General manager J.P. Ricciardi had no difficulty adding clout to his lineup the last two off-seasons, having imported Frank Thomas, Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay to help form, along with Vernon Wells, as lethal a 2-3-4-5 combo as any in the American League.
As for beefing up the pitching staff? That's a different matter. The top of the rotation, Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett, was superior to that of the Red Sox and the Yankees in 2006 by most key measures (strikeout rate, innings per start, base runners allowed). The rest of it, however, is a wasteland. Permitted to increase his budget from $72 million to $90 million over the winter, Ricciardi made generous offers for C-list hurlers Ted Lilly (Toronto's third starter last year) and free-agent Gil Meche but lost out on both. Though the Cubs and the Royals wildly overpaid for Lilly (four years, $40 million) and Meche (five years, $55 million), respectively, that's small consolation for the Blue Jays' G.M., whose club will have to win some 11-8 games to keep up with Boston and New York.
The four leading candidates for the three vacant starters' slots had a combined 16 big league wins and a 5.36 ERA last year. Toronto would benefit greatly from a bounce-back season by talented 26-year-old lefty Gustavo Chacin, who missed most of last season (elbow and forearm injuries) after a strong rookie year in 2005 (13-9, 3.72 ERA). Odds are against it, though. Since 1995 eight pitchers have thrown 200 innings in their rookie years, as Chacin did, and only Freddy Garcia and Matt Morris even came close to regaining their first-year form. (And Morris missed almost two entire seasons before recovering.)
Then there's 33-year-old John Thomson, who battled finger and shoulder injuries last year, when he went 2-7 in Atlanta. Two-win pitchers at the end of their careers, especially ones coming off injuries, are usually nonroster guys hoping to get a start or two in the spring. The Blue Jays, though, want Thomson to start 30 games and stare down Manny Ramirez at Fenway Park. The two other veterans in the mix are journeyman righthander Tomo Ohka and righty Victor Zambrano, who has already achieved a modicum of fame in the AL East as the answer to the trivia question, For whom did the Devil Rays obtain Scott Kazmir?
"We tried to add as much bulk as we could to the rotation in Thomson, Ohka and Zambrano, trying to find a way to replace Lilly's 180 innings," Ricciardi says. "That's easier said than done, but what we have to keep in mind is that Boston and New York have the same kinds of questions about their rotations, too."
Really? Let's take a look at the third starters for the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays, respectively: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Mike Mussina, Gustavo Chacin. Fourth starters: Jonathan Papelbon, Kei Igawa, John Thomson. Fifth starters ... you get the point. Toronto may give the veterans the first shots in the rotation, but don't be surprised if the club turns to promising young arms, such as righthanders Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum (both of whom averaged more than a strikeout per inning at Triple A Syracuse), if things aren't going well after the first month. "What we break camp with is not necessarily going to be our team come May," acknowledges manager John Gibbons.
"We all know what's going on," Thomson says. "We can win 90 games and make the playoffs, but the starters are going to have to keep us in games."
Catcher Gregg Zaun has it all figured out. "If Doc [Halladay] and A.J. are both five games over .500, which we expect, and the rest of our guys pitch .500 ball, that should get us to around 92 wins," he says. "That ought to be good enough for the playoffs."
We'll check his math come September. -- -- Peter King
Issue date: March 26, 2007