Pop quiz hot shot: Who were the top two teams in the AL East last year?
If you thought the Yankees and the Red Sox, you were right for most of the season, but the Blue Jays finished a game ahead of them, ten games behind the Yankees. This year, they find themselves that far out in May. What happened?
The easy answer is injuries. Stud closer BJ Ryan blew a couple of saves before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Slugger Troy Glaus has had a DL stint and there’s been talk of him having another. Leadoff hitter Reed Johnson sat out a game with a sore back in April. Turns out it was a herniated disk that required surgery, and he’ll be out until sometime in June. Starting catcher Greg Zaun caught a foul tip off his hand, which has kept him out for a month, and likely will be out a few more weeks. But the “When It Rains, It Pours” Award goes to ace pitcher Roy Halladay, who is out until at least next week after an emergency appendectomy.
But the other reason is something that Twins fans can relate to a really weak back of the rotation, seemingly by design. The Blue Jays don’t have a single starter outside of Halladay and AJ Burnett who has more than two quality starts. General Manager JP Riccardi clearly subscribes to the sabremetric principle that it’s OK to overpay for excellence, but mediocrity should be nabbed on the cheap. Unfortunately, that’ means his starting rotation consists of two ribeyes (who are making $22.5 million combined this year) and a lot of ground chuck.
Maybe more disturbing is that the ten games back they finished last year is as close as they’ve finished to the AL East division leader since Riccardi became GM in 2002. He received a contract extension (through 2010) before their spending spree last year, and he clearly has some strengths. He’s been pretty good about finding average performers at below-average prices, which explains all the fifth starters in the rotations. He’s been active in juggling his roster for deals, acquiring Glaus last year, and dumping Corey Koskie. And the enormous contracts that he’s awarded free agents have mostly been to young and talented players (Ryan, Burnett) who have a decent chance at earning that money (if they could only stay healthy).
And yet the high water mark is ten games back? Part of that is the division, but they’ve also had some money to toss around, as demonstrated by the ridiculous contract he gave to Koskie a couple of years ago and the $18 million he threw at 38-year-old Frank Thomas this winter. But what seems to have really hurt the Blue Jays is that they haven’t added any high-impact players into their farm system under Riccardi’s watch. That continued this year as their best prospect, 23-year-old outfielder Adam Lind, was called up in mid-April and has struggled, including being reduced to a bench player over the last week. But as you look at both sides of the ledger, you can’t help but wonder why exactly this team hasn’t been truly competitive in a half-dozen years.
The answer seems to be broader than this team, and the answer seems to be that getting to the playoffs in Major League Baseball isn’t as easy as it is in hockey or basketball or football, where about half the teams get in. To make the postseason in baseball, and awful lot has to go right at the same time, and the margin of error can be even smaller in a competitive division like the AL East. That’s a reality that Twins fans should know all too well after the years of suffering in the 90s, but we may have forgotten more recently.