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Tuesday, January 7, 2003
Updated: March 13, 5:48 PM ET
Toronto Blue Jays

By Kieran Darcy
ESPN The Magazine

The Numbers
2002 record:
78-84, .481 (tied for 17th overall)

Runs scored:
813, 7th in AL
Runs allowed:
828, 9th in AL
Run differential:
-15 (16th overall)

Starters' ERA:
5.01, 11th in AL
Bullpen ERA:
4.41, 9th in AL

Payroll (Opening Day):
$76.9 million (11th overall)
1.63 million (24th overall)

3-year record:
241-245, .496 (16th overall)

2002 in review
What went right?
Several young studs gave Toronto fans plenty to cheer about, and plenty of hope for the future. Third baseman Eric Hinske took AL Rookie of the Year honors after hitting .279 with 24 home runs -- making GM J.P. Ricciardi look like a genius for making the Billy Koch trade. Ace Roy Halladay won 19 games with an ERA under 3.00, leading the league in innings pitched. Center fielder Vernon Wells drove in 100 runs in his first full season. Josh Phelps began the season in Triple-A, but got called up and hit .309 with 15 homers and 58 RBI in 74 games, primarily as the designated hitter. Chris Woodward emerged as a legitimate starting shortstop with some pop at the plate, and Orlando Hudson looked promising at second base. Three rookie starting pitchers showed potential: Pete Walker (10-5), Justin Miller (9-5) and Mark Hendrickson (3-0). Left fielder Shannon Stewart hit over .300 for the fourth consecutive year. Carlos Delgado struggled early, but still finished with 33 homers and 108 RBI. And Carlos Tosca rallied the team after replacing Buck Martinez as manager.

What went wrong?
Despite some great strides, the Blue Jays still lost two more games than in 2001. Team attendance was the lowest in 20 years. Martinez was relieved as manager on June 3, after the team's 20-33 start. Toronto was last in the American League in on-base percentage and slugging percentage out of the right field spot, occupied by Raul Mondesi and Jose Cruz Jr. Mondesi hit just .224 before being shipped to the Yankees, and Cruz Jr. hit only .245. Felipe Lopez failed at shortstop, batting .227. Several pitchers struggled on the field and with injuries. Chris Carpenter, the Opening Day starter, had shoulder problems all season. Luke Prokopec finished 2-9, plagued by a bad elbow. Esteban Loaiza (9-10) and Steve Parris (5-5) started the year on the DL, and never had great success. Kelvim Escobar posted 38 saves, but with a 5-7 record and a 4.27 ERA. He blew eight saves, which tied him for the AL lead.

In retrospect, the critical decisions were:
1. Firing Martinez and replacing him with Tosca. Ricciardi waited only two months to remove Martinez, but it turned out to be a brilliant move. The team responded to Tosca's leadership, posting a 44-32 record after the All-Star break. Tosca was rewarded with a two-year contract extension.

2. Trading Mondesi. Ricciardi says this may have been the best thing Toronto did all year, even though the Jays are still paying some of his salary. Mondesi was killing clubhouse chemistry, especially after a nasty spat with the new manager. Phelps was called up from Triple-A the day after the trade, was immediately inserted into the lineup, and outperformed Mondesi by far the rest of the season.

Vernon Wells
Center fielder
Toronto Blue Jays
159 608 87 23 100 .275

3. Starting Wells in center field. Wells was finally given the full-time job, and responded by hitting .275 with 23 homers and 100 RBI. He would have rivaled Hinske for Rookie of the Year if he didn't already have so many big league at-bats. He can cover a lot of ground in the outfield. And at 24, he's a cornerstone of the team's future.

Looking ahead to 2003
Three key questions
1. Starting pitching, besides Halladay. Toronto acquired Cory Lidle from Oakland in November -- he immediately becomes the Jays' No. 2 starter and adds some much-needed experience to the rotation. Toronto also signed Tanyon Sturtze from Tampa Bay -- Sturtze was a dismal 4-18 for the Devil Rays last season, but he did pitch 224 innings. He should benefit from a more potent lineup backing him up. Last year's three rookies -- Walker, Miller and Hendrickson -- had some success, but can't be banked on.

2. Who's the closer? No one argues that Escobar has great stuff, but his blown saves and sky-high ERA have worn patience thin in Toronto. He also makes over $2 million a year. Cliff Politte, acquired from the Phillies for Dan Plesac last summer, pitched well and could replace Escobar in that role. He only makes $245,000 a year. Don't be surprised to see Escobar shipped elsewhere. The rest of the Toronto pen is somewhat shaky as well -- they've signed Doug Creek and Jeff Tam, but still don't have many proven relievers.

