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Over the last few years Toronto Blue Jays fans have learned the hard way that in the AL East, there’s no point to being “pretty good.”

Seemingly every season, the Jays have ended with more wins than losses, and seemingly every season they’ve missed the playoffs.

Last season Toronto finished with a sub-.500 record for the first time in five seasons, but that was due more to bad luck than bad play, as the team’s Pythagorean record (expected wins and losses, based on the number of runs scored and allowed) was actually more like 83-78.

Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos could have hoped for better luck this season and a return to winning baseball. But really, what would have been the point? When you’re competing with the Red Sox and the Yankees, you’re either great or you’re golfing in October. And the Blue Jays would have needed an unprecidented string of favorable bounces to top either the Sox and Yanks in 2010.

So Anthopoulos did what he had to do, and he started before the 2009 season ended, trading frequently injured 3B Scott Rolen to the Reds and landing a great return. Fangraphs’ Erik Manning wrote, “Toronto must be be ponying up a lot of cash. Even if they are, I still can’t quite wrap my head around this.” Here’s what Manning had to say about Zachary Stewart, the centerpiece of the deal:

Zachary Stewart is the “get” of the trade. He has a 92-95 MPH fastball with good sink and a hard cutting 82-85 MPH slider. He’s quickly climbed the ladder, pitching at High-A, Double-A and now Triple-A this season, and has a cumulative 2.92 FIP in 92 innings pitched. He pitched mostly out of the bullpen last year but is showing some good promise as a starter. He’s a solid B grade pitcher.

Anthopoulos was just getting warmed up. This winter he did what his predecessor JP Riccardi couldn’t; he traded Roy Halladay. In return the Jays acquired at least two badly-needed top 50 prospects in SP Kyle Drabek and 1b/DH Brett Wallace, as well as C Travis d’Arnaud. It was a solid return for a pitcher the Jays had little hope of retaining after 2010.

Just like that the Jays breathed new life into baseball’s worst farm system, landing a talented crop of players (Drabek, Stewart, Wallace, d’Arnaud) who all could be ready for the big leagues this season.

But still, Anthopoulos wasn’t done. The Blue Jays acquired pitcher Brandon Morrow from the Mariners for reliever Brandon League and minor league outfielder Johermyn Chavez. Morrow was drafted fifth overall by the Mariners in ’06, and still has the potential to be an ace, despite a a few serious injuries thus far in his career. MLB Trade Rumors’ Tim Dierkes thought the Jays came out ahead on the trade:

The Blue Jays come out ahead on this one.  Morrow is an obvious health risk, but he still has frontline starter potential.  It’s a gamble worth taking at the cost of a reliever and a prospect.

After all his wheeling and dealing, Anthopoulos also spent $10.5M on a smattering of free agents, including the slick fielding John McDonald, who will be a utility infielder, and the always disappointing RP Kevin Gregg, who is the leading candidate to close games for the Jays (at least until his craptastic pitching forces them to find somebody else).

Toronto is still somewhat hamstrung by Vernon Wells’ awful contract. The team’s rotation is young and you can expect them to struggle even more this season without Halladay to take the ball every fifth day. Edwin Encarnacion is nobody’s idea of a longterm solution at third base, and Jose Bautista (so far) hasn’t shown the power to justify a corner outfield spot.

The Blue Jays aren’t going to make the playoffs in 2010. But thanks to the moves Anthopoulos made this winter, there’s hope for 2011 and beyond.

Grade: B+

Lost: SP Roy Halladay, SS Marco Scutaro, C Rod Barajas, P Brandon League, 1B Kevin Millar, RP Brian Wolfe, UT Joe Inglett, SS Brian Bocock, OF Russ Adams, C Michael Barrett

Added: SP Kyle Drabek, C Travis d’Arnaud, 1B/DH Brett Wallace, P Brandon Morrow, SS John McDonald, SS Alex Gonzalez, RP Kevin Gregg, C John Buck.

Projected lineup:

C: John Buck
1B: Lyle Overbay/Brett Wallace
2B: Aaron Hill
SS: John MacDonald/Alex Gonzalez
3B: Edwin Encarnacion
RF: Jose Bautista
CF: Vernon Wells
LF: Travis Snider
DH: Adam Lind/Brett Wallace

Projected rotation and closer:

SP1: Ricky Romero
SP2: Sean Marcum
SP3: Brandon Morrow
SP4: Marc Rzepczynski
SP5: Brett Cecil/Kyle Drabek

CL: Kevin Gregg/Jason Frasor/Scott Downs

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