Upton could accelerate Jays’ resurgence

Will the Toronto Blue Jays trade for Justin Upton? It’s too early to tell. But the mere fact they’re making a push says plenty about their intent to become a perennial contender in baseball’s best division.

Numerous times in the last week, I’ve said to people in the industry that Toronto will make at least one playoff berth in the next three seasons. No one has laughed. The organization is indeed in very good shape. The addition of Upton, 23, would speed up the Jays’ transformation into a postseason club.

The 2012 season looks like a prime target for Toronto’s first October baseball since Joe Carter and Mitch Williams. For one thing, commissioner Bud Selig is dropping strong hints the playoffs will expand to include a fifth team in each league beginning in that year. And the Jays’ best prospects — right-hander Kyle Drabek and shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria — should be high-impact players by then.

This is a great time for the Jays to trade for Upton, because general manager Alex Anthopoulos can do so without compromising the plan he outlined upon taking the job one year ago.

Anthopoulos is one of the game’s brightest young minds. He’s perceptive enough to avoid the mistakes of the 2010 Seattle Mariners, who responded to a surprisingly competitive season by implementing a bad plan, one year too early.

Remember: The Jays are 11 months removed from trading ace Roy Halladay. They’re in the midst of a rebuild, albeit one that produced an 85-win season in 2010.

The Jays remain an incomplete club, one that lacks an everyday first baseman and experienced closer/setup man combination. And they need an impact bat, the sort of hitter who would make it easier for first-year manager John Farrell to have a rookie catcher (J.P. Arencibia) play on a regular basis.

Dan Uggla was a target, before he was dealt from the Marlins to the Braves. Now it’s Upton. He is a better fit than Uggla, anyway.

Upton is under contract through 2015, at a total cost of $49.5 million. So, he makes much more sense than Uggla, who is seven years older.

Despite the Jays’ success in 2010, they still play in the American League East. It’s much more prudent to acquire a long-term asset (Upton) than gamble with a one-year rental (Uggla) and hope the Red Sox and/or Yankees stumble.

For the same reason, the Jays should have more interest in trading for Upton than, say, Zack Greinke, the Kansas City ace who’s closer to free agency. Besides, the Jays have a good rotation as it is: Shaun Marcum, Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil, Brandon Morrow and, in time, Drabek.

I don’t know what it would take for the Jays to acquire Upton. I doubt they would part with Drabek or Hechavarria, who are too important to the nucleus of the next Toronto playoff team. But they should be able to deal for Upton without losing either of them. The Jays have a good farm system that’s getting better, thanks to the raft of compensatory draft picks they are due to use in 2011.

Upton’s contract, I’m told, wouldn’t be difficult for the Jays to fit into their long-term budget. The team’s ownership has indicated the payroll can and will move northward for the right players. Upton is that. He could play right field, while the slugging Jose Bautista moves to third. Bautista is a good fielder at either position.

The Jays’ pursuit of Upton conveys two important messages. One is that they want to win now. The other is that they won’t sacrifice their future to do it.

If there is a fifth AL playoff team in 2012, don’t be surprised if it’s Toronto.