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jeff blair

And so once again it's all even-stevens. Nobody's in last place; nobody's in first; and even if you did finish last in 2013 the newly crowned World Series champions have given you a marketing "out."

Worst-to-first? Ask the Boston Red Sox if it can be done.

Major League Baseball's off-season began Thursday when 147 players filed for free agency on the first official day of business. Until 12:01 EST on Tuesday, free agents can talk only to their own teams about a contract, but after that it's open season.

Last year, when Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos won the, uh, "off-season" World Series, he wasted little time: Maicer Izturis was signed on Nov. 8, technically the first free agent to change teams. By the time Anthopoulos left GM meetings in Palm Springs in the second week of November, he already had the makings of a 12-player deal with the Miami Marlins; had seen one free-agent offer fall through (to Jake Peavy) and another rejected (to heel-dragging Anibal Sanchez); and told the New York Mets that if they wanted to trade National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, they knew who to call first.

Meet Alex Anthopoulos: the man who sucked all the fun from the December winter meetings.

On the field, the recently concluded season was an abject disaster for the Blue Jays. Off the field, revenues soared and attendance increased by a major-league-leading 20 per cent to 2,536,566 – the team's highest in 15 years. Television ratings were steady.

And when Bloomberg News came out recently with its valuations of each club, there were the Blue Jays: 12th at $950-million (U.S.), which is not a bad rate of return considering it cost Rogers Communications $137-million to buy the club and $25-million to buy the Rogers Centre. True, the Bloomberg valuation was different than one from Forbes, but it added credence to what might be called a working notion around Rogers: the club could fetch $1-billion if it were ever put up for sale, and at the end of the day the value of any franchise is what someone else will pay for it.

Those around the Jays say Anthopoulos will try to strike quickly; that the heavy lifting will be done in the next four weeks. Teams have until that Tuesday deadline to extend qualifying offers to their free agents – one year, $14.1-million is the figure – in order to be in line for compensatory draft picks. Players then have a week to accept or reject the offer and choose free agency.

"We didn't plan on moving fast last year, it just developed that way for us," said Anthopoulos, whose team announced Thursday that it had hired Kevin Seitzer as hitting coach. "As of now, I don't know if I have a feel for the pace of the off-season. We'll have a lot more information after the GM meetings."

GM meetings are held a month ahead of the winter meetings and this year they'll be held from Nov. 11 to 13 in Orlando, the site of the winter meetings. Anthopoulos answered a couple of questions by exercising the options on Adam Lind, Casey Janssen and Mark de Rosa while declining the option on Munenori Kawasaki. Still left to be decided, does he qualify gimpy-armed starter Josh Johnson?

The Blue Jays' payroll was $119,277,800 and the team has known since the first week of September that there will be no decrease; and that in fact extra money is available on a per-case basis. Anthopoulos needs a second baseman, a catcher and at least two starting pitchers, one of whom he'd like to be better than Mark Buehrle or Dickey.

But then, the majors in general have never been this flush with cash – ever. In the 2014 season each club will get $32-million more in network TV money, and while that's good news for a team with the off-season shopping list of the Blue Jays, there's a caveat: everybody has extra money to spend on a wafer-thin free-agent class. That means there will be some colossally over-priced deals and that teams will be even more aggressive locking up their young talent on multiyear deals, even by traditional bottomfeeders such as the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates.

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