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With trade, Blue Jays push their chips into middle

If you're of a certain age, you remember when the Toronto Blue Jays were the franchise every other was measured against. Between 1983-93, they averaged 91 victories a season. They finished first five times in this stretch and won the World Series twice. In the last three seasons of that amazing run, they surpassed 4 million in home attendance every single year.

They had one of baseball's most respected front offices, especially CEO Paul Beeston and general manager Pat Gillick. Gillick had just begun to shape a Hall of Fame career. He was a brilliant talent evaluator, not just with players, but also with scouts, managers and coaches.

Gillick's gift of understanding how to shape a roster has been studied by dozens of baseball executives through the years.

The Blue Jays were an extraordinarily appealing team during those years -- John Olerud and Joe Carter, Fred McGriff and George Bell, David Stieb and Jimmy Key and Tom Henke.

When Carter ended the 1993 World Series with a walk-off home run, the Blue Jays would never have guessed that his joyous flight around the bases would be the end of an era.

In 20 seasons since, they've worked desperately to recapture their previous glory. Whether it was poor decisions in the Draft or a bad job of assessing Major League talent, or the uncertain winds of economic change, nothing has worked.

In recent years, it seemed they were getting close. Their baseball staff had worked tirelessly to build a great farm system, and little by little, it was clear they were closing the gap to allow them to compete in baseball's toughest division.

And then on Tuesday night, in one dramatic stroke -- a potential 12-player trade with the Marlins -- the Blue Jays made the kind of deal that can push a franchise over the top. One deal brought them two solid starting pitchers (Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle), including a potential No. 1 (Johnson). One deal brought them a dazzling presence for the top of the lineup (Jose Reyes). There was plenty more, including Emilio Bonifacio, who can play either second or center.

It'll take some time to figure out how all the pieces will fit. But for the first time in a long time, Toronto has a team that looks every bit the equal of every other in the American League East.

There's plenty of risk. The Blue Jays assumed around $160 million in contracts from the Marlins to finish the deal, and they gutted their Minor League system.

But it was time. They probably weren't going to pass the Yankees, Rays, etc., by simply growing the farm system and waiting for the kids to develop. They needed to shock the roster with an infusion of veteran talent.

That they have done. Reyes is one of baseball's most exciting players. He will get on base, he will steal bases and he will be a perfect fit for a lineup anchored by Jose Bautista.

This offseason was about the rotation. General manager Alex Anthopoulos had spent the last few weeks meeting with agents for free-agent pitchers, not knowing where the marketplace was going to take the prices.

He appears to have sidestepped that problem with the addition of Johnson and Buehrle. They're two very different pitchers.

Johnson, 28, is a bona fide top-of-the-rotation starter when he's healthy. He missed most of the 2011 season with a shoulder injury. Johnson did return last season, compiling a 3.81 ERA (more than a half-run higher than his career average) but still pitching 191 innings.

The Blue Jays should be encouraged that Johnson's ERA dipped to 3.01 in his last 12 starts as he got more comfortable back on the mound. These 12 starts made it appear that he still has some quality baseball left in him.

Now about Buehrle. He might be the most consistent and predictable pitcher on the planet. Buehrle just won 13 games for the fourth straight season and just pitched more than 200 innings for the 12th straight year.

In terms of preparation and work habits, in terms of helping those young Toronto pitchers learn from a consummate professional, there's probably no one better they could have acquired.

This trade was so large that it'll take a few days to digest it. All that's clear is that the Blue Jays added a dramatic amount of talent to a team that was already competitive.

Reyes could be a perfect addition to an offense that hit 198 home runs in 2012 and has all kinds of firepower -- Edwin Encarnacion, Colby Rasmus, Bautista -- behind him. As for the rotation, with Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero behind Buehrle and Johnson, the Blue Jays have the makings of something special. Suddenly, that managerial opening got a lot more appealing.

There are no guarantees in deals that involve a big exchange of kids and money. Both teams are taking a chance. To give up a stockpile of young players, including three young pitchers, means that Toronto is pushing its cards to the middle of the table. The good news is that the Blue Jays upgraded in a way few teams ever have the opportunity to in a single day.

But the Blue Jays have been in a building mode for several years, and when ownership saw a chance to put the team in real position to contend, it went for it. If you're a Blue Jays fan, it's the kind of day you've dreamed about for a long time, and you're wondering why Spring Training can't begin tomorrow.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.