Blue Jays in need of offense to contend in East

February, 23, 2009
02/23/09
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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Toronto Blue Jays know they're supposed to be the fourth team in the "Big East." They lost A.J. Burnett, they don't know when Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum will be back, they had to pare $20M off their payroll because of the Canadian economy, and they are fully aware that the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox are all expected to win 90 games.

"I look at this way," says Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston. "We won 86 games [in 2008]. If we'd hit at all, we might have won in the mid-90s. We'd have been right in the race. I still think we're going to be pretty good."

This is spoken by a man under whom the Jays were 51-37 after he took over, one of five managers (with Terry Francona, Tom Kelly, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre) in the past quarter century to win multiple World Series titles.

The Blue Jays' pitching was so good that they allowed the fewest runs in the major leagues in 2008, but they scored the fourth fewest in the American League. They lost an astounding 20 games when their pitchers allowed three runs or less.

"It was pretty bad," says Gaston. "But it can get a lot better this season."

It begins with Vernon Wells, who at 30 is poised for a monster season. He has been limited to 36 homers the past two years because of shoulder and back injuries and a broken wrist, but this winter he hired a trainer from the Athletes Performance Institute in Tempe, Ariz., took the trainer to his home in Dallas, brought him to spring training and will continue to use him all season, for a total investment of between $150,000 and $200,000.

"The workouts have made a big difference in flexibility and strength," says Wells.

GM J.P. Ricciardi insists that ace Roy Halladay will not be traded. But if the Jays struggle and attendance is down, there remains the possibility that Wells could be available if teams like the Yankees and Red Sox face physical problems. After this season, Wells is still due five years and $98.5M, which could be a difficult contract to move, more difficult than the five years and $59.7M due Alex Rios.

Another key element for Toronto is that second baseman Aaron Hill insists he is recovered from the post-concussion syndrome that limited him to 55 games. Remember, two years ago Hill had 47 doubles and 17 homers, but he collided with David Eckstein last May and suffered from the headaches and aftereffects all season.

"It was as if I was sick every day," says Hill. "I had no energy. I just was never right. I understand what guys like Ryan Church went through." And Jim Edmonds, who for a year couldn't drive a car for two hours at a time.

Church had two collisions, missed seven weeks and batted only .219 in his final 33 games after being an All-Star candidate until his second collision on May 20.

Gaston hopes to keep Lyle Overbay and Scott Rolen in the lineup as much as possible. He has the underappreciated Marco Scutaro at short and expects Adam Lind and 21-year old Travis Snider to be major contributors.

The problem, at least until McGowan returns in May and Marcum comes back for the final 4-6 weeks, is filling in after Halladay, especially with Burnett now a Yankee.

"I believe our pitching is going to be better than people think," says Ricciardi.

He has Jesse Litsch, David Purcey, Casey Janssen and Scott Richmond. The last was signed out of a tryout at 27 last spring. After spending three years pitching for an independent league team in Edmonton, Richmond ended up making five starts in September for the Jays. Along the line, the Jays hope Brett Cecil and Ricky Romero get into the mix.

"We know who's in our division," says Ricciardi. "But we're going to be all right, better than what some people think right now. If our young pitchers come on, we'll be in it."

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