Jays hope Thomas provides push back to playoffs

Pitching, not aging DH, likely biggest question

March 30, 2007|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN REPORTER

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- He stands alongside the right-field railing, in front of a surging mass of autograph seekers that holds baseballs, bats and one "Big Hurt" poster.

Frank Thomas, the Toronto Blue Jays' most significant offseason acquisition, is chatting up his new fans when one tries to guess his weight at 240 pounds.

"Puh-leeze," Thomas says in mock dissatisfaction.

"What, 260?" the fan asks.

"Try closer to 280," Thomas says as the guy lets out a whistle. "I still work out all the time. It's just tough getting older, you know."

It's this old guy, this two-time American League Most Valuable Player who turns 39 in May, who is giving baseball fans north of the border the sense that the Blue Jays could return to the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

The foundation was set last season. The Blue Jays had the league's third-highest batting average and hit the fourth-most home runs in 2006, pushing them to a rare second-place finish in the tough AL East.

By adding the 6-foot-5 Thomas as the designated hitter, the Blue Jays may now have the most productive lineup in the league. At least if Thomas is the healthy, carefree version from the Oakland Athletics in 2006 and not the brooding, hobbling one from his last few seasons with the Chicago White Sox.

"He's a beast," Toronto closer B.J. Ryan said. "He's a vocal guy, a big guy, a big presence in the clubhouse. But he's an easygoing guy, easy to talk to and he loves to talk baseball. So when you can bring a guy in with his credentials, his numbers and everything he can bring to this team, it's just going to be that big of a plus for us."

Thomas was once a sure Hall of Famer, but injuries limited him to 108 games in 2004 and 2005, leading to a bitter divorce with the White Sox. He rebounded last year in Oakland, hitting 39 homers and driving in 114 runs on his way to winning the league's Comeback Player of the Year award. He then got a two-year, $18.2 million deal with Toronto.

"Every time this guy has been healthy he has done well and we have no reason to believe he is not healthy," Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "So far, so good."

Thomas said he chose the Blue Jays because with himself, Vernon Wells, Troy Glaus and Alex Rios, this may be the most powerful lineup he's been part of - and that includes his days with Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee in Chicago.

"They have a very good lineup here. They are very close to winning it all," Thomas said. "With this lineup, there are no holes."

The Blue Jays' holes - or question marks, anyway - come on the other side of the ball. The rotation is led by perennial Cy Young candidate Roy Halladay and the uber-talented A.J. Burnett, giving Toronto perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the East.

But Halladay and Burnett have been haunted by injuries in the past. So has No. 3 starter Gustavo Chacin, who battled elbow pain last year and raised eyebrows this spring when he was arrested for driving under the influence.

The back of the rotation includes journeyman Tomo Ohka and Orioles castoff Josh Towers, who is hoping to bounce back from a rough 2006. Ryan, also a former Oriole who has dealt with back stiffness this spring, is an elite closer. But top setup man Justin Speier left for free agency and his potential replacement, Brandon League, was sent to the minors while he tries to get healthy.

"I think Toronto finishes third this year. I think they are very susceptible to injuries in a lot of areas," said one AL general manager. "If Ryan gets hurt, and he has had some ailments in the past, or Burnett or Halladay goes down for any length of time they are in trouble. If they have a very healthy season, they'll make a real run for the playoffs. I just don't see it happening."

Injuries could ruin any team's season, but the Blue Jays take offense to suggestions that their pitching staff drops off in talent after Halladay, Burnett and Ryan.

"People don't think it is that deep, but we have some experienced big league pitchers around here," Thomas said. "We've got guys who have bounced around with different teams, but they have won at this level. We've got pitching."

They've also got Thomas in the middle of the lineup, which can only help the offense and the attitude. And the younger players seem to be rallying around the Big Hurt's big resume.

"He's a guy with a lot of recent experience on some pretty good teams and that gives us something to shoot for," leadoff hitter Reed Johnson said. "He's a guy that not only with his physical abilities but with his knowledge of the game can take us there."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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