3. Can Carlos boost his batting average? Two years ago, Delgado was a Triple Crown threat, hitting .344 with 41 homers and 137 RBI. Over the last two seasons, he's averaging just .278. He'll be surrounded with more strength in the lineup this season -- if he can raise his average back over .300, that would help a lot.

Stats Corner
  • Carlos Delgado (above) hit 33 home runs in 2002, his lowest season-ending total since 1997.
  • Roy Halladay led the AL in innings pitched (239.1), tied for fourth in wins (19) and was fifth in ERA (2.93).
  • Eric Hinske's 24 homers were the most by an AL rookie since Nomar Garciaparra hit 30 for the Red Sox in 1997.
  • Pete Walker was 3-1 with a 3.24 ERA in five starts in September.
  • Can expect to play better
    Eric Hinske. The AL Rookie of the Year should improve in his second season. He got much better in the field over the course of last season, making only five errors over his final 97 games after booting 15 in his first 55. He's got an excellent work ethic, which should improve results at the plate, too.

    Can expect to play worse
    Pete Walker. Walker was a great story last season. After spending 11 seasons in the minors, he was claimed off waivers from the Mets on May 3. He joined the rotation May 28, and went 10-5 the rest of the way. He's a crafty 33-year-old, but it may be difficult to duplicate last season's success.

    Projected lineup
    LF Shannon Stewart
    3B Eric Hinske
    CF Vernon Wells
    1B Carlos Delgado
    DH Josh Phelps
    RF Frank Catalanotto
    SS Chris Woodward
    C Ken Huckaby/Tom Wilson
    2B Orlando Hudson

    Roy Halladay
    Cory Lidle
    Tanyon Sturtze
    Pete Walker
    Justin Miller/Mark Hendrickson

    Kelvim Escobar/Cliff Politte

    A closer look
    The best move the Toronto Blue Jays made this offseason was re-signing someone who won't even take the field.

    This fall, Toronto fans feared they would lose general manager J.P. Ricciardi, who had the franchise headed in the right direction after just one year at the helm. The Worcester, Mass. native was a front-runner for the GM opening with the Boston Red Sox, and he had an out-clause in his Toronto contract.

    But Ricciardi chose to lose the out-clause and sign a five-year contract extension instead. He said the out-clause was only there so he could see if his family liked living north of the border. They do.

    "As last season progressed I knew this was a place I wanted to be," Ricciardi says.

    Ricciardi, 43, took over in Toronto after serving as Oakland's director of player personnel. Like his former boss, Billy Beane, Ricciardi puts his faith more in statistics than scouting -- a growing trend in the major leagues. He particularly focuses on OPS: the sum of a player's on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He values patience at the plate, but also power.

    Many thought Ricciardi was crazy when he traded closer Billy Koch to the A's for youngsters Eric Hinske and Justin Miller, after just 23 days on the job in Toronto. But he knew them from Oakland, and he particularly knew Hinske was his type of player. Hinske proved him right, winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

    Ricciardi has continued to cultivate a young nucleus of players that fit his style -- all while shedding payroll, which ownership mandates he do. He has jettisoned the likes of Esteban Loaiza, Chris Carpenter, Steve Parris and Jose Cruz Jr. And he's made some savvy acquisitions for bargain prices this offseason, like pitchers Cory Lidle and Tanyon Sturtze. He signed Mike Bordick to be a backup infielder and provide some veteran leadership. And he picked up Frank Catalanotto to play right field until top prospect Jayson Werth is ready for the bigs -- Catalanotto hit .330 for the Rangers two years ago, but was hurt most of last season.

    Ricciardi still has plenty of work to do -- especially on the pitching side. But he has this team positioned to be contenders in the near future, although they're still at least a year away. Toronto is headed for another third-place finish in the AL East, behind the Yankees and the Red Sox -- which would be their sixth straight season in that slot.

    The Jays got off to an abysmal start last season -- and they'll face an early challenge again this year. From March 31 through April 21, the Jays play the Yanks seven times, the Red Sox seven times, and the Twins six times. It is crucial that they stay afloat during that stretch, so the youngsters don't lose their confidence and continue to develop.

    "I think we are on to something special here," Ricciardi says.

    Kieran Darcy covers baseball for ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at