good team very soon.
When news first surfaced that Wells and the remaining four years, $86-million (all currency U.S.) on his contract had been dispatched for a pair of useful players, the inclination was that the move freed up money to sign Jose Bautista, who is eligible for free agency after the 2011 season. But that's only a small part of the story, because it is length of term, not money, that will be the toughest nut to crack in the Bautista contract talks.
No, the money saved will go to pay Travis Snider, Yunel Escobar, Brett Cecil and especially Brandon Morrow through their arbitration years. You want to follow the Tampa Bay Rays' and Minnesota Twins' path to success? Then you'd better be able to afford the annual salary increases due young players if they perform to the level that takes your team to the playoffs, or position yourself to offer the same type of multiyear deal that was given to Ricky Romero.
Mike Napoli can catch and play first base, and Juan Rivera can play both outfield corners. So the Blue Jays now have some protection if Adam Lind's defence fails him at first base, and have a corner outfielder with a bit of power that might allow Bautista to play third base if required. More to the point, Napoli's strikeouts and apparently diminished defensive capacity weren't enough to prevent the Boston Red Sox from claiming him on waivers last season, so if he profits from a move to the Rogers Centre (a more favourable park for hitters than Angel Stadium), he might be attractive to another club at the trade deadline. The same holds true for Rivera. Either way, I don't see the Blue Jays' offence suffering a significant net loss from this deal.
There is another element to this trade that Anthopoulos won't discuss, yet was the subject of internal discussions as far back as J.P. Ricciardi's final year as GM and even referred to obliquely by some veteran players who passed through the Blue Jays' clubhouse. To understand it, look back to one of the moves Pat Gillick made in 2006, when he took over as Philadelphia Phillies GM and traded Bobby Abreu, one of the team's longest tenured and most productive players.
Of course, finances were a component. But as Gillick reflected on the move in an interview in the Philadelphia Inquirer a few years and one World Series ring later, he noted that, although Abreu was "a good player," he was also comfortable.
Said Gillick: "He played at a certain level. He looked like he didn't want to make a mistake, like he didn't want to look bad. He just played at that level, and I think he kind of pushed the guys down a little. I think Jimmy [Rollins]and Chase [Utley]were respectful, if that's the word, of Bobby, and when he got out of here, it set a different tone. After the trade, they were the kind of guys who had tenure."
It is no slight to say that moving Wells now opens the way for players such as Aaron Hill and Romero to leave their imprimatur on this clubhouse. Hill has been painfully deferential to Wells and he needs to have a big year this season.
It is understandable that trades such as this are a tough sell in this marketplace, because recent history has given Toronto sports fans every reason and every right to be skeptical of big moves that speak of grand ambitions and big-picture sensibilities. But if those fans really give this trade a sober second glance, they'll see it is as much about now as it is the future.