Banged-up Blue Jays have long flight ahead

Al East Preview

April 03, 2009|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

Only 10 teams in major league baseball won more games than the Toronto Blue Jays in 2008.

Three of those clubs, however, were in the Jays' division.

Toronto's 86 victories would have been enough to win the National League West, but in the brutal American League East it landed them fourth, 11 games behind the first-place Tampa Bay Rays and nine games out of the wild-card hunt.

It was the third consecutive season the Blue Jays finished better than .500 and didn't sniff the playoffs. In fact, they haven't been to the postseason since manager Cito Gaston led them to World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.

Gaston, whose Blue Jays managerial career had ended in 1997, was a team special assistant in June when he was summoned back to the dugout and led the club to a 51-37 record during its final 88 games.

"Last spring I was here once a week and I only talked to the hitters," Gaston said. "This is different than my first week last June - now I know the names of all the pitchers."

While Gaston, now 65, was gone, the Blue Jays transformed from high-paid veterans to a youth movement and back.

Heading into 2006, the Jays were among the most aggressive spenders during the winter meetings, luring closer B.J. Ryan away from the Orioles and starter A.J. Burnett from the Florida Marlins.

General manager J.P. Ricciardi's plan was to build a deep staff that would lead with perennial Cy Young Award candidate Roy Halladay, close with Ryan and have myriad young power pitchers in the middle for years to come.

It worked. Last year, the Blue Jays recorded a rare pitching trifecta, leading the majors in overall ERA (3.49), starters' ERA (3.72) and relievers' ERA (2.94).

But heading into this season, the Jays' rotation looks far different from the way it did at the start of 2008.

Halladay, 31, continues to lead the staff, but Burnett used an escape clause in his contract to sign an $82.5 million deal with the New York Yankees. Shaun Marcum, who had a 3.39 ERA in 25 starts last year, had September elbow surgery and is lost for most, if not all, of 2009.

Dustin McGowan, thought to be potentially the next great Jays starter, posted a 4.37 ERA in 19 starts before having shoulder surgery in July. He has had a setback, and it's uncertain when he'll return.

That means fifth starter and control artist Jesse Litsch, 24, has moved up to the second spot in the rotation after a fine 2008 (13-9, 3.58 ERA) and left-hander David Purcey, who made his debut last year, is the club's No. 3 starter.

Eschewing the urge to pay for veteran free agents, the Jays will fill the rest of the rotation with unproven commodities such as 2005 first-round pick Ricky Romero and former independent player Scott Richmond, 29.

"Once the economy changed [and] it became a little bit more realistic that it was going to be a down economy, then our idea changed about payroll," Ricciardi said this spring.

The Jays' payroll dropped from $96 million to about $86 million - still third in the division but no longer threatening the $100 million mark.

It's not just the rotation that is dealing with health issues. Reliever Casey Janssen, who was in the mix for a starting spot, has been shelved with shoulder discomfort, and Ryan has a "dead arm" that has mysteriously pushed his low-90s fastball into the mid-80s.

"We're kind of searching for answers right now," Blue Jays pitching coach Brad Arns- berg said. "We're trying a little bit of everything. ... It's just a little bit of an oddity."

The Jays also have plenty of injury questions on the offensive side, as they're counting on third baseman Scott Rolen, outfielder Vernon Wells and second baseman Aaron Hill, all of whom were injured last year.

But one thing that's in their favor, initially, is the schedule. The Blue Jays don't play the Rays, Boston Red Sox or Yankees for their first 34 games.

So at least through April it won't feel like they are stuck in the AL East.

toronto blue jays

Manager: Cito Gaston

2008 record: 86-76

Estimated payroll: $86 million

Dan Connolly's prediction: 4th place

Projected lineup:

1. Marco Scutaro, SS

2. Aaron Hill, 2B

3. Alexis Rios, RF

4. Vernon Wells, CF

5. Adam Lind, DH

6. Scott Rolen, 3B

7. Lyle Overbay, 1B

8. Rod Barajas, C

9. Travis Snider, LF

Projected rotation:

RHP Roy Halladay

RHP Jesse Litsch

LHP David Purcey

LHP Ricky Romero

RHP Scott Richmond

Projected closer:

LHP B.J. Ryan

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