What’s old is new again.
When the Toronto Blue Jays open the season on April 5 against the Detroit Tigers, their starting lineup will feature a Blue Jay living legend. After three years in purgatory with the Baltimore Orioles, Pat Hentgen is ready to regain his form. In the 1990s, when he first donned the blue, white and bird, he took home the team’s first Cy Young Award as the American League’s best pitcher. This time around, thanks to the team’s sparkling redesign, the Blue Jay on Hentgen’s uniform will be a much fiercer, more aerodynamic bird: blue and bold and silver-beaked.
Reigning Cy Young-winner Roy Halladay, Hentgen and a few other incoming arms form the nucleus of the Jays’ starting staff. Miguel Batista and Ted Lilly may not be household names yet, but with the leadership of Hentgen—who was around when the Jays last won the pennant—along with Terry Adams and Kerry Ligtenberg, a veteran pick-up from the Atlanta Braves, the team should remain solid in the AL arms race.
General Manager J.P. Ricciardi, formerly of the Oakland Athletics, has taken a page out of the book— literally—of his old boss, Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s and the subject of Michael Lewis’s bestselling book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Beane, a phenom as a college player but a bust as a major leaguer, believes that common sense should rule a baseball team. Beane has become known as a talent hawk, swooping down and hooking his talons into players other teams have deemed worthless because all they can do is hit and catch. Many teams have left exposed a fat player with a big bat because he doesn’t look good in a uniform only to find him the next season, uniform buttons ready to burst, in Oakland’s starting lineup.
Pat Hentgen isn’t fat, and at 35 (and another year beyond his Tommy John surgery), he still has a few good years left in him.
Ricciardi has designed this team upon a winning formula. The Jays—more than 10 years since they made the playoffs—finally seem primed again to challenge for the AL crown. But with the New York Yankees having purchased most of baseball’s top talent, it won’t be easy.
Carlos Delgado could (some say should) have won Most Valuable Player honours last season, but lost out to Alex Rodriguez—better known as A-Rod. Delgado has more than filled the shoes of a long list of Blue Jays first base greats such as Willie Upshaw and John Olerud. When his career is over, pundits may look back on him as the best player ever to put on a Jays’ uniform, an d certainly the best first baseman to do so. Yes, Roger Clemens won two Cy Young awards as a Blue Jay, and yes, Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield are Hall of Famers, but few players outside of Joe Carter have played each and every season as a Blue Jay. Watch for Delgado to improve upon last season’s totals and finally gain his due as the American League’s best player. Josh Phelps, the team’s low-cost, high-return designated hitter, might push Delgado for some starts at first base, but the job is Delgado’s and should be until he is ready to retire.
Eric Hinske, last season entrenched in a sophomore slump, should exceed the numbers he put up as the 2002 Rookie of the Year. Ricciardi stole Hinske from Beane, giving the Jays their first hot corner presence since Kelly Gruber.
Greg Myers had a Moneyball season in 2003, knocking in 52 runs and hitting over .300. But as a 38-year-old catcher he’s an antique, and he’s already indicated that this will be his last season. Myers and all-field, no-hit Kevin Cash will keep the home fires burning until blue-chipper Guillermo Quiroz finally arrives. At second base, the duo of Orlando Hudson and Dave Berg won’t frighten anyone, but, along with shortstop Chris Woodward and free agent acquisition Chris Gomez, they should maintain steady defensive play and provide reliable bats in the bottom third of the order.
Vernon Wells, who last year busted out with 33 home runs and 117 RBI, is the centrepiece of a makeshift outfield. Frank Catalanotto in left and Reed Johnson in right might not be on anyone’s fantasy team, but with platoon support from Jayson Werth and Alexis Rios, they should produce respectable numbers.
Ricciardi stole Lilly and Batista from the A’s and Arizona Diamondbacks, respectively, giving the team two solid number-two starters behind Halladay. Josh Towers, who last year picked up eight wins and walked only seven batters, rounds out what will be one of the most underrated starting staffs in the league.
The team will win or lose games because of its bullpen, and right now, with a roster of castaways and greenhorns, it’s too early to tell how they will fare. Given Ricciardi’s ability to pilfer players from other teams’ rosters, the no-name pen of Ligtenberg, Adams, Justin Speier (son of A’s bench coach Chris Speier), Valerio De Los Santos, and Aquilino Lopez should eat up enough innings to allow the starting staff to take the winnable games. No pitcher stands out at this point as the team’s closer, though Ligtenberg might get the nod, given his experience as the Braves stopper. Any team would rather have Eric Gagne, the Canadian boy who won last year’s National League Cy Young, as its closer, but Moneyball proves that a team doesn’t need a dedicated closer to dominate for one inning every other game to win a title.
With so many players on this team fighting for a starting role, no one can afford to dog it, or they’ll find themselves on the first bus back to minor-league Syracuse. Gone are the days when top prospects were handed a position and played there until the fans stopped lining up for autographs. Today, if a player isn’t performing, he’s out. This team is low on ego and high on productivity. When October rolls around and the rest of the league has headed to Florida to dust off the golf clubs, the Blue Jays, scratching out runs and wins and delighting fans, might just find themselves once again on the field under the bright lights of the Fall Classic.—Jim Gifford