Jays could make statement with Fielder

The Blue Jays last made the playoffs nearly two decades ago. They finished fourth in the AL East in each of the past four seasons. Ask an average American sports fan what he or she knows about baseball in Toronto, and the reply will have something to do with Joe Carter’s home run to clinch the 1993 World Series. An iconic moment, but it happened so long ago that a Canadian born that night is now able to drink legally — in Quebec, anyway.

Now, at long last, the revival is afoot. In Alex Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays have one of the game’s best general managers. In Jose Bautista, they have a superstar. In Ricky Romero, they have an ace. In Brett Lawrie, they have a stud prospect who just happens to be Canadian.

The playoffs are expanding. A more favorable schedule should follow. The Jays’ farm system is supplying impact talent, with more on the way. There is every reason for the Toronto to make the playoffs by 2013, if not before.

But its roster, as presently constituted, is missing something. The Jays need a game-changer, to go from "This team could make the playoffs" to "This team should make the playoffs." It is one thing for baseball people to look at the Toronto roster and admire what Anthopoulos has done. It is another entirely for Torontonians to pack Rogers Centre with the belief that their guys ought to finish ahead of the Yankees and Red Sox.

That’s why the Blue Jays should sign Prince Fielder.

In terms of shock value, the move would rival Jayson Werth signing with the Washington Nationals on the eve of last year’s winter meetings. But it shouldn’t be that surprising. Line up the factors — payroll flexibility, roster construction, competitive window, attendance impact — and there are few (if any) better fits for Fielder.

First, the money: Fielder, 27, will shatter one team’s notion of what is reasonable for a first baseman to earn. An owner will wince. A GM will avert his eyes. This will be a payroll-buster. And yet the Jays’ bottom line is more pliable than most. Their Opening Day payroll this year was around $70 million, but club president Paul Beeston has said that it could climb to $120 million.

For those scoring at home, that’s a $50 million bump. So, yes, the Blue Jays absolutely can afford Prince Fielder.

The question is timing. Consider Beeston’s words to respected Toronto Star columnist Richard Griffin following this season: “I don’t know when we’re going to do it. It could be this year. It could be next year. It’s going to be when it’s the right deal that’s going to put us over the top. . . . We know that from the point of view of getting the fans in here that we can make it economically sensible.”

In other words: When our GM thinks we have a chance to win championships, we’ll spend big.

Well, a 3-4 of Bautista and Fielder would be about the best wheelhouse anywhere. Bautista would not walk 132 times, as he did this year, allowing his power to multiply. The Blue Jays would be able to mash with the Red Sox, Yankees and any other lineup in baseball. And with the addition of the right starting pitcher and closer, their pitching staff would rival any in the division outside of Tampa Bay.

Fielder actually can help Anthopoulos upgrade the pitching staff, because his arrival would make Adam Lind expendable. There would be ample interest in Lind, who averaged 28 home runs and 91 RBI over the past three seasons. And he’s signed to a club-friendly extension, making it easier to entice the Cubs (Matt Garza), A’s (Gio Gonzalez) or Rays (Wade Davis), all of whom are looking for a first baseman.

By flipping Lind to upgrade the rotation, the Jays can sidestep the intrigue surrounding whether right-hander Yu Darvish will be posted by his Japanese club. Fielder, who played 162, 161, and 162 games over the past three seasons, would have a bigger impact than Darvish, anyway.

Critics may question the wisdom of signing Fielder to a seven-year deal, after Anthopoulos became a hero to Jays fans for his ability to shed Vernon Wells’ contract of precisely that length. But the Jays must recognize that Bautista, 31, needs protection in order for his prime years to be as great as they can be. Fielder can do for Bautista in Toronto what he did for Ryan Braun in Milwaukee.

Power is expensive — and scarce. There is little of it becoming available on the open market in the near term, save Josh Hamilton after 2012 and Joey Votto after 2013. Toronto fans are justifiably preoccupied with the notion of luring Votto back to his hometown. But if the Reds refuse to trade their All-Star first baseman this winter, can Anthopoulos afford to wait two years for the chance to bid on him as a free agent?

Meanwhile, Anthopoulos’ long-standing strategy of accumulating draft picks won’t be as effective because of spending restrictions on amateur talent in the new collective bargaining agreement. The rules have changed, very recently and very profoundly. Anthopoulos is wise enough to adjust.

The CBA also makes the Rays’ business model less tenable, clearing the way for Toronto to emerge as a new challenger in the AL East. The Red Sox, who have not won a playoff series since 2008, are at a dysfunctional nadir. Even with the Yankees in the same division, the Jays have a discernible path to October for the first time in years. Fielder can help the fans see it.

The ticket-buying public is an important consideration here, in a way that many Americans may not fully grasp. In 1991, the Jays drew more than 4 million fans to the state-of-the-art SkyDome. Twenty years later, the gate was less than half of that. Clearly, a passion for baseball lurks in the city, the province and the country. But some Canadians still harbor resentment over the players strike that resulted in the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.

To them, the chronology was a little suspicious: Before the strike, the Jays and Montreal Expos were perennial winners. After the strike, the Yankees rose to prominence while the Jays faded and the Expos ultimately went away for good. Because of that perception, it will take a massive event for many Canadians to believe the economic conditions in baseball are such that their lone national team can win the World Series again. The signing of a top-of-the-market free agent like Fielder — or Albert Pujols, for that matter — should convince them.

Does Fielder want to play in Toronto? I can’t pretend to know the answer to that question. But the team is ready to win (unlike the Seattle Mariners) and trains every spring near his home in Florida (unlike the Chicago Cubs). The lineup is about as dangerous as the one he left in Milwaukee. The city is one of the finest in North America, particularly during the months when baseball is played.

And then there is the money, which tends to be the deciding factor in such decisions. Whenever you want to dismiss the Blue Jays as a suitor for a significant free agent, think about that $50 million spread between where the payroll is and where Beeston said it might go. Baseball went Loonie once before. It could happen again.