How the Blue Jays saved more than $90 million

Originally Published: March 2, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Here's a little factoid we guarantee will inspire you to teach your kids to throw a gyroball:

Know what the price of starting pitching was this winter?

How 'bout 628.925 million bucks.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what the 2006-07 free-agent starting pitching class -- which wasn't exactly jam-packed with future Hall of Famers -- is going to get paid by the time all those wild and crazy contracts are up.

And that doesn't even count Daisuke Matsuzaka's posting fee, Gil Meche's World Series MVP incentive clause or anybody who signed a minor league contract.

So if we add in every last cent (or yen), we're proud to announce that this group will probably wind up collecting somewhere in the neighborhood of (gulp) $700 million.

USELESS INFORMATION DEPT.
Curt Schilling
Schilling
• There's an ironic twist to all the furor in Boston over Curt Schilling's fitness (or lack thereof): We're talking about one of the great horses of modern times. Loyal reader/research king Trent McCotter reports that Schilling has pitched at least five innings in 147 starts in a row. Not only is that the longest streak by any pitcher in the last 50 seasons, just two other starters even got to 100 -- David Cone (145) and Bob Gibson (112). Next-longest current streak: 91, by Johan Santana.

• If Steve Finley makes the Rockies' roster, he'll have finished off quite the nomadic feat -- by playing for all five teams in the NL West. He would be the first man ever to do that in a five-team division. Gene Nelson and Mark McLemore did play for all four clubs that now comprise the AL West, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

• Speaking of fabulous nomadic feats, loyal reader Bryan Dobney wanted to make sure we knew that Kenny Lofton's move to Texas means he has played for at least one team in all six current divisions. Believe it or not, Elias reports, he's the 20th player to do that since the 1994 realignment -- and the fifth active player (joining Roberto Hernandez, Gregg Zaun, Dan Miceli and Ron Villone). Or the sixth if you count Alberto Castillo (who is in the Boston camp but hasn't played in the big leagues since 2005). • Loyal reader Andy Schnack posed a great question about last year's Twins: Has any team ever had three different players take home an MVP (Justin Morneau), Cy Young (Johan Santana) and batting title (Joe Mauer)? And the answer is: Yes -- but only one: the 1962 Dodgers (Maury Wills as MVP, Don Drysdale as Cy Young, Tommy Davis as batting champ).

• You sure don't see many strikeout-walk ratios like the one Brewers outfielder Laynce Nix racked up last year: 28 whiffs, 0 walks (counting his time in Texas). So loyal reader Baron Bedesky wondered if that was some kind of record. Well, no. But it does rank fourth among all non-pitchers since 1900 -- behind Alex Sanchez (39 K, 0 BB in 1985), Jerry Gil (33-0 in 2004) and Bobby Clark (29-0 in 1982).

Which means, by our calculations, we now have a bigger budget in this country for the SPA (Starting Pitching Administration) than we do for the SBA (Small Business Administration). What a world.

But this isn't a column about all those pitchers or all those contracts. We're not even going to get into whether the $103 million the Red Sox plowed into Matsuzaka or the $126 million the Giants bestowed upon Barry Zito were dollars well-spent.

No, this is about The Other Guys.

In fact, it's about a team -- the Toronto Blue Jays -- that chased The Other Guys. And still couldn't sign them. But might very well find out, in seven months, that it's no worse off than if it had. Consider the two scenarios and see what you think:

What they tried to do: Sign Meche (who got five years and a stunning $55 million from the Royals) and Ted Lilly (who wound up with four years, $40 million from the Cubs).

What they did do: Signed Tomo Ohka for one year, $1.5 million. Signed John Thomson for one year, $500,000 (which would grow to $1.5 million when he's added to the big league roster). And signed Victor Zambrano to a minor league contract.

So let's do that math. What Meche and Lilly got: $95 million. What Ohka, Thomson and Zambrano got combined: $2 million (which would inflate to only $3.5 million even if all three are on the team).

Well, it's obvious, just from the prices, that the guys they signed definitely weren't Plan A (i.e., add Meche and Lilly). Or even Plan B (sign one of them, at least).

"But who knows?" Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi says. "Plan C might be better than Plan A when we're all said and done."

Hey, absolutely. Let's play a little game to prove it. It's a game called Pick Out the $11 Million-A-Year Pitcher. To make this really fun, we'll take last year's "contract year" out of the equation.

