For seven of the last eight seasons, the Toronto Blue Jays have wound up in third place in the AL East, looking up at the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Judging by their offseason, the Jays appear serious about trying to change that order of finish in 2006.
After an 80-82 finish last season, Toronto ownership gave general manager J.P. Ricciardi a $30 million payroll increase to $75 million. Ricciardi responded by signing a top closer in B.J. Ryan from Baltimore and right-handed starter A.J. Burnett from Florida, then added slugging third baseman Troy Glaus from Arizona and first baseman Lyle Overbay from Milwaukee in trades.
“In our division, $50 million is unrealistic to think you can win. I don’t think $75 million means you’re guaranteed to win either,” Ricciardi said. “Just because you spend money doesn’t mean you’re good. I don’t think spending is the answer, but it narrows the gap a little bit.”
Ryan, who got a five-year, $47 million deal, had 36 saves and has been tested against the powerful lineups of the AL East. Burnett is a bigger question mark, having gone 0-6 in his final seven starts before being banished from the team in the final week after criticizing manager Jack McKeon and his coaching staff.
The right-hander starts the season on the 15-day disabled list with soreness in his right elbow. When he returns, he will join what could be a formidable starting staff that includes 2003 Cy Young winner Halladay, Gustavo Chacin, Ted Lilly and Josh Towers, all of whom reached double digits in wins last season.
Halladay’s health may be the biggest key for the Blue Jays. The right-hander missed the second half of 2005 with a broken leg, and was out for more than two months in 2004 with a tired shoulder.
Halladay, 12-4 with a 2.41 ERA last season before getting hurt, is 4-0 with a 2.17 ERA in his career against the Twins. He’ll be making his fourth straight opening day start.
Glaus had 37 homers and 97 RBI last season, while Overbay had 19 homers and 72 RBI.
Santana, who won the Cy Young in 2004, will end a Twins streak of seven straight opening day starts by right-hander Brad Radke, who will take the ball Wednesday.
Santana was 16-7 last season, led the AL with 238 strikeouts and pitched a career-high 231 2-3 innings, but had a 6.57 ERA in two starts against Toronto, going 1-1. The left-hander is 2-2 with a 3.82 ERA in eight games, including five starts, against the Jays.
Minnesota’s run of three straight AL Central titles ended last season when it finished third with an 83-79 record. For the Twins to challenge again, they will need significant improvement from a lineup that batted .259—the team’s worst average since 1982—and ranked last in the league with 688 runs.
Part of the reason for the offensive dropoff was the loss of center fielder Torii Hunter in late July to a broken ankle that ended his season.
“I think that we can compete,” said Hunter, who batted .269 with 14 homers and 56 RBI in 98 games last year. “I don’t know if we’re going to win the whole thing, but I think we can make a lot of teams gulp.
“It’s very frustrating, because everybody knows it’s not (general manager) Terry Ryan’s fault. Terry Ryan is doing a great job for the budget that he has.”
While the division rival Chicago White Sox strengthened their lineup by acquiring designated hitter Jim Thome and re-signing first baseman Paul Konerko, Ryan brought in second baseman Luis Castillo, third baseman Tony Batista and designated hitter Rondell White in hopes of sparking the offense.
Minnesota won four of six meetings with Toronto last season, and has won 10 of the last 12 in Toronto.