AL East Preview: Blue Jays

The last time the Blue Jays made the playoffs, Bill Clinton was in his first year as President. Theo Epstein was an undergrad at Yale. The information superhighway was still under construction. The Devil Rays and Diamondbacks weren't even in their gestation phase.

In other words, this year has been a long time coming for the Jays: Among American League teams that were in existence in 1994, only the Jays and Royals have failed to make the playoffs at least once in the subsequent 13 seasons. The glow of back-to-back world championships in 1992-93 wore off, turning the Sky Dome—once the preeminent stadium in North America—into a ghost town that lacked the coziness of a Camden Yards and making Toronto ownership reluctant to join the Red Sox and Yankees in pushing the payroll to nine figures.

But the Jays have increased spending under general manager J.P. Ricciardi: Homegrown ace Roy Halladay and centerfielder Vernon Wells are in the midst of lucrative long-term contracts and B.J. Ryan is the richest closer ($47 million over five years) in baseball history. The Jays' payroll was more than $81 million last season.

Most importantly, the Jays are loaded with affordable and promising pitchers. Halladay and A.J. Burnett, each of whom turn 31 this season, are the elder statesmen of a rotation that features three hurlers—Dustin McGowan, Shawn Marcum and Jesse Litsch—who aren't even arbitration-eligible yet.

None of the three youngsters began the season in the rotation, but they took advantage of opportunities afforded by injuries to Burnett and Gustavo Chacin to go 31-25 with a 4.03 ERA. McGowan, in particular, seems primed to emerge as an All-Star-caliber pitcher: The former first-round draft pick went 7-6 with a 3.67 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 98 innings in the second half.

Ryan made just five appearances last year due to an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. His recovery has been slow this spring, but Jeremy Accardo (30 saves and a 2.14 ERA) was a revelation in place of Ryan last year. Scott Downs (2.17 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 58 innings) blossomed into one of the top left-handed relievers in the game.

The Jays upgraded themselves at shortstop, where David Eckstein signed a one-year deal, and swapped injury-prone third basemen with the Cardinals when they acquired Scott Rolen in exchange for Troy Glaus. Rolen is already hurt—he broke a finger this week and is expected to miss at least the season's first month—but utilityman Marco Scutaro is an adequate fill-in.

If Wells (shoulder) and first baseman Lyle Overbay (broken hand) are over the injuries that hampered them throughout last season, the Jays will have an offense that can compete with the Sox and Yankees.

Health will be the key for the Jays, who don't have the depth of the Sox or Yankees. But only the Sox can match the Jays' staff from top to bottom. The guess here is the Jays get 200 innings out of three starters, bounce back seasons from Wells and Overbay and outlast the Yankees for the wild card and their first playoff berth in, well, a really long time.


Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752.

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