Pitcher A: Went 33-28 from 2003-05, with a 4.86 ERA. Made 29 starts or more just once in those three years. Record/ERA in 2005: 10-8, 5.09.

Pitcher B: Went 31-28 from 2003-05, with a 4.34 ERA. Made 29 starts or more twice. Was hurt for part of 2005, but in 2004 he was 14-8, 3.72.

Pitcher C: Went 34-31 from 2003-05, with a 4.54 ERA. Made 29 starts or more in two of three seasons. Record/ERA in 2005: 10-11, 5.56.

Pitcher D: Went 24-28 from 2003-05, with a 4.04 ERA. But if we look at 2002-05 (factoring in minor health issues in 2004), went 37-36, 3.74. Made 29 starts or more twice. Record/ERA in 2005: 11-9, 4.04.

So there you go. Can anybody pick out the $11 million-a-year man? How 'bout the $10 million-a-year man? Well, they're both in there. Pitcher A was Meche. Pitcher B was Thomson. Pitcher C was Lilly. Pitcher D was Ohka.

Can we rest our case yet?

TRIVIALITY
You probably don't think of 25 homers and 90 RBIs as a gigantic season these days. But bet you didn't know that Ron Santo, who got snubbed by the Veterans Committee in yet another Hall of Fame election this week, had more 25-90-plus seasons (eight) than any active third baseman. Can you name the four active third basemen who have even had five or more seasons like that? (Answer below.)
And the Blue Jays aren't the only team in this test tube, either. Think of the good teams that passed on all the second-tier and third-tier, $8 million to $11 million starting pitchers this winter: Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox, Tigers, Indians, Angels, A's, etc. Think any of them are sitting around spring training second-guessing themselves?

"To me," one GM says, "if you're heading into free agency, you should either go after the absolute elite players or the filler players. The key is, stay out of the Ted Lilly-, Jason Marquis-type contracts, because those are the ones that kill you."

It's funny, though. We hear this talk over and over. But if those contracts are such killers, how come so many teams were out there, trying to give those deals away?

"Sometimes -- and this is just being flat-out honest -- we just get caught up in the chase," Ricciardi says. "We get caught up in the chase of going after these guys. And because of the competitiveness in you, you want to get these guys. Then I think sometimes, when you don't get them, you have a tendency to take a step back and say, 'You know what? Maybe this was the better thing for us.'"

He can't know that for sure, of course. Maybe this will be the year Meche finally figures it out. Maybe Wrigley Field will be exactly the right place for Lilly. Maybe Ohka and Thomson and Zambrano (who won't return until midseason after Tommy John surgery) will turn out to be big mistakes.

But at least they'll only be $2 million mistakes. Which, we've noticed, don't require nearly as many Advils as $95 million mistakes.

SPRING FEVER
• The winner of our annual Highest Number Worn in Spring Training competition (non-So Taguchi Division) is Rockies prospect Darren Cooke, No. 98 in your program. Highest by a nonroster invitee: No. 96, by Angels catcher Flint Wipke. The Angels and Yankees, clearly, are the two teams trying hardest to work on their pass rush this spring. They each have four players in the 90s in camp.

Adam Wainwright
Wainwright
• Has this ever happened? The St. Louis Post Dispatch's Rick Hummel reports that Adam Wainwright threw the last pitch of the World Series -- and the first pitch of spring training. Wainwright couldn't help but ask if Josh Beckett did that.

• And here's another Life In Spring Training Forgets To Imitate October development: As you may have heard someplace, Gary Sheffield is still steaming that Joe Torre benched him in Game 3 of the ALDS last year. Well, as Booth Newspapers' Danny Knobler noticed, the pitcher he would have faced in Game 3 was Kenny Rogers. So guess which pitcher Sheffield hit against in his first live batting practice as a Tiger? OF COURSE, it was Kenny Rogers.

• One of Davey Lopes' innovations in Phillies' camp was a new sliding drill on mats that look suspiciously like the old Slip 'N Slide mats -- minus the hose-down effect. "It was more like Grip 'N Slide," said Jimmy Rollins. "There wasn't too much slipping out there." Well, one reason for that, in Rollins' case, was that he opted not to wear the special, funky black sliding pants many of his teammates slipped into. Not stylish enough, obviously. "Hey," said Ryan Howard, "we have images to maintain."

