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01/28/11 9:35 PM EST

Blue Jays biding time with payroll

Wells trade has created financial flexibility in Toronto

TORONTO -- There was a time during the glory years of the 1990s when the Blue Jays operated under the largest payroll in the Major Leagues.

Since that time, the economics in baseball have drastically changed. The Yankees and Red Sox have taken their team salaries to heights never seen before while Toronto cut expenses due to a low Canadian dollar and below-average attendance after the 1994 strike.

That led to questions about whether the club would be able to compete with the behemoths of the American League East. According to president Paul Beeston, not only can his team challenge those two organizations, but the dynamics of the Toronto market have evolved enough to allow the Blue Jays to work toward resuming their free-spending ways.

"We can compete with them," Beeston said Thursday night at the team's annual State of the Franchise event. "What we've got to do here, we've got to build this team up.

"We raise our revenues, we raise our expenses at the same time and our salaries. ... We should be a city that can have $140 million, $150 million in the way of salaries. We could support that, and that's the direction that we're headed."

The Blue Jays will enter the 2011 campaign with a payroll hovering around the $70 million mark once the club settles its arbitration cases with slugger Jose Bautista and right-hander Frank Francisco.

That number is lower than originally expected because of last week's surprise trade of center fielder Vernon Wells. The three-time All Star and his four-year, $86 million contract were shipped to Los Angeles in a move aimed at creating financial flexibility down the road.

The Blue Jays only have four players who are guaranteed contracts for 2012. First baseman Adam Lind ($5.15 million), outfielder Rajai Davis ($2.75 million), left-hander Ricky Romero ($5.25 million) and prospect Adeiny Hechavarria ($2.75 million). The remaining players on the roster are either under club control or eligible for free agency at the end of the upcoming season.

The lack of committed dollars creates endless possibilities for a club that is owned by Rogers Communications, a company that is valued at more than $16 billion, according to Forbes magazine. Instead of spending that money right away, though, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said he plans on taking a patient approach with Toronto's checkbook.

"We're going to look to spend it the right way and not just spend for the sake of spending," Anthopoulos said. "But there's already been talk of how we can leverage this money into the Draft, how can we leverage this money into Latin America signings; are there other players we can go out and acquire? The flexibility to go so many ways with it is very exciting."

Increased spending on player development is something the Blue Jays began doing in 2010. The club used to have a policy to not spend above the amount recommended for a given Draft slot by Major League Baseball during the First-Year Player Draft. That stance was abandoned last season when the club handed out $11.6 million in signing bonuses -- the third-highest amount in Draft history, according to Baseball America.

In total, the Blue Jays went over slot 12 times during the Draft. That allowed the club to go after high-ceiling prospects whose stock dropped because their asking price was too high. That led to the signing of infielder Dickie Joe Thon, who was projected to go in the first round but fell all the way to the fifth because he was looking for $1.5 million.

The free-spending mentality on player development has also allowed the club to take a more aggressive approach in international scouting. Over the past year, the club signed infielder Hechavarria (four years, $12 million), right-hander Adonis Cardona ($2.8 million), third baseman Gabriel Cenas ($700,000) and left-hander Jairo Labour ($350,000).

Those moves helped contribute to the Blue Jays' Minor League system becoming one of the best in baseball. Toronto currently has three players ranked on MLB.com's Top 50 Prospects list, and its Minor League system has been ranked fourth overall by Baseball America.

"I personally am very excited," Beeston said of his club's future. "I believe the group in scouting and development is going to put us where we want to go.

"I think they're onto something that other clubs are now talking about. The way that we have scouted, the way we have developed, the way he is building the team ... I think it is indicative of where we're heading."

While the club's extra resources currently are being allocated toward player development, Anthopoulos said that doesn't mean the Blue Jays will avoid the free-agent market in the future. Paying Wells in excess of $20 million a year to play for a rebuilding team didn't make much sense financially, but when the young core is ready to take the next step, the money is expected to follow.

Signing the right player to a lucrative contract similar to the one Wells would have earned in Toronto is not something Anthopoulos has ruled out.

"It really all depends on what our payroll ends up being," Anthopoulos said. "We have a budgeted number each year, but it is very fluid and has the ability to rise with the right opportunity. If the right opportunity presents [itself], then we could have multiple players like that on our payroll. That's not a problem, but it has to make baseball sense for us."

There had been speculation that the Blue Jays would be more open to the idea of signing Bautista to a long-term contract following the Wells trade. Bautista is eligible for free agency at the end of the season, and he is asking for $10.5 million in arbitration, while the club has countered with $7.6 million.

According to Anthopoulos, the recent trade isn't going to change how he approaches any potential negotiations with the 30-year-old slugger, who led the Major Leagues with 54 home runs in 2010.

"There's really no impact at all," Anthopoulos said. "From our standpoint, every case for every player is a unique case.

"With respect to funds, we're not in that type of position with our ownership and our market. We evaluate every player separately, and the value that we have on the player speaks for itself."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.