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Spring Training 2004

Budget limitations don't seem to slow down Blue Jays

Toronto has trimmed the payroll but upgraded its rotation as it tries to keep up with the free spenders in the American League East.

By GREG AUMAN
Published March 4, 2004

DUNEDIN - In a division that is home to baseball's biggest spenders, the Blue Jays have spent the past two seasons going in the opposite direction of the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles.

Not in the standings, but rather in the checkbook. The Yankees' payroll now tops $180-million, the Red Sox also clearing nine figures, and the Orioles spent big to bring in free agents Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez.

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, have trimmed their payroll from a projected $88-million when J.P. Ricciardi became general manager in 2002 to a svelte $50-million for this season. And despite those cuts, last year's Jays finished 86-76, eight games better than a year earlier.

"This is probably going to sound foolish, but we don't really pay attention to what the Red Sox and Yankees do," Ricciardi said. "We pay attention to addressing the things we need to do, and we think we have a better club than last year."

So while the Yankees can trot out Alex Rodriguez and Javier Vazquez, while the Red Sox upgraded with Curt Schilling, Toronto made frugal but key additions in starting pitchers Miguel Batista, Pat Hentgen and Ted Lilly.

"The biggest weakness we've had since we've been here was pitching," said Ricciardi, who also locked up staff ace and AL Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay with a four-year, $42-million deal. "We wanted to get more of a defined rotation, and we think we've done that. We wanted to make our bullpen more secure, and we've got some guys we trust a bit more."

The bullpen will be mostly new, with free agents Kerry Ligtenberg, Justin Speier and Terry Adams competing for the closer's role. The batting order is impressive and young, led by 25-year-old centerfielder Vernon Wells, who led the majors with 215 hits and had 33 home runs and 117 RBIs in his second full season.

Another five projected starters - third baseman Eric Hinske, designated hitter Josh Phelps, second baseman Orlando Hudson, shortstop Chris Woodward and outfielder Reed Johnson - are 27 or younger. Anchoring the lineup as the cleanup hitter is first baseman Carlos Delgado, a Toronto fixture for the past decade who had a career-best 145 RBIs and led the team with 42 home runs, marking his seventh season in a row with 30 or more.

Halladay, who will turn 27 in May, has gone 41-14 with a 3.10 ERA in the past two seasons. His nine complete games led the league last season and an early-summer swoon that saw him win 15 consecutive decisions was the second-longest unbeaten streak in AL history. His presence alone would make the Jays dangerous in the postseason, but getting there means getting past the Yankees or Red Sox, who many have penciled in for playoff spots.

The AL East, for all its comings and goings, has been a division whose standings have been standing with consistency unprecedented in baseball history, with an identical finish - New York, Boston, Toronto, Baltimore and Tampa Bay - for the past six seasons.

The Jays might not be able to match their rivals' spending, but the wins and losses look to be a closer contest.

"We'd like to be better than the year before, and every year if we can do that, it's all we can ask at this point," Ricciardi said.

"Hopefully, we're good enough that when that little break happens, we can take advantage of that opportunity."

[Last modified March 4, 2004, 01:15:01]


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