3. Toronto Blue Jays
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The new skipper comes from TV land. He may find his pitching hard to watch
By Stephen Cannella
Martinez is managing for the first time at any level -- in fact, he's wearing a baseball uniform for the first time since his 17-year career as a player came to an end, in 1986. He's determined that nothing will ruin his joyride. "Buck is like a kid in a candy store," says first baseman and MVP-in-waiting Carlos Delgado. "He brings a lot of enthusiasm to the ballpark every day. And he's been around this team for a long time, so he knows us well."
Which means that Martinez should be aware that his club isn't the feel-good, after-school special he appears to be tuning into. To those who bemoan the disparity between the game's rich and poor, we present the Blue Jays, stout representatives of baseball's struggling middle-class. There are trappings of success -- the Yankees, the Indians and the Red Sox are the only other American League teams to have won 80 games in each of the last three seasons -- but it's like the shiny Lexus in the garage that was bought with a credit card: There's serious debt to pay. Toronto hasn't been to the postseason since 1993, which has created a steady decline in attendance and financial losses that were estimated to be approximately $20 million in 2000. That figure will likely increase this year thanks to a payroll that has grown from $56 million to more than $70 million.
The entire lineup returns intact -- good news because it led the American League with a franchise-record 244 home runs and had four hitters crack the 30-homer barrier. Delgado finished among the league's top five in each of the Triple Crown categories. Leftfielder Shannon Stewart, one of the league's most dangerous leadoff hitters, continued his upward career arc. (His batting average and RBIs total have increased in each of the last three years.) So fearsome is Toronto's lineup that its projected number 8 hitter, centerfielder Jose Cruz Jr., outhomered 10 teams' cleanup spots.
"It seemed like we had to hit all those homers because we were always behind," says Delgado. "The most disappointing part of last year was that we didn't pitch well enough."
And that was with disgruntled but dangerous David Wells, who was sent to the White Sox in the disputed trade that brought sore-shouldered lefthander Mike Sirotka to Toronto. Sirotka didn't pick up a baseball until March 9 and is unlikely to join the rotation until June at the earliest, leaving the new manager without a starter who has won more than 12 games or pitched 200 innings in either of the last two seasons. Righthander Joey Hamilton made just six starts last season after 1999 rotator cuff surgery. How much he can contribute is a mystery. Equally mysterious are Roy Halladay, 23, and Chris Carpenter, 25, talented young righthanders around whom the Blue Jays have been trying to build a rotation since 1998. Last season, his second full year in the bigs, Halladay had the highest ERA (10.64) in history among pitchers who threw at least 50 innings. Carpenter, who fought elbow problems for most of 2000, had a 6.26 ERA and missed two starts in September after being hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of the White Sox' Jose Valentin.
During spring training Martinez and new pitching coach Mark Connor worked hard to resuscitate the pair. They tinkered with Halladay's delivery, and the youngster dusted off a knuckle-curve that he hasn't thrown in three years. ("It's nasty," says Stewart.) Connor also had Carpenter, who lost more than 10 pounds over the winter, working on a changeup. "I don't think it's a make or break year for these guys," Connor says, "but I do think it's time for them to pitch like they're capable of pitching."
It will be difficult for Martinez to maintain his sunny disposition if they don't. It's likely that the Jays will again be an entertaining show that draws just enough viewers to stay on the network schedule but not enough to earn that coveted Thursday-night slot. "We haven't pushed players this spring saying we gotta win, we gotta win," Martinez says. "We say we have to play the game correctly."
Now the players have to follow the script. Take One.
Issue date: March 26, 2001