|Blue Jays must avoid more injuries to challenge Red Sox, Yankees in AL East|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 28 March 2008 08:03|
Thirteen different Blue Jays made 16 trips to the disabled list in 2007, combining to miss 951 games and consigning Toronto to another third-place finish behind AL East powerhouses Boston and New York.
The Blue Jays haven't been to the playoffs since winning their second consecutive World Series title in 1993. Now in his seventh season as GM, Ricciardi said staying healthy is ``imperative'' if Toronto is to return to the postseason.
``We feel like we had a good club the last two years and, with the injury factor, obviously we couldn't do certain things we wanted to do,'' Ricciardi said. ``There's things we can't control, obviously health is one, and that's the most important thing.''
It's already been a trying spring for Ricciardi on the injury front. Promising reliever Casey Janssen was lost for the season to a torn labrum, new third baseman Scott Rolen is out for at least a month with a broken finger, and closer B.J. Ryan is struggling to recover from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow last April.
``When you lose quality, front-line people, I don't care who you are, you're not going to be as good as you hoped to be,'' Ricciardi said. ``Health is definitely the No. 1 thing we need.''
The string of injuries last season forced Toronto to turn to some untested arms, and the results were positive. Right-handed starters Jesse Litsch, Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan combined to win 31 games, while Jeremy Accardo stepped in for Ryan and racked up 30 saves. All four will be counted on again in 2008, but Ricciardi knows better than to expect too much.
``You can't sit here and say that they're going to be exactly what you thought they were the year before,'' Ricciardi said. ``They're still trying to get to where they want and be consistent. We hope they continue to grow, but history tells you that most of the time they level off or go backward a little bit. We have to be prepared for that.''
Roy Halladay (16-7, 3.71 ERA) and A.J. Burnett (10-8, 3.75) will anchor the front end of the rotation, while right-handers Brandon League and Accardo could be formidable setup tandem for Ryan once he returns, possibly before the end of April.
A lingering shoulder injury limited center fielder Vernon Wells to 16 homers and 80 RBIs in 2007. After offseason surgery, he'll try to make good on the $126 million, seven-year contract he signed the previous winter. Also on the comeback trail is first baseman Lyle Overbay, who never rediscovered his swing after breaking his hand when he was hit by a pitch last June.
The rest of the right side is covered by emerging stars Alex Rios in right field and Aaron Hill at second base. Rios, closing in on a six-year contract extension that would guarantee him $65 million, batted .297 and set career highs with 24 home runs and 85 RBIs in 2007. Hill is also talking long-term deal after setting career highs with 17 home runs, 78 RBIs and 47 doubles.
Matt Stairs and Shannon Stewart will platoon in left field, while former St. Louis teammates Rolen and shortstop David Eckstein bring World Series experience to the infield. Ricciardi affectionately refers to both as ``dirt bags'' in praising their hustle and leadership.
``Those guys have only helped add to what we're trying to do here,'' he said. ``They've been a big addition.''
After going 10-for-29 (.345) in the spring, Rolen broke the middle finger on his right hand and had the nail torn off during a fielding drill last Sunday, then had surgery the next day. Offseason acquisition Marco Scutaro will hold down third base until Rolen is ready to return.
Holdover Gregg Zaun will split time with newcomer Rod Barajas behind the plate, while the Blue Jays hope 39-year-old designated hitter Frank Thomas can duplicate or improve on the 26-homer, 95-RBI season he posted in 2007.
While he won't make any predictions, Ricciardi is ``cautiously optimistic'' about Toronto's chances, with one important caveat.
``I like what we've got going on here,'' he said. ``I'd like to be able to stay healthy, that's all.''