New additions put Jays back on radar

DUNEDIN, Fla. - These are heady days in the training camp of the Toronto Blue Jays with the kind of "yes we can" atmosphere that has not been felt here in more than a decade. Or more precisely since Joe Carter's home run off Mitch Williams clinched the 1993 World Series over the Phillies for the Blue Jays' second straight world championship.
The Blue Jays, who had defeated the Braves in the '92 World Series and became the first franchise in major league history to draw over four million fans, never got a chance for a three-peat (accomplished by only two teams in the modern era of postseason play) when the '94 season came to a screeching, doomsday halt with the players' strike that resulted in the canceling of the World Series for the first time.
Since then, baseball has never been the same in Toronto. In '95, the Blue Jays slipped under. 500 and attendance plummeted to 2.8 million. It continued to decline precipitously until reaching a low of 1.6 million in '02. During this 12-year dark period, the Blue Jays have undergone two ownership changes while Pat Gillick, the GM/architect of the 1992-93 potential dynasty, left in '94 and went on to build playoff teams in Baltimore and Seattle.
But in September of 2000, communications tycoon Ted Rogers bought the team from Interbrew, and began a new feeling of optimism for baseball in Toronto. For one thing, Rogers was local and he also removed one of the biggest impediments to the success of the baseball operation by purchasing the Skydome and going from tenant to landlord, recouping all the accompanying revenue. Then in November of 2001, the Jays hired 42-year-old Worcester, Mass. product J.P. Ricciardi, assistant to Billy Beane in Oakland, and gave him a free hand to overhaul the organization. It is precisely what Ricciardi has done, culminating this winter with a $150 million free-agent spending spree that netted righthanded starter A.J. Burnett, lefty closer B.J. Ryan and catcher Bengie Molina, and two major trades that landed third baseman Troy Glaus from Arizona and first baseman Lyle Overbay from the Brewers; the two combined for 56 homers and 169 RBI last year.
Before getting Rogers' go-ahead to increase the payroll from $53 million to the projected $76 million this year, Ricciardi had been carefully building a young nucleus around the Jays' two signature players, righty Roy Halladay and center fielder Vernon Wells, both from within (second baseman Aaron Hill, shortstop Russ Adams, right fielder Alex Rios and lefty starter Gustavo Chacin are also products of the system) and through under-the-radar trades and waiver claims that brought in pitchers Josh Towers, Jason Frasor, Justin Speier, 3B/DH Shea Hillenbrand and left fielder Frank Catalanotto. With the winter windfall, the Blue Jays have indeed made a bold statement: They're ready to play with the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East.
"I understand there are big expectations," said ex-Met John Gibbons, the fifth man to manage the Blue Jays since '93. "I've told my players expectations are good, but we've got to block all that out and just play our game. Yes, we're a better team, but the Yankees are stronger too. They are a lot of new faces here and when that happens sometimes it takes a little while to play together. That's my job - to get this team to play together."
"I just know I came here to win a championship," said Burnett, who despite having been a career .500 pitcher, got a monster $55 million, five-year contract as the projected No. 2 starter behind Halladay. "I look at (criticism that he only came to Toronto because of the money) as motivation. They made a big investment in me and I want to show they didn't make a mistake and all the other teams did."
Ricciardi understands the expectations as well. His player evaluation expertise is on the line here. Neither Burnett (who was hurt during Florida's 2003 world championship postseason) nor Ryan has faced real pennant-race pressure, while Glaus has about $30 million left on his contract through '08.
"Now is the fun part," Ricciardi said. "We've done all the hiring of scouts, replenished the farm system and gotten rid of the bad contracts (Raul Mondesi) we inherited and now it's all about baseball. For four years here we've had to bite the bullet, play hard and over-achieve. If we didn't make the financial commitment we did this winter, how could I have faced Halladay and Wells? I wouldn't have done my job. Most of the players are under 30 here with 3-5 years experience and I can appreciate seeing four first-round draft picks (Wells, Rios, Adams and Hill) out there."
Crunching the numbers
Last week was the deadline for clubs coming to contract terms with non-arbitration-eligible players with three or less years of service time, some of whom (like David Wright) were simply renewed at a salary determined by the team. It is all fairly routine with both sides understanding the player has no leverage. Nevertheless, the Wall Street Whiz Kids who now run the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (under the premise of re-inventing the game), have managed to turn this process into an exercise more complicated than nuclear physics or a major corporation's income tax return. It seems the D-Rays want to be sure these 1-3 players get paid what they're due, down to the last penny. So they've come up with what they term a performance formula which, for hitters, is calculated thusly: Hits plus walks plus hit-by-pitches minus caught stealing, times total bases, plus 0.55, times stolen bases, divided by at-bats, plus walks plus hit-by-pitches, minus 0.105, times at-bats. Don't ask where the 0.55 and the 0.105 figures come from because the combining of the performance award with the salary calculation is even more mind-wrenching. Said one baseball official after reviewing the five-page D-Ray salary structure memorandum: "Whoever came up with this must be a person who uses nothing but the metric system, measures degrees in Celsius, can tell you exactly how many bricks it took to build Tropicana Field, and knows nothing about baseball." To that, we can only add the words of the Aflac duck: "Huh?"
It's A Madd, Madd World…

The major league umpires were caught by surprise last week when MLB announced it was terminating negotiations with them over working the WBC and instead giving the jobs to minor league umpires. They might be even more surprised to learn that MLB had agreed to their primary demand - the re-hiring of umpires Bob Davidson, Tom Hallion and Ed Hickox at the same salary level they'd been at when they took part in the ill-fated mass resignation back in 1999. The only condition was that the three could not be re-instated into the pension plan until three of the present 60 umpires retired. Apparently, umpires union chief John Hirschbeck told MLB he had to have more, but never informed the rank and file about the offer. Said one ump: "That was something we'd have definitely approved. Helping (Davidson, Hallion and Hickox) would have been a wonderful gesture on our part."

It's usually impossible to side with the Devil Rays in a penny-pinching issue, but in the case of Gerald Williams, enough is enough. Seems the players union has filed a grievance over the D-Rays' June 2001 release of Williams when he needed 66 more plate appearances for a $4 million '02 option to vest. Unfair? The guy was hitting .207 at the time with 17 RBI in 59 games. If that isn't grounds for being released, then what is?