"They might have the deepest pitching staff, yet they need New York or Boston to falter."
Chasing the Red Sox and the Yankees every year, the Blue Jays operate with a fingernail's margin for error, which would make the off-season injury to starter A. J. Burnett particularly ominous. Burnett ripped the fingernail off his right index finger when, the club says, he closed a car door on it. The injury prevented Burnett from throwing his curveball for the first month of camp while he visited what pitching coach Brad Arnsberg called a "nail specialist." Just when you thought Burnett, 31, had seen every specialist possible over his injury-plagued 69-66 career -- he's missed 59 starts over the past five years -- he added a new one: manicurist.
So it goes for the nearly good, nearly healthy Blue Jays, the team with the most wins in the wild-card era without making the postseason -- they've won between 83 and 88 games six times in the past 10 years. Last season Toronto had the second-best ERA in the American League, received a combined 56 starts from Burnett and ace Roy Halladay, saw rightfielder Alex Rios continue to blossom into a star, and was still a nonfactor in the uncompromising AL East. This year, the Blue Jays just might have the division's deepest pitching staff, yet they'll still need Boston or New York to falter for a playoff door to open.
"I don't think so," retorts centerfielder Vernon Wells, when asked about needing outside help. "We're good enough to beat anybody. The key is to be consistent. New York and Boston are not our problem. We play them well [37-36 over the past two years]. We have to play consistent baseball against everybody else."
Toronto may have the pieces to put up around 95 wins under the best of circumstances, but too many Blue Jays come with disclaimers tied to age and injury. No player better represents Toronto's predicament than Scott Rolen, who in a swap of third basemen, was obtained from St. Louis in January for Troy Glaus. "Taking nothing away from Troy," general manager J.P. Ricciardi says, "but Scotty is a different kind of player. His motor is going all the time at a high speed. Guys feed off his energy. It's like adding [New England Patriots wideout] Wes Welker to your team."
Still, Rolen, one of five Blue Jays' regulars who will be at least 33 by season's end, has missed 176 games in the past three years and showed little power last season because of an injured left shoulder that restricted his swing. And though he reported that his shoulder felt as good as new in camp, he still can't shake those nagging injuries; on Sunday, he broke a knuckle on his right middle finger.
Rolen was nonetheless happier in camp, his gusto enhanced by his escape from Tony La Russa, with whom he had a nasty, public two-year feud. Says Rolen, "All I'll say is we're two very different people with two very different sets of morals. I never had a problem with St. Louis. I would have been happy to finish my career there. It was just one person. Now I've got the freshest start you could imagine. New team, new league, new country."
If Toronto eventually gets a healthy Rolen, if a well-manicured Burnett can make all of his starts for only the second time in his career . . . well, the Blue Jays really will look like a new team. -- Tom Verducci
Issue date: March 31, 2008