Blue Jays migrating toward October

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Over the last five years, they've won more games than the Giants. Over the last nine years, they've won more games than the Tigers. If you ride the time machine all the way back to 1998, they're one of 16 teams with a winning record.

But what's the difference between the Toronto Blue Jays and the other 15 teams on that list? All those other 15 teams have played at least one postseason game since 1998.

And the Blue Jays? They've played zero.

So what happened Friday in the ever-changing sport of baseball transformed their world. We could pick out quite a few teams that should be throwing a party to celebrate the addition of a second wild-card team in each league. But …

If you're looking for a franchise whose hopes of playing in October just took an especially dramatic turn upward, the Blue Jays might be Exhibit A.

They've been building toward this moment in time anyway, constructing a team and a system designed for long-term contention. So they already qualified as the most talented team in baseball that no one south of the border ever seems to mention.

But now that the postseason field has expanded by 25 percent?

"Our mindset here," says manager John Farrell, "is, whether they added a wild card or not, we feel we're ready to make that next step."

It isn't easy taking that next step in the AL East, just in case you hadn't noticed. When you play in the same division as the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, it takes more than a talent infusion to start moving up in the standings. It practically takes a solid rocket booster.

It's incredible, in fact, how often people around the game begin conversations about the Blue Jays with the words: "If they played in any other division … " And that's more than just talk. That's the truth.

Over the last five seasons, if you wiped all games within the division off their permanent record, the Blue Jays would have a .531 winning percentage (239-211). That would rank seventh among all teams in the sport. And the only teams outside the AL East that would rank ahead of them are the Phillies (.584), Angels (.564) and Cardinals (.532).

Unfortunately, the Blue Jays won't be allowed by the proper authorities to secede from the AL East in the next few weeks. And while baseball may have expanded its postseason, it hasn't balanced out the schedule to go along with it.

So this team's challenge is still to beat out at least one of those teams in the Yankees/Red Sox/Rays super-power troika. And won't that be fun.

"The teams we're competing with are all great," says Toronto's relentlessly energetic and creative GM, Alex Anthopoulos. "And they certainly didn't get worse. But I also think we're a better team than last year. On paper, we're significantly better. What it will result in, in terms of wins, we don't know. But there's no question we're better."

There has been a lot of focus this spring on what the Blue Jays WEREN'T able to pull off last winter. They made a big run at Yu Darvish -- and got outbid. They talked to Seattle about Michael Pineda, the A's about Gio Gonzalez, the Padres about Mat Latos, the White Sox about John Danks, the Cubs about Matt Garza and the Braves about Jair Jurrjens -- but couldn't reel in any of them. They were serious bidders on Carlos Beltran -- and couldn't persuade him to play on turf, in Canada.

But the folks who have focused on what this team didn't do ought to take another look at what it HAS done -- not just since the end of last season but over the last calendar year.

"We've turned over our roster almost 50 percent since last Opening Day," Farrell says. "And it was with a core group of young players who have got the ability to do a lot of different things within the game. They can run the bases. We've added guys who can steal a base. We've become more athletic. And talent, athleticism and youth are a pretty good combination."

Over the course of last season, the Blue Jays had to use 10 right fielders, eight center fielders, 12 outfielders overall and eight third basemen. Now they have Jose Bautista established in right field (after a brief move to third base last year), the still-promising Colby Rasmus locked up in center (after a stunning trade-deadline deal with the Cardinals) and one of the great phenoms in the game, Brett Lawrie (he of the .953 OPS in 43 big league games), ensconced at third.

They've made a massive upgrade to their bullpen, stealing underrated closer Sergio Santos in a trade with the White Sox, signing Francisco Cordero and Darren Oliver to set up for him and reacquiring their longtime bullpen anchor, Jason Frasor, in another deal.

And, while Anthopoulos is as sabermetrically inclined as any new-wave GM in the game, he also consciously targeted veteran leadership and chemistry this winter -- by signing Oliver and Omar Vizquel as 40-something free agents and by swinging a deal with the Angels for backup catcher Jeff Mathis.

Meanwhile, behind this group, you'll find a wave of so many big-ceiling prospects barely over the horizon that Keith Law ranked this farm system as the third-best in baseball -- and "the organization most likely to be No. 1 … next winter."

So if you were one of the people who belted out a big "what the HECK" a few weeks ago when this team's president and CEO, Paul Beeston, told a group of season-ticket holders that he expects the Jays to make the playoffs "two to three times" in the next five years, well, guess what? That pronouncement isn't as off the wall as you think.

"It's certainly realistic," says Bautista, a guy who has evolved, in just a couple of years, from baseball nomad to two-time major league home run champ to unquestioned leader of this mega-talented team on the rise. "Now it's on our shoulders to go out there and perform."

Meanwhile, the manager and general manager heard Beeston's words with their own ears. Neither one of them has even quivered. Which also tells you something.

"We've raised the bar internally," Farrell says. "And we're not afraid to talk about that among ourselves. We're not afraid to believe that we've got the ability to make up those 10 games (that separated them from the wild-card lead last season). … It starts with our thoughts. It moves to our words. And hopefully it plays out in our actions and ultimately winds up in the results."

But the Blue Jays' hunt for their first trip to October since Joe Carter's fabled home run landed 19 years ago is about more than just an exercise in positive thinking. Anthopoulos has been laying this groundwork since he moved into the GM's office in 2009.

He's surrounded himself with more scouts than any other team in baseball. He's spent millions in Latin America. He's collected draft picks the way some folks collect baseball cards, by accumulating free agents and turning them into compensation picks rather than dealing them.

He's taken chances on the promise of guys like Rasmus and shortstop Yunel Escobar. And he's traded away two pillars of the franchise -- Roy Halladay and Vernon Wells, accumulating prospects and saving millions in the process.

Thanks to the new labor deal, Anthopoulos' draft-pick hoarding days are now done. But that's just fine, too, he says. It's time to win.

"We weren't going to continue to stockpile draft picks for five years," he says. "That was something we needed to do at the time. We needed to add more prospects. And we needed to solidify our depth as an organization for a short time period. It was always going to be until the big league club was ready [to contend]. … In the position we're in now, we're looking ahead to the big league club to get better."

Our mindset here is, whether they added a wild card or not, we feel we're ready to make that next step.

-- Blue Jays manager John Farrell

The formula Toronto has used is actually similar in some ways to the model Tampa Bay has utilized -- only with a lot more dollars in the money-market account to draw from. The idea is not to build a team that makes a run for a year or two. The plan is to construct a roster that can win 95-plus games year-in and year-out.

"We're trying to get away from, 'We have a window to win, and it's got to be this year,'" Anthopoulos says. "We're not caught up in a specific year. We're caught up in stockpiling talent."

So as intriguing as this particular team may be, and as realistic as it now seems that this group could contend if its rotation steps it up another level, the excitement in this camp revolves around the knowledge that this is not The Year.

Wait till Lawrie establishes himself as one of the best third basemen in baseball. Wait till the next tier of dazzling prospects -- catcher Travis d'Arnaud, center fielder Anthony Gose, shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and a slew of big arms -- show up. Wait till the winter of 2013-14, when a famous Toronto native by the name of Joseph Votto hits the free-agent market.

That's when it'll be time for everybody in the sport to start trembling at the juggernaut the Blue Jays have constructed. But in the meantime, it would be a major mistake to ignore the kind of team they've already put together -- especially in a season where there are more seats on the October Express than ever before.

"The excitement here is not because of what we're building," says Bautista. "The excitement is because this is a good team. And that's the plain truth. … If things come together for us, it's scary what this team might be able to do."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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