- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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BOSTON -- Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi takes only modest appreciation in running the team nobody in the American League wants to face, for it is a sentiment for a team about to miss the playoffs for the 14th consecutive year that sounds less compliment than platitude.
But Toronto, with its Pyrrhic success -- again so dangerous and tantalizing this season, but too little, too late -- is no charity case. The Blue Jays represent an interesting study in both economics and the baseball version of hope.
On July 6, Toronto lost to the Angels 7-1, pushing the team five games below .500 on the season and into fifth place in the AL East. Since then, despite their 4-3 loss to the Red Sox on Sunday, the Blue Jays have gone 38-23, with A.J. Burnett or ace Roy Halladay having won 18 of those games.
"I've said it before, and I'll say it again," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "Toronto has the best front-end pitching in the American League. They have the best pitching staff in our league, period."
But just as Toronto, a club fraught with false starts and debilitating injuries over the past five years, finally has begun to realize Ricciardi's vision (not only is Toronto 8-7 against both Boston and New York on the season, but Burnett improved his career record against the Red Sox and the Yankees to 10-3), Burnett likely will walk away from the final two years of the five-year, $55 million contract he signed at the end of the 2005 season and opt for a huge payday via free agency, the comfort of moving closer to his home in the Washington, D.C., area or both.
And just like that, a team that has emerged in the second half of 2008 as a power contender in its division almost certainly is staring at a position in which neither Boston nor New York ever finds itself: losing an important player to free agency because he will command more than the team can afford.
"It has to be tough for them. They finally get their rotation going the way they want it, and now you're probably going to lose one of your big dogs," said Red Sox first baseman Sean Casey, who played most of his career in small and medium markets before signing with the mega-market Red Sox this season. "Unless you're Boston or New York, you get a window. You get a window, and you make your run. If you miss it, the window closes, and you have to start all over again."
By virtue of a torrid second half led by the kind of playoff-caliber pitching performances that make organizations think with October-style optimism, fear of the Blue Jays is a concept that has been power-washed across the league. Yet, because at least a few of today's key winning parts -- namely Burnett -- won't be in Toronto tomorrow, the Blue Jays won't be able to easily parlay the strong finish of this year into a springboard for next.
"Naturally, what happens with A.J. is the big thing," Toronto first baseman/outfielder Lyle Overbay said. "Finally, it all kind of clicked for us, and it would be great to take this to next year, but from everything we hear, it sounds like it's going to be tough for management to keep A.J."
Ricciardi rejects the conventional wisdom that losing Burnett to free agency sinks the Blue Jays into baseball's economic quicksand, reducing them back to the middle of the pack, hoping to improve even as money forces them to subtract. He does not believe the departure of Burnett (who, at 18-10, could win 20 games this season) will undo the accomplishments of this encouraging second half, nor will it represent a debilitating talent drain and unconquerable math.
"Well, we still have Halladay, and he's the ace of the staff," Ricciardi said. "With the rest of the staff, we might not have a guy with Burnett's stuff, but we think we've been able to fill in the holes. We look at it this way: If we lose A.J., then some of our young guys that we like have an opportunity. If he stays, then we have a big power arm. The way I look at it is this: Halladay is the bellwether, and our young guys have to prove they can play eventually."
The Red Sox resurgence in the John Henry/Larry Lucchino/Tom Werner era (regardless of the organizational insistence that its superior acumen is more critical than its wallet) is predicated upon spending at the very top of the league payroll each year, every year. Emerging young players such as Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester legitimize the Red Sox's minor league system, but the backbone of the club has been the $160 million contract for Manny Ramirez, the nearly $100 million in combined contracts for Pedro Martinez and the $102 million spent on Daisuke Matsuzaka, as well as super-sized contracts for Josh Beckett, David Ortiz and J.D. Drew, in addition to possessing the leverage and cash to acquire Curt Schilling.
Ricciardi has spent over the years (on Wells, Rios, Halladay, B.J. Ryan and Burnett) but likens his team to the Minnesota Twins (a club that lives on the precipice of annual reinvention for its survival) rather than the two behemoths in the AL East. The Blue Jays have nearly half the club's payroll tied up in just four players (Burnett, Halladay, Scott Rolen and Ryan), forcing young players to produce immediately.
The organization -- especially manager Cito Gaston -- loves Travis Snider, who drove in five runs in Burnett's win over the Red Sox on Saturday. Ricciardi awaits the return of Dustin McGowan and has huge expectations of kid left-hander Brett Cecil and lefty Ricky Romero, proof that the Blue Jays' minor league system is producing.
"We'd like to get to a point where you aren't relying on the free-agent market at all, except for plugging in holes. We play in the toughest division in baseball, and we've been right there," Ricciardi said. "We've had more than our share of injuries, and I think we underperformed offensively this year.
"We know we have a good team, and we're not looking to '09 yet. But if I had to pay attention to '09, I can say we're only going to get better. Going forward, we feel like we're in the best shape we've been in."
Toronto changed managers on June 20, firing John Gibbons and returning Gaston, who guided the Blue Jays to their only two championships, to the dugout.
"The last two years, I looked at this club coming out of the spring training, and I thought they were going to win the division," said Gaston, who started the season as a front office special assistant. Under Gaston, the Blue Jays are 45-30, and Ricciardi said Gaston certainly will return as manager in 2009. Gaston sees similarities between his current club and the most famous of Toronto teams, his 1993 team.
"I always thought that the 1992 team was the more balanced team," Gaston said. "In 1993, we had [John] Olerud first, [Paul] Molitor second and [Roberto] Alomar third in hitting, so we overpowered a lot of teams.
"Losing A.J., if that is what happens, is going to be a difficult thing when you look at how he's been pitching, but what a lot of people don't remember is that we went into 1993 with 14 new players, so we know what it means to plug young guys into a team that has expectations. I really like this team."
The Blue Jays have not made the playoffs since winning their second consecutive World Series title in 1993. Over the past 14 seasons, the Blue Jays have finished fifth once, fourth once, second once and third behind Boston and New York nine times. They do not qualify as a small-market team but have been more than $25 million annually off the roughly $120 million generally required to compete at the Red Sox-Yankee level. Ricciardi understands the virtue of building the minor league system, but the gap in finances makes it virtually impossible to withstand injuries to their front-line players.
For example, Wells, whom Ricciardi rewarded with a seven-year, $126 million contract in December 2006, has been on the disabled list twice this season.
"The Blue Jays always do a good job. Anytime you have a rotation anchored by Halladay and Burnett, you're going to give teams problems," Casey said. "But it can be demoralizing at times because New York and Boston are throwing legit clubs out there every year.
"Look at Tampa. We feel like Tampa is winning every night. It seems like in order to win this division when you're not one of those top two, you have to have one of those perfect years. You have to win every night like they're doing, and we're still right on their heels."
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.
19mAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com