DUNEDIN, Fla. – Following the 10-day span in which J.P. Ricciardi spent more than $100 million of the Toronto Blue Jays' money on two pitchers, his whimsy came under pointed attack. Ricciardi was, among many other accusations, reckless, stupid, dangerous and, perhaps worst of all, wrong.
Reckless? Yeah, maybe a little. Stupid? Not really. Dangerous? Look at the market these days. And wrong?
Well, that's the muddiest part of giving B.J. Ryan the richest deal for a closer at the time, $47 million over five years, and following with a five-year, $55 million contract for A.J. Burnett before the 2006 season. When healthy, Ryan is among the five best at his job, and Burnett harnesses the greatest pair of pitches this side of Johan Santana. Problem is, the A.J. and B.J. Show never has played for a full season, and until it does, the Blue Jays will be more garter snake than python.
At Toronto camp, the optimism is guarded. Ryan, coming off Tommy John surgery, is throwing and could be ready by Opening Day, a couple weeks into the season at the latest. Burnett is trying to add a sinking fastball and improved changeup to his 99-mph fastball and head-shaking curveball, and with the ability to opt out of his contract after this season – the year before he signed with Toronto, no coincidence, he made a career-high 32 starts – motivation had seemed to accompany a so-far clean bill of health.
Until Sunday, at least, when the Blue Jays revealed Burnett hasn't been able to throw his curveball because of a mangled fingernail due to an accident with a pesky car door.
"We've got a good club," Ricciardi said. "We've had winning seasons both years they've been here. Having those guys healthy, though? We could have a great club."
Ricciardi hopped from station to station last week, pulling aside hitters and pitchers for quick chats. He is a hands-on GM, going through two managers before settling with John Gibbons for the last three seasons and overhauling the pitching staff to fill it with Roy Halladay and a parade of young arms.
Two of those, starters Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum, were revelations last season. Jeremy Accardo and Casey Janssen dominated in relief roles. All are 26 and under control for at least three more seasons.
Right fielder Alex Rios and second baseman Aaron Hill blossomed into potential stars, and Ricciardi this offseason signed David Eckstein and traded for Scott Rolen to shore up the left side of the infield. Presuming Vernon Wells bounces back from his career-worst season, the Blue Jays should score runs. Not at the Red Sox-Yankees level but enough to support what could be among the American League's top pitching staffs, if not the best.
It could be, depending on Ryan's left arm and Burnett's right. If Ryan can find his arm slot – he's struggling to rediscover the potent three-quarters delivery from which the ball explodes on hitters – that helps. If Burnett can make 30 starts – pitching coach Brad Arnsberg said he wants to keep Burnett's pitch count down to save him from wear and tear – that makes the Blue Jays legitimate contenders.
"When I signed here, I didn't do it with the idea that we'd finish in third every season," Ryan said. "I don't ever think about things like, 'What if we were in another division?' I want to win this one."
A few minutes later, he meandered onto one of Toronto's practice fields. The Blue Jays' young relievers stood around him in a half-moon as he told jokes. They flock to Ryan for advice, help, anything. He gives it.
Burnett, about 50 feet away, stood alone. He stared into the distance. He long has had the reputation of being aloof and a loner. He got $55 million on projection and has underachieved throughout his nine-year career.
"Hard to find anybody with better stuff," catcher Sal Fasano said. "Hard to find anybody who could be better."
Again, they could. It defines the Blue Jays.
They could validate Ricciardi's moves. They could get him fired.
They could unseat Boston and New York. They could fall behind Tampa Bay.
Burnett could have another monster contract year. He could implode and choose instead to take the guaranteed $24 million over the last two years.
Ryan could compete for a Cy Young. His elbow could give out.
"Listen, we've liked our teams the past few years," Ricciardi said. "We've been scarred. We know what injuries can do and how it can happen and how it can disrupt things.
"Today, everybody's good."
They could be great.