CHASING THE RedSox and the Yankees every year, the Blue Jays operate with a fingernail'smargin for error, which would make the off-season injury to starter A. J.Burnett particularly ominous. Burnett ripped the fingernail off his right indexfinger when, the club says, he closed a car door on it. The injury preventedBurnett from throwing his curveball for the first month of camp while hevisited what pitching coach Brad Arnsberg called a "nail specialist."Just when you thought Burnett, 31, had seen every specialist possible over hisinjury-plagued 69-66 career--he's missed 59 starts over the past five years--headded a new one: manicurist.
So it goes forthe nearly good, nearly healthy Blue Jays, the team with the most wins in thewild-card era without making the postseason--they've won between 83 and 88games six times in the past 10 years. Last season Toronto had the second-bestERA in the American League, received a combined 56 starts from Burnett and aceRoy Halladay, saw rightfielder Alex Rios continue to blossom into a star, andwas still a nonfactor in the uncompromising AL East. This year, the Blue Jaysjust might have the division's deepest pitching staff, yet they'll still needBoston or New York to falter for a playoff door to open.
"I don'tthink so," retorts centerfielder Vernon Wells, when asked about needingoutside help. "We're good enough to beat anybody. The key is to beconsistent. New York and Boston are not our problem. We play them well [37-36over the past two years]. We have to play consistent baseball against everybodyelse."
Toronto may havethe pieces to put up around 95 wins under the best of circumstances, but toomany Blue Jays come with disclaimers tied to age and injury. No player betterrepresents Toronto's predicament than Scott Rolen, who in a swap of thirdbasemen, was obtained from St. Louis in January for Troy Glaus. "Takingnothing away from Troy," general manager J.P. Ricciardi says, "butScotty is a different kind of player. His motor is going all the time at a highspeed. Guys feed off his energy. It's like adding [New England Patriotswideout] Wes Welker to your team."
Still, Rolen, oneof five Blue Jays' regulars who will be at least 33 by season's end, has missed176 games in the past three years and showed little power last season becauseof an injured left shoulder that restricted his swing. And though he reportedthat his shoulder felt as good as new in camp, he still can't shake thosenagging injuries; on Sunday, he broke a knuckle on his right middle finger.
Rolen wasnonetheless happier in camp, his gusto enhanced by his escape from TonyLa¬†Russa, with whom he had a nasty, public two-year feud. Says Rolen,"All I'll say is we're two very different people with two very differentsets of morals. I never had a problem with St. Louis. I would have been happyto finish my career there. It was just one person. Now I've got the fresheststart you could imagine. New team, new league, new country."
If Torontoeventually gets a healthy Rolen, if a well-manicured Burnett can make all ofhis starts for only the second time in his career . . . well, the Blue Jaysreally will look like a new team.
CONSIDER THIS amodest proposal . . .
On occasion in2003 and '04 the Blue Jays used righthander Roy Halladay (left) on three days'rest, and the results were outstanding: In four starts he was 4-0 with a1.50¬†ERA. Toronto should consider a more aggressive version of thatexperiment in 2008, running Halladay out every fourth game over an entireseason--with off days on the schedule sometimes providing him an extra day ofrest. Manager John Gibbons would then shuffle the rest of the rotation aroundHalladay to get the 2003 AL Cy Young winner 40 starts. Halladay is among thebest-equipped pitchers in baseball to work at this pace because of hisefficiency: He required only 14.8¬†pitches per inning last season. If hemaintained that rate, Halladay could make it through seven innings with anaverage pitch count of only 103.
Ground balls toevery fly ball hit last season by Alex Rios, the third straight season hispercentage of ground balls has declined. Not coincidentally, Rios's home runshave increased in each of his four big league seasons, from one in 426at¬†bats in 2004, when his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio was a ridiculous2.42¬†to¬†1, to 24 in '07. He also hit 43¬†doubles last year, 10more than his previous best.
OF B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB R 268 .290 12 48 11 ROTATION PITCHER PVR W L K/9 WHIP ERA RH Roy Halladay 17 16 7 5.6 1.24 3.71 RH A.J. Burnett 47 10 8 9.6 1.19 3.75 RH Dustin McGowan 35 12 10 7.6 1.22 4.08 RH Shaun Marcum 66 12 6 6.9 1.25 4.13 RH Jesse Litsch 102 7 9 4.1 1.37 3.81 BULLPEN PITCHER PVR W SV K/9 WHIP ERA LH B.J. Ryan 90 0 3 6.2 2.54 12.46 RH Jeremy Accardo 69 4 30 7.6 1.11 2.14 RH Brandon League 234 0 0 5.4 2.23 6.17
New acquisition B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plushits per inning pitched
PVR: Player ValueRanking (explanation on page 62)
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
NOV. 1, 1993
JOE CARTER always dreamed of hitting the home run towin the big game, of course. Who hasn't? But in 11 seasons in the big leagues,Carter had hit only one ninth-inning, game-winning home run, period: againstDan Quisenberry of Kansas City in a meaningless game, seven years ago. But now. . . now, he said, children will emulate his trip around the bases after hehit the come-from-behind home run to win the World Series.
Free access to all Blue Jays stories and photographsfrom the SI archive, plus video clips.
FREE BIRD Rolen got out from under La Russa, but the aging, intense third baseman hasn't escaped his injury history.
CHUCK SOLOMON (HALLADAY); JOHN IACONO (COVER)