• The exalted hot-dog-eating champ, Kobayashi, stopped by the Devil Rays' camp last weekend. Asked what he'd most like to know about Kobayashi, manager-witticist Joe Maddon replied: "What is the training regimen involved in becoming what he is today? I think that would be kind of interesting to know -- plus his cholesterol level."

• Finally, one of the great mysteries of spring training is why Tigers manager Jim Leyland carries a fungo bat with him all day long -- but not necessarily to hit fungoes. "He has that fungo just to work on his (golf) backswing," Tigers coach-humorist Andy Van Slyke told Spring Fever. "But if you notice, he never follows through. He's afraid he might shank somebody."

So this will be one fascinating summer to sit back and see how it all unfolds. But for now, it's hard not to notice this spring that, for many teams, the consolation prizes from another crazed free-agent sweepstakes don't feel a whole lot worse than first prize.

Spring Rumblings

• Despite talk of the Marlins and Devil Rays reviving their long-rumored deal involving Rocco Baldelli, Florida actually appears to be more focused on the younger (and cheaper) B.J. Upton and Elijah Dukes as center field possibilities.

• Tampa Bay has been telling clubs it has no interest in trading Carl Crawford. But while Baldelli is still, theoretically, available, the price tag has made it a moot point. Teams that asked about him report the Rays want two future stars back, at least one of which has to be a pitcher. So we don't see any moving vans in his future.

• While those Aaron Rowand-for-Scott Linebrink rumors continue to circulate out west, the Phillies appear less interested than ever in making that deal. Rowand, incidentally, has rebuilt his swing since last season. And Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson says Rowand's broken ankle last August "may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, because [when he was working to come back] he couldn't jump at the ball. And when he hit all winter, he was able to hit the right way."

Bernie Williams' uncle told the New York Daily News that Williams turned down a $5 million offer from the Phillies. Uh, not quite. According to an official of one club that looked into Williams, the Phillies' offer was closer to $2 million. But Williams wanted more money and playing time. So that was that.

• The Yankees, by the way, have made it clear to Williams that they won't love him any less if he decides to end his career somewhere else. But other clubs that have checked in on him say he still thinks he can essentially be an everyday player -- while they're not even sure he's a decent backup anymore. "Look, the guy has had a great career," said an official of one team. "But at this stage, he's not a good pinch hitter, he's not a good defender and he's not a good pinch runner. So where does he fit?"

• A friend of Alex Rodriguez tells us he would be willing to bet A-Rod doesn't opt out of his contract after this season. "He may ask for an extension," the friend said. "But I don't think he'll opt out."

• The Cubs have put their Carlos Zambrano long-term contract talks and Jacque Jones trade discussions on hold for now. But get back to us in a couple of weeks on that front.

• A longtime friend of Rangers pitcher Vicente Padilla predicts Padilla will be a gigantic disappointment, now that he has three years, $37.75 million worth of guaranteed security. "I always said he would be dangerous if he was signed for more than one year," the friend said. "This guy should win 20 games and pitch 200 innings every year, with his stuff. But he's satisfied with 12 wins and 120 innings."

• What's the point of having a Hall of Fame Veterans Committee that never elects anybody? "I think it's working," Mike Schmidt says. "But I'm not a believer that somebody needs to be put in every year." Schmidt is an example, though, of how a voter's view of the candidates can evolve with time. "Gary Carter's election to the Hall of Fame totally changed my feeling about it," he says. "I'm a very close friend of his. … And the smile I see on his face because he's a Hall of Famer makes me think that if it happened for Gary Carter, why not give Ron Santo, Jim Kaat, Dave Parker, Jim Rice, Dale Murphy, Doug Harvey [and] on down the line -- why not give them a chance to smile while they're alive? So are my standards different now than they used to be? Absolutely."

• Finally, one of Buck Showalter's favorite parts of being a special adviser to the Indians' baseball operations staff is, he gets to watch Grady Sizemore every day. How big a fan of Sizemore is Showalter? He told a story of watching Sizemore roar around the bases with his usual ferocity while hitting an inside-the-park home run against the Rangers last year, then turning to bench coach Don Wakamatsu and saying: "Do you know how lucky we are, to be able to sit here and watch something like that?" Wakamatsu's response: "Buck, he just hit an inside-the-park homer against our team."

Trivia Answer

OK, it's kind of a trick question. Chipper Jones has had eight of those seasons overall, but only six as a third baseman. The others: Scott Rolen (5), Troy Glaus (5) and Aramis Ramirez (5).

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com