Just who was it that decided Toronto could not compete for a playoff spot this year? Who predetermined that the Yankees or the Red Sox would win the American League East and the Red Sox or the Yankees would be the wild card? Whoever it was didn't visit the Blue Jays' spring training camp in Dunedin, Fla., and see a team confident that it had done enough in the off-season to improve on last year's 86 wins.
Toronto was 9-10 against both Boston and New York in 2003. The Jays outscored the Yanks by 17 runs and were outscored by the mighty Red Sox by just .4 of a run per game. And Toronto's starting staff was awful. (Awful, at least, beyond Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay.) Over the winter the team made itself a run-per-start stingier by replacing its second, third and fourth starters. Out: Kelvim Escobar, Mark Hendrickson and Cory Lidle (combined '03 ERA: 5.18). In: Miguel Batista, Ted Lilly and Pat Hentgen (combined '03 ERA: 3.97). If the starting rotation of Halladay, Batista, Lilly, Hentgen and Josh Towers pitches this year the way it finished last year, the playoffs are not an impossible dream for Toronto. Those five guys went 16-5 with a 2.93 ERA in September.
"Our rotation last year was suspect, to say the least," says centerfielder Vernon Wells. "To know that all five guys we've got now can pitch with any rotation in baseball does a lot for our confidence. We don't have to score eight or nine runs to win a game."
Jays general manager J.R Ricciardi knew he had to perform major surgery on his staff—while keeping the payroll at about $50 million, less than a third of the Yankees' outlay. So at 12:01 a.m. on the day free agency began in November, Ricciardi says, he phoned the agent for Batista, a righthander who'd gone 29-26 over the previous three years for the Diamondbacks. "I was like a recruiting coordinator, calling the guy the first minute we could," Ricciardi says. "I was going to be dogged until he signed." Which Batista finally did, on Dec. 12, for $13.1 million over three years.
Meanwhile, Ricciardi called his old boss, Billy Beane, the G.M. of the A's, and proposed a deal involving a Jays outfielder he knew Beane liked. "I said, 'Billy, you want Bobby Kielty. We want Lilly' He said, 'O.K.' That's literally how long it took to do that deal. We were outfield-heavy, he was pitching-heavy." The lefty Lilly signed with the Jays for $4 million over two years.
The next piece was Hentgen, a righthander who had won the Cy Young with Toronto in 1996, when he was a power pitcher. Now 35, three years removed from Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery in his throwing elbow, Hentgen is a four-pitch starter who spots the ball throughout the strike zone. In the second half of last season he went 6-3, with a 3.10 ERA, in 13 starts with the Orioles. Ricciardi signed him for one year for $2.2 million.
"The big thing for this rotation will be staying healthy," says Hentgen, who hasn't thrown 200 innings in his last six seasons. "I'd be plenty happy to throw 185 to 200 innings, which would be big for this staff. We've got the best pitcher in baseball coming back, then we've got solid guys behind him. And having [a southpaw like] Lilly is big, especially going into Yankee Stadium."
Lilly was huge for the A's in last year's playoffs against Boston, throwing a memorable game at Fenway Park in Game 3 (seven innings, two hits, no earned runs, no decision) and adding two shutout innings in futile relief two nights later. "Those are the games I love," says Lilly, 28. "They're like wars. I feel like if I win, I survive. If I lose, I die."
The Blue Jays' rotation could be either a tremendous bargain—Toronto will pay its five starters a total of $14 million in 2004, a million less than Boston will pay Pedro Martinez—or a terrible misreading of talent by Ricciardi. The question that matters is, Will the staff be good enough to match up with the big boys? Remember, while the Blue Jays added Miguel Batista, their friends in New England acquired Curt Schilling.
"We're chasing teams with quality depth," says Jays manager Carlos Tosca. "But if we stay healthy, I think it's realistic to say we'll be playing meaningful games in September."