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Blue Jays feel their time to contend is now

Big moves show Toronto believes window is open in tough AL East

The Blue Jays see the American League East as theirs to win. That's the message in all of this.

Maybe you've heard that free agency isn't how the best teams are built. Regardless of how deep a club's pockets are, it still begins with player development.

Whether it was always like that or not is a good topic for barroom discussion. Now, though, it's a given. In fact, most of the best players simply never reach free agency. Teams attempt to identify a core group of players and lock them up.

Free agency is best used to add that final touch to the roster. When a team sees a window of opportunity, it's time to act.

And so the Blue Jays acted. In the last 12 days, they've added two stars. One look at the numbers tells you that much about catcher Russell Martin and third baseman Josh Donaldson.

Video: Donaldson on joining potent Blue Jays lineup

But they bring more than that to the table. Both have raging competitive fires. Both bring something to the clubhouse in terms of work ethic and leading by example. Both are sore losers.

As Andrew McCutchen said of Martin's two seasons with the Pirates, "Our team changed the moment he walked in the door."

Former big leaguer Mark DeRosa said pretty much the same thing, telling Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun, "For me, Russell Martin is a culture-changer."

Martin will impact Toronto's pitching staff in allowing each guy to get into a rhythm and to simply throw the pitch they're asked to throw. In most ways, this is the very definition of a great catcher.

Oh, and Martin hits some, too. Among catchers with at least 500 plate appearances last season, only Buster Posey and Jonathan Lucroy had a higher OPS than Martin's .832.

And then on Friday, senior VP of baseball operations and GM Alex Anthopoulos acquired Donaldson from Oakland for third baseman Brett Lawrie and three prospects.

Like Martin, Donaldson makes the Blue Jays better in a variety of ways. He seemed to be the one guy A's general manager Billy Beane wouldn't trade. But Anthopoulos, sensing a window of opportunity, kept throwing names at him. Suddenly, Beane had an offer he hopes can help keep Oakland competitive in 2015 and add organizational depth of the future.

Donaldson is the best defensive third baseman in the game. He also hits. In the last two seasons, he leads all big league third basemen with 68 doubles and is third behind Pedro Alvarez and Evan Longoria with 53 home runs.

Video: A's trade Donaldson to Blue Jays in five-player deal

Donaldson is one of Beane's great success stories, having been acquired from the Cubs as a Minor League catcher only to make the transition to slick-fielding third basemen. He finished fourth in AL MVP Award voting in '13 and eighth in '14.

Toronto's No. 3-4-5 of Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Donaldson is as good as any in the game. They combined to hit 98 home runs last season, and with Jose Reyes in the leadoff spot, the Blue Jays will put pitchers in high-leverage situations from the first inning on.

This ultimately could mean wearing down starters early, getting into the bullpen and changing the dynamics of a game.

The Blue Jays apparently haven't ruled out re-signing Melky Cabrera, a free agent who would make an already deep lineup one of the most formidable in the game.

Like the Yankees and Red Sox, the Blue Jays aren't a finished product. Anthopoulos will have to decide if he thinks Brett Cecil can handle the closer's role and if a rotation led by R.A. Dickey and Marcus Stroman could use an insurance arm.

But the Blue Jays are already good. They spent 61 days in first place last season and were atop the division as late as July 3. Injuries and some poor performances took their toll on the bottom line.

When it was over, though, they were convinced they were close to being good enough to play in October, and so Anthopoulos went to work. If the pitching staff stays healthy and if those three guys -- Bautista, Encarnacion and Donaldson -- do what the Blue Jays think they can, this is a team capable of playing in October.

The Blue Jays haven't been to the postseason since 1993, but they've been among baseball's most active teams in recent years. Now, Anthopoulos appears to be getting close.

Donaldson is a guy Toronto fans will love, both for how he produces and how he goes about his business. Suddenly, the dynamics of the division look different than they've usually looked the last few years.

Rather than the Blue Jays fighting to keep up with the Yankees and Red Sox, those teams may now be the ones with work to do.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
Read More: Toronto Blue Jays, Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin