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Top Ten Prospects: Toronto Blue Jays
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By Matt Eddy
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2006.
The Blue Jays recovered from an abominable, injury-marred 2004 to win 80 games and reclaim third place in the American League East in 2005. They hung around the fringes of the wild-card race late into the season, even after losing ace Roy Halladay to a broken left tibia.
Coming on the heels of a 94-loss season, an 80-82 season had to be considered progress. But Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi acknowledged his club was still a few pieces short of contending with the tantalizingly fallible Red Sox and Yankees. “If we bring the whole team back with Halladay healthy we win 85, 87 games,” Ricciardi said. “It’s our goal to be better than that.”
That’s just what Ricciardi and the Blue Jays set out to do in the offseason. They identified their biggest needs as two additional hitters and a No. 2 starter. Buoyed by its purchase of SkyDome and the stronger showing of the Canadian dollar, the club’s owner, Rogers Communications, had budgeted $210 million for the big league payroll over the next three seasons. That’s a big step up from the 2005 payroll of $45.7 million, the sixth-lowest in baseball.
Ricciardi didn’t hesitate to spend the extra money. He gave out the two biggest contracts to free-agent pitchers, doling out $55 million to A.J. Burnett and $47 million to B.J. Ryan in five-year deals. Ricciardi also moved to bolster the offense by trading past first-round picks Gabe Gross and Zach Jackson, along with David Bush, to get Lyle Overbay from the Brewers.
Ricciardi had to look outside the organization for answers because while his farm system has some depth, it offers precious little frontline talent. But in an encouraging sign, more young players contributed to the Blue Jays in 2005 than at any point in Ricciardi’s four-year tenure. Russ Adams, Aaron Hill and Alex Rios established themselves as regulars in the lineup. Gustavo Chacin made 34 starts, a club record for rookies, and finished fifth in AL rookie-of-the-year balloting. No. 1 prospect Dustin McGowan, just 14 months recovered from Tommy John surgery, was thrust into the rotation in August.
On the farm, Toronto’s six affiliates finished with an aggregate winning record for the third straight season, and two teams—high Class A Dunedin and short-season Auburn—made the playoffs. The Blue Jays have shifted their focus in four years under Ricciardi, seeking mature college players capable of climbing the ladder quickly. Toronto also has been more active on the international market of late, signing big-ticket Taiwanese pitchers Chi-Hung Cheng ($400,000) and Po-Hsuan Keng ($225,000) in November 2003, and power-hitting Dominican third baseman Leance Soto for $600,000 last spring.
The Blue Jays can’t expect to find everything they’re shopping for on the free-agent market, and they’re prepared to trade prospects as needed. It’s no longer about development with the Blue Jays. It’s time to win, and they are betting 2005 was a sign of better things to come.
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