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New faces give hope in Toronto

By Jeff Blair
October 23, 2002

Vernon Wells
Photo: Diamond Images
TORONTO–Vernon Wells looked up from his locker and smiled, the sound of the Blue Jays’ seventh straight win to end the year bouncing off the clubhouse walls.

"We’ve just come together a lot more this year," said Wells, the 23-year-old center fielder who became the youngest Jays player with 100 RBIs in a season. "When I came up here in the past, it just seemed like guys were all over the place. They weren’t talking to each other. That’s not the case now. Instead, we’re exchanging phone numbers and talking about keeping in touch with each other during the offseason."

Eric Hinske’s wire-to-wire pursuit of the American League’s rookie of the year award was the most obvious indication of the new tone set by general manager J.P. Ricciardi. But he was hardly the only young player to make an impact on a team that had the best record after the all-star game of any non-playoff AL team. Most other players who contributed were drafted and developed during the reign of Ricciar-di’s predecessor, Gord Ash–an interesting development in light of the wide-ranging changes Ricciardi has enacted throughout the organization, as well as the level of public criticism directed toward the Ash regime.

Wells, whose clubhouse status made him the team’s player representative, and Roy Halladay, the team’s all-star representative, will be the emotional core of the Blue Jays future. Manager Carlos Tosca already calls Halladay–who was 19-7, 2.93–"our franchise player." But in both cases, their success in 2002 was largely predictable. Not even the most avid Blue Jays fan could have expected the success of some of the other newcomers, in particular Josh Phelps, Orlando Hudson and Justin Miller.

Promoted after Ricciardi foisted Raul Mondesi’s contract on the Yankees, Phelps became the everyday DH and won AL rookie of the month awards in August and September. He’ll likely see more time as a catcher next spring. Hudson was sent down early in spring training after a slow start and came close to being traded at the trade deadline. But he shone offensively and defensively after his callup, and emerged from Triple-A Syracuse sounding and looking more reserved without losing any of his exuberance for the game. Despite first-inning woes that saw him give up 19 runs and 23 walks in the first innings of his 18 starts, Miller is expected to challenge for a starting spot next spring.

Ricciardi was hired to shake the organization out of a strange kind of mid-market stupor that at times seemed to leave the team without direction. He did that, paring a payroll that would have been in the mid-$80 million range to $64 million.

"This organization has always been known for having good players," Tosca said. "That’s looking from the outside in, having managed against this organization. The thing, I guess, that surprised me the most was the fact that they were able to come up here and perform the way they did as quickly as they did."

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