01/31/2003 10:11 pm ET
Blue Jays Spring Training preview
GM Ricciardi has Jays on the right track
By Spencer Fordin / MLB.com
Spring Training rundown
MLB Radio preview
Dunedin Stadium at Grant Field
TORONTO -- For the first time in a few seasons, people outside of Toronto are talking about the Blue Jays. Fueled by a prudent cost-cutting maneuver, the prevailing wisdom is that the team has emerged from the baseball wilderness. One year into general manager J.P. Ricciardi's reign, the Jays are streamlined and in trim fighting shape.
Ricciardi has facilitated a complete changing of the guard in the last 14 months. He has managed to rid the roster of overpaid veterans and populate it with a young and exciting nucleus. After five years on a virtual treadmill, the Blue Jays are finally on the upswing.
"Our payroll is going to be $52 million this year, which is about a $12 million cut from where we ended last year," Ricciardi recently told MLB Radio. "We've gotta be smart with our money, and we think we were. We think we're a better team going into Spring Training. Hopefully, we'll stay healthy."
Even with the team's sudden metamorphosis, the expectations need to be tempered by reality. The Blue Jays are still playing in one of the most top-heavy divisions in baseball. Toronto has finished in third place for five straight seasons, and that probably won't change in 2003. The Yankees and Red Sox still rule the roost in the AL East, but the Jays seem to have established some separation from the Orioles and Devil Rays.
"The Yankees are in a whole different world. They're able to do some things that we're not going to be able to do," Ricciardi said. "We just try to go ahead and take care of our own business, try to make us the best possible club that we can be."
They've done so in novel fashion. The team's projected starting lineup has five players who are 26 or younger, and only two older than 30. Seven of the nine regulars have never played for another Major League team, a trend that echoes Minnesota's remarkable revival.
The Twins were at the bottom of baseball's standings for eight straight seasons, building their team back the hard way. In the last two years, though, they've been back in a big way. In 2002, sporting a roster that is more or less completely homegrown, Minnesota won the AL Central and advanced to the ALCS.
Nobody in Toronto is planning a parade just yet -- the goal for the 2003 season is modest indeed.
"Our goal, obviously, is to be over .500," Ricciardi said. "We'd like to build off what we did in the second half last year. We won 42 games in the second half -- it was really a tale of two halves for us.
"With Carlos Tosca having a half-year under his belt and being able to run Spring Training with his staff, we're going to be disappointed if we're not over .500 this year."
What has to happen for the Blue Jays to attain that level of success? Like every team in baseball, they need a consistent effort from their starting rotation, among other things. The Jays have three established starters and three inexperienced pitchers vying for the last two spots. That situation has to be resolved during Spring Training, and it's undoubtedly the team's weak point at this early stage.
Another important factor will be the continued maturation of the young position players. Three regulars -- Josh Phelps, Orlando Hudson and Chris Woodward -- will be playing their first full season as starters.
Three others -- Eric Hinske, Vernon Wells and Frank Catalanotto -- have just one year of full-time experience. Hinske, last year's AL Rookie of the Year, and Wells have flashed enough potential to be regarded as future All-Stars. Wells, just 24 years old, is a five-tool player who may eventually be one of the best all-around players in the game.
"We feel the only thing holding Vernon back from being a complete superstar in this league is his ability to work the count," Ricciardi said. "He's like any young hitter -- they get excited when they see a pitch they like."
Last year, Wells got excited often enough to drive in 100 runs, and he became the youngest player in franchise history to achieve that feat. What will he do for an encore? That's a question that will be answered over the long haul of the regular season.
That's just one thing to watch for, one reason why the Blue Jays will be an intriguing team in 2003. People in Toronto can count several others, and the rest of the baseball world is beginning to take notice.
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.