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When the Blue Jays signed third baseman Eric Hinske to a five-year, $14.75 million contract on the eve of the 2003 season, the organization, flush with optimism, saw him as a cornerstone of what could quickly become a contending team. Hinske had just hit .279 with 24 home runs and won the American League Rookie of the Year award, and Toronto believed it could soon disrupt the Red Sox-Yankees fiefdom atop the American League East. Two years later expectations are much more restrained. Hinske cratered in 2004, hitting .246 with 15 homers and a .312 on-base percentage, and the Blue Jays, beset by injuries to virtually every key player, finished last in the division for the first time since the Devil Rays joined the league in 1998.
"We need Hinske to bounce back," says Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi. "We need him to be the solid player he was his first year. We didn't sign him to hit .390; we'll take .260 to .270, 25 home runs, 80 to 90 RBIs."
Hinske's return to form is pivotal to the Blue Jays' fortunes because Toronto did little this winter to improve an offense that was 12th in the league in runs, on-base percentage and slugging, and it lost its best hitter, first baseman Carlos Delgado, to free agency. Club officials identified three off-season priorities: finding a lefthanded power hitter, a frontline starting pitcher and a closer. They achieved the first, signing former Twins third baseman Corey Koskie to a three-year, $16.5 million deal, but lost out to the Red Sox for righthander Matt Clement and were priced out of the closer market.
Hinske, who'll move to first base to accommodate Koskie, finds himself in a make-or-break spot. "My last two years have been subpar," he says. "My second year I wasn't 100 percent, and last year a lot of times there were some confidence issues. I wasn't right with my swing, and I'd go up to the plate thinking about everything but actually hitting the ball."
Hinske's problems began early in 2003, when he suffered a broken hamate bone in his right hand. It went undiagnosed for several weeks, and the weakness in his bottom hand forced him to alter his stance, shifting two thirds of his weight to his back foot and drawing his hands in close, tight to his chest.
Though the bone healed last season, the swing endured, and Hinske became prone to chasing fastballs up. "He was chasing a lot of those," says Blue Jays hitting coach Mike Barnett, "because he wasn't confident that he could get there. You start speeding up your swing, you become vulnerable to the changeup away."
So this winter Barnett and Hinske spent a week together working on the infielder's swing. They implemented two changes: raising Hinske's hands from chest to ear level while extending them out slightly from his body, and distributing the player's weight evenly between his front foot and back. Hinske has a cleaner swing now and can better use his legs to drive balls. "I've got my swing feeling pretty good," he says. "I'm anxious to get the season going and just prove to everybody that I can do it."
Because it whiffed on adding a starter and a closer, Toronto has retooled its staff, moving righthander Miguel Batista to the bullpen and creating rotation spots for 25-year-old righthander Dave Bush and 24-year-old lefty Gustavo Chacin, who have 18 big league starts between them. The Blue Jays believe Batista can better focus while closing and will be able to emphasize his fastball and cutter, his best pitches.
The gap between the AL East's haves and have-nots has only widened, but Toronto remains hopeful, not least because its new owners, Rogers Communications, have authorized the team, whose payroll is $50 million this season, to spend a total of $210 million over the next three seasons. "We know what division we play in, and we're realistic," Ricciardi says, "but we're not wavering from our plan. In a rebuilding, everything doesn't go in a straight line, but if we had been healthy last season, we would be a .500 team. We've still got a good core, good minor leaguers and a little bit of money next year. We're as excited as we've been." --D.G.H.