Blue Jays hoping late run just the beginning
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.
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.