No ignoring Blue Jays this summer

They are the only major league team based outside the United States. They are going on two decades without a postseason berth. In the rugged American League East, their rotation includes one rookie (Drew Hutchison) and two others who might as well be (Kyle Drabek, Henderson Alvarez).

The Toronto Blue Jays are easily overlooked. But that will change.


For one thing, they have a good team in 2012. Great? No. Promising? Intriguing? Competitive? Athletic? Yes, all of the above. The Jays clinched a series victory over the Baltimore Orioles with an 8-6 victory Tuesday night and are only three games out of first place with a 26-24 record.

You may say that it is not yet June, that some combination of the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays will hoard the postseason bids once again. Those are reasonable statements. But here is a prediction of which I am absolutely certain: In July, for one reason or another, Canada’s team will be impossible for America to ignore.

If the Jays remain in the race, they have the close-to-the-majors prospect depth to make impactful promotions or division-turning trades: catcher Travis d’Arnaud, shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and center fielder Anthony Gose.

If the Jays fall in the standings, they could turn free-agent-to-be Edwin Encarnacion into the biggest available bat – this year’s answer to Carlos Beltran.

And if the Jays stay right where they are — not out, not necessarily all-in — then the most-uttered sentence in baseball circles this July will be as follows:

I’m waiting for Anthopoulos to make up his mind.

Alex Anthopoulos, the Jays’ 35-year-old general manager, is regarded by peers as one of the most thorough executives in the industry. “Buy” trades, “sell” trades, three-way trades, prospect-for-prospect trades — he is your man. Add in the new collective bargaining agreement and a team that just … might … be … on … the … cusp, and the incandescence of his iPhone will be enough to roast marshmallows.

Anthopoulos has been allergic to big free-agent investments, which has not done wonders for fan enthusiasm but is useful in times like this. There isn’t a move he has to make, an onerous contract that must be expunged. His team has needs: a No. 2 starter, a left fielder with power, a late-inning reliever or two (or three). But Anthopoulos can find those players on his terms — and imaginatively so, if he chooses.

Through a combination of sound planning and good fortune, his medium-term roster is as utilitarian as a coupled Swiss Army knife: J.P. Arencibia/d’Arnaud at catcher, Yunel Escobar/Hechavarria at shortstop, Colby Rasmus/Gose in center.

Trade one, keep the other.

Who stays and who goes will hinge on how quickly Anthopoulos shifts into Win Now Mode, a gear left untouched since he took the wheel in October 2009. Escobar could help the Blue Jays arrive at some answers if he managed better than a .648 OPS or indicated a willingness to make way for Hechavarria by playing second base. (He has not done either.) And though some Ontarians consider it heresy to classify the popular Arencibia as a trade candidate, imagine the return the Jays could receive for a slugging 26-year-old catcher.

In past years, Anthopoulos operated under a mission statement that would have looked lousy on the season-ticket brochures. WE WILL LEAD THE LEAGUE IN COMPENSATORY DRAFT PICKS! He accumulated relievers, offered them salary arbitration, and gobbled up prospects in the sandwich round. He spent money internationally, too. Now the Toronto farm system is among the best in baseball. But the rules have changed.

Beginning this year, in order to collect a draft pick clubs must (a) retain the prospective free agent all season and (b) offer him a one-year tender between $12 million and $13 million.

So, how many of Toronto’s prospective free agents – Encarnacion, Kelly Johnson, Francisco Cordero, Darren Oliver, Jason Frasor, Carlos Villanueva, Jeff Mathis, Omar Vizquel, the soon-to-arrive Vladimir Guerrero — would deserve a salary of more than $12 million next year?

The answer is maybe one: Encarnacion.

If that sounds like a steep price for a man who entered this season with a .789 career OPS, consider that Encarnacion is one of only two players in the majors this season with 16 home runs, 41 RBI and an OPS of more than .900. The other is Texas’ Josh Hamilton.

Encarnacion has spent most of the season as a designated hitter, and it’s about time the industry views that role as something more than partial retirement for aging sluggers. Some players don’t have the temperament for the job. It is a learned skill, and Encarnacion is mastering it.

It seems like Encarnacion has been around a while – he debuted with the Cincinnati Reds in 2005 — but he will play all of this season at 29. He will be a relatively young free agent, at a time when true home-run power is scarce in the major leagues. Yet Encarnacion and his agent, Paul Kinzer, told me in separate conversations Tuesday that the Blue Jays have not initiated talks about a contract extension.

One could interpret that piece of information in any number of ways. Maybe the Blue Jays need to see more from Encarnacion before determining that he’s a long-term franchise cornerstone like Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie. Maybe they harbor doubts about whether Encarnacion will be this productive several years from now. Maybe they have no intention of re-signing him.

Or maybe Anthopoulos wants to wait and see just how intense the market for Encarnacion’s services might be in late July. With Guerrero’s arrival, Encarnacion will get the chance to play first base even more frequently than he has this season (14 starts so far). If he shows he can handle the job, any number of teams with poor first-base production could inquire on him — including the Pirates, Indians, Mets and Marlins.

Expect Anthopoulos to be “patiently aggressive,” to borrow from the latest hitting coach phraseology. The Blue Jays are a little better than expected, and the AL East competition is a little worse. I’m not sure if Toronto will see playoff baseball this year, but the route from here to October includes a pass along the Q.E.W. — or, at the very least, a call to Anthopoulos.