By way of describing the Blue Jays, general manager J.P. Ricciardi cooks up a culinary metaphor. "It's a pot of stew," he says. "We've got some veterans and some really good young players. We're cutting payroll. We're addressing our future in the minors, between the draft and trading for younger players. We're trying to create a mixture of everything." In Toronto's kitchen Ricciardi is baseball's frugal gourmet. Since becoming G.M. in November 2001, he has simultaneously chopped payroll by $30 million, begun the long process of restocking a barren farm system and infused the major league roster with enough young, modestly priced talent to field a competitive club.
With a coupon clipper's thriftiness, Ricciardi has jettisoned, among others, outfielders Jos� Cruz Jr. and Raul Mondesi, shortstop Alex Gonzalez and reliever Billy Koch. In their places he has aggressively promoted prospects from the farm system—creating starting jobs for lefthanded pitcher Mark Hendrickson, second baseman Orlando Hudson, designated hitter Josh Phelps, centerfielder Vernon Wells and shortstop Chris Woodward—and filled out the menu with unflashy veterans on short-term contracts.
The long-term prognosis is encouraging. Aside from leftfielder Shannon Stewart, a free agent at season's end, and first baseman Carlos Delgado, who has two years and $36 million left on Toronto's only remaining albatross contract, the Blue Jays' starting position players have, on average, 181 games of big league experience. Pleasantly surprising, however, was Toronto's revival under new manager Carlos Tosca, who was 58-51 after replacing the fired Buck Martinez on June 3.
A stickler for fundamentals, who oversaw vast defensive improvements by all four infielders, Tosca is on board with Ricciardi's emphasis on plate discipline and power. "Our philosophy is, Take the walk and hit the home run," Tosca says. "We don't have the same experience that New York and Boston do, but from a talent standpoint our players have just as high a ceiling."
The most established among those players are Wells (.500 slugging percentage, 19 home runs, 77 RBIs after Tosca took over) and third baseman Eric Hinske (.465, 15, 52 under Tosca), but Phelps, called up from Triple A Syracuse on July 2, truly makes the pupils dilate. In his 74 games with the Blue Jays last year Phelps hit .309, had a .562 slugging percentage and hit 15 home runs. Growing up in the Idaho panhandle town of Rathdrum, the quiet, cerebral Phelps prioritized his schoolwork and excelled in math and sciences. "I was more academic than athletic," he says. "It was something instilled from my parents, something I took a lot of pride in. That was the deal."
Phelps reads two newspapers a day, and he recalls former Toronto infielder Joe Lawrence, his roommate during spring training in '01, who dissed him for watching CNN instead of ESPN. During the hours of dead time that litter a season Phelps reads voraciously, mostly Dean Koontz potboilers and Patrick McManus short stories. (In mid-March he was plowing through a biography of Terry Bradshaw—"Nothing profound in that one," he says.) Yet he takes a less studied approach to his swing; he maintains his compact power stroke entirely on feel. "The first time I started looking at film last year is the first time I started getting in a funk, because I never knew what my swing looked like before," says Phelps. "You always have your own mental picture, and then when you actually see it, it's a totally different thing. It just confuses the senses."
Ricciardi has not yet found long-term solutions for his pitching staff, aside from ace righthander Roy Halladay, 25. This summer Ricciardi will attempt to use his most valuable bargaining chips, Stewart and closer Kelvim Escobar—also in the walk year of his contract—to cast for young arms. With Hinske and Wells signed to nearly identical five-year, $15 million contracts in mid-March, Toronto's offense is boiling. Although he's locked in third-place limbo, Ricciardi will soon find similar solutions for the rest of the club, from soup to nuts.