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Canada's team returning to relevance

It was November 1990. The Blue Jays had been so very close, up 3-1 in the 1985 American League Championship Series before losing to the Royals and getting to the ALCS and losing to the Athletics in '89, and then-general manager Pat Gillick was feverishly trying to get a free agent to come to Toronto -- in this case, Cardinals reliever Ken Dayley.

The Blue Jays had never been able to attract a major free agent to Toronto. In 1977, Gillick traded for a left-handed pitcher named Tom Underwood, who protested, saying, "I don't want to go to some place where they speak Canadian," and had been rejected time after time after time.

As he readied for Dayley's arrival, Gillick lined up the right real estate agent; he and his wife, Doris, had reservations at their favorite restaurant; and he had a recruiting trip lined up that would have made Bobby Bowden proud.

The Blue Jays signed Dayley. Oh, he got hurt and never was a major factor in Toronto, but he broke the line. Granted, they were playing in the next-generation SkyDome, but the Blue Jays finished first in 1991, '92 and '93, they won the World Series in '92 and '93, and each year they drew 4 million fans.

Over time, things slid -- the novelty of SkyDome eroded, finances lessened -- but Toronto is Toronto, one of the great cities in North America. And with the emergence of Jose Bautista and an attractive team, attendance the last three years has risen, from 1.494 million to 1.181 million to 2.099 million, television ratings have similarly risen (and so have revenues), and now here they are with Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Emilio Bonifacio, two 40-homer hitters in Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, and now, above all, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner in R.A. Dickey.

"Once we made the Marlins deal," said GM Alex Anthopoulos, "we had no alternative but to go for it."

They see the revenues, they see the television ratings, they see 3 million fans with a pipe dream of 4 million. If they slay the mighty Yankees and Red Sox, the Orioles and the Rays, maybe the Blue Jays can be what they were in 1992 and '93, when they had the highest payroll in the AL. The AL East is not the SEC of baseball any more, so this is the Blue Jays' shot at winning, becoming a big-market team and continually playing with the mega-markets with their regional television deals.

This is what Anthopoulos is shooting for. He and his people believe that Dickey is a legitimate No. 1 starter. Scratch the age (38). He is a knuckleballer, a late bloomer who throws his knuckler at 83 mph, who had the second-highest strike ratio in the Majors last season (69 percent), whose strikeouts per nine innings have spiked -- from 5.4 to 5.8 to 8.9 -- the last three years and who this past season led the Majors in quality starts while throwing 233 2/3 innings and striking out 230.

Dickey has proven to be tough and resilient; check his career path. He is a very good athlete. As with most knuckleballers, age is not a normal factor.

"We don't want to go through what we went through last season," said Anthopoulos.

Remember when the Blue Jays lost three starting pitchers in four days? They ended up using 13 starters who totaled 916 innings, third worst in the league. The starters' 4.82 ERA was 10th. They were 52-69. Henderson Alvarez led them in innings, with 187 1/3, and he went to Miami.

Now put Dickey's 232 innings at the front of the rotation, along with Buehrle's reliability.

"Think about how much more consistent Dickey's knuckleball will be inside," said one GM on Monday, and we already know that only Cliff Lee threw a higher percentage of strikes and that Dickey's knuckler already has evolved into a swing-and-miss pitch. Then move Brandon Morrow and Johnson, dominating pitchers when healthy, into the 3-4 holes and see if Ricky Romero -- whom former manager John Farrell called "elite" in the spring -- bounces back at the end.

"All those innings will mean a lot to our bullpen," said Anthopoulos.

Indeed. As Farrell pointed out in September, all those games when starters were either hurt or knocked out early reverberated down the pitching staff line for days.

When the only two pitchers who threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title each went 9-14 with ERAs of 4.85 and 5.77, it didn't matter that the Blue Jays went into August as the highest-scoring team in the league.

Some questioned Anthopoulos giving up catcher Travis d'Arnaud and pitcher Noah Syndergaard. d'Arnaud may not be Buster Posey, but he can be a good, solid everyday catcher whose 67-game numbers in the Pacific Coast League (16 homers, .333/.380/.595) were outstanding before he was injured. The 20-year-old Syndergaard has a big power arm.

But, as Anthopoulos used to hear from former boss J.P. Ricciardi, "prospects are just that -- prospects." By the time d'Arnaud and Syndergaard are established, the window on Bautista, Encarnacion and Reyes may have closed.

Anthopoulos has been on the other side. When Roy Halladay wanted out of Toronto, the Yankees were offering Jesus Montero. Anthopoulos told New York GM Brian Cashman that he had to have a second player -- Austin Jackson, Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain. It didn't work, and Halladay went to the Phillies for d'Arnaud and Kyle Drabek, a lesson Anthopoulos remembered when Mets GM Sandy Alderson needed more than d'Arnaud.

As Royals GM Dayton Moore knows, in certain markets, teams can't pay for premier free agents. Prospects are their currencies, and in this case, to get a No. 1 starter for three years, the currency wasn't $147 million, it was $30 million for three years and two prospects, a price well worth the gamble if the Blue Jays finish first and Toronto is in the high life again.

The Mets also know that, indeed, prospects are just that. When former GM Omar Minaya made the Johan Santana deal with Minnesota, Deolis Guerra (2), Carlos Gomez (3), Kevin Mulvey (4) and Philip Humber (7) were four of New York's seven highest-rated prospects. At the time, it seemed the right move for the Twins, but the team's performance got a really good man, then-GM Bill Smith, reassigned.

This is the right time for Toronto to take its shot. Tampa Bay is going to be very good again because of its pitching, versatility, athleticism and brilliant manager. Baltimore awakened last year, a team with resolute purpose and legitimate stars, but the Orioles also have to ask a lot of young pitchers. The Yankees have excellent starting pitching, but time is not on their side, nor are lagging injuries, and the Red Sox are in what they like to call "a bridge year," one in which they hope veteran free agents will carry them to their 2014 class of young players and the respect Farrell, now at Boston's helm, carries will result in the return of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz to the level once expected in this, their primes.

Reyes has to remain healthy playing on turf. It would help if Colby Rasmus matured. The Blue Jays need Brett Lawrie to break out, be healthy. They need Johnson and Morrow to make 50 to 60 starts between them.

It's all a lot more plausible with a No. 1 starter, and if you're not going to get a CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, David Price, Jered Weaver, Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain, Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto, Stephen Strasburg, et al to Toronto either by trade or by free agency, you do what you can.

Anthopolous studied the strike-throwing, swing-and-miss talent of Dickey. He sees that Dickey led the NL in innings, strikeouts, wins, quality starts and quality start percentage, was second in ERA, WAR and strikeouts per nine innings, third in WHIP and was going to cost two top 10 prospects and $30 million for three years.

Anthopoulos has taken his shot. Look, Alvarez may be a star in Miami, Adeiny Hechavarria an everyday shortstop, Justin Nicolino a mid-rotation starter. Jake Marisnick may be Jayson Werth, d'Arnaud may backstop the Mets for years, Syndergaard someday may be starting or closing in New York.

But for the first time in years, the Toronto Blue Jays could be playing meaningful games in October. Ownership has given its GM the wherewithal to try to restore the franchise to where Gillick once took it, he has followed through, and from the Fortress of Louisbourg on the Isle of Cape Breton to Vancouver's Stanley Park, Canada's team can again be relevant, and then some.

Toronto Blue Jays