Pressure-packed season awaits Jays, Mets

Few teams underwent more extensive -- and expensive -- makeovers this winter than the New York Mets and Toronto Blue Jays.

Handed mandates from ownership to improve, both teams spent liberally. The Mets landed closer Billy Wagner, first baseman Carlos Delgado and catcher Paul Lo Duca.

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, secured two of the top pitching free agents -- starter A.J. Burnett and closer B.J. Ryan -- and dealt for Lyle Overbay and Troy Glaus to add muscle to their lineup.

The moves were intended to make the teams relevant again. The Blue Jays haven't been in the postseason since 1993 and have had just four winning seasons since as the Yankees and Red Sox seem to have made the top two spots in the AL East their birthright.

The Mets, in a constant battle with the crosstown Yankees for the hearts and minds of New York baseball fans, haven't returned to the playoffs since the 2000 Subway Series and have been unable to wrest the division from the perennial champs, the Atlanta Braves.

In general manager Omar Minaya's first season, the Mets became respectable and were nominally in contention in early September. But with a new TV network of their own, ownership authorized a further expansion of the payroll. The goal: the playoffs.

So the Mets and Jays spent and got better. But with the improvement comes pressure and expectations. It won't be enough for the clubs to finish in the middle of their divisions anymore. They're expected to contend and win.

Sometimes, that's not as easy as it seems.

"New York's a different place,'' warned one major league GM. "It's tough to judge how players will respond there. I don't think Delgado ever wanted to go there. He doesn't like expectations or media pressure. He's always played in a place [Toronto and Florida] where he's been protected. But there's no place to hide in New York.''

Just ask Carlos Beltran, whom the Mets signed with great fanfare last offseason, only to watch him struggle in adapting to life in the big city.

"Are those the numbers of an $18 million player?'' another executive asked of Beltran's .266 average with 16 homers and 78 RBI. "There's a whole different dynamic to playing in places like New York, Boston and Philadelphia. I hope for Omar's sake that those guys work out, but there are no guarantees.''

That's especially true for the Mets, who have a supremely talented but still young left side of the infield. How will third baseman David Wright and shortstop Jose Reyes respond to the challenges that come with playing on an honest-to-goodness contender?

Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi understands the risks involved -- he doesn't need to look far to find examples of spending gone wrong. The Orioles have spent freely at times, and imported marquee players, but haven't had a sniff of October since 1997. It doesn't do a team any good to outbid all others for a free agent only to find that the player was attracted only by the biggest paycheck.

To guard against just such a scenario, Ricciardi did his homework and determined that his team's new additions were intent on winning.

"We told these guys what we were trying to do,'' he said. "We told them we liked what we had, but that we were trying to win and they could be a big part of that. They liked that. They could have gotten just as much [money] somewhere else. But they wanted to come here. Believe me, we put a lot of time and effort into these decisions.''

Having watched Ryan within the same division, the Jays had a pretty good understanding of his competitiveness and makeup. With Burnett, they could direct any questions they had to Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsburg, who had coached the right-hander in Florida.

"To me, I think Toronto is a perfect place for a guy like Burnett,'' Ricciardi said. "There isn't that media pressure and he doesn't have to be the No. 1 guy, because we have that guy in Roy Halladay.''

Both Ryan and Burnett let it be known that they didn't want to play in big markets, but Ricciardi maintains that isn't a sign of weakness.

Not wanting to play in big cities is "overrated in a lot of cases,'' he said. "I think a lot of guys are just looking for some personal comfort levels. Some of them just don't like being noticed everywhere they go. Some guys just like to play.''

Still, as Ricciardi readily concedes, it's impossible to forecast how a player will react to the demands of a pennant race until it happens.

"You don't know how anyone is going to respond until we get into it,'' he said. "It's a little bit of the unknown. I hope we're playing meaningful games in September and we're having this same conversation.''

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.