Jays, O's face uphill battle

They may be two of the most improved teams in the game this winter. They have made trades, spent money and showed a commitment.

But there are no guarantees for the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles.

Improvement, after all, is all relative. And the problem facing the Jays and O's is that the two teams which have finished ahead of them the last six seasons -- the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox -- have also gotten better.

The Orioles signed prodigal starter Sidney Ponson. But the Yankees traded for Javier Vazquez and the Red Sox picked up Curt Schilling.

The Blue Jays added three starters -- Ted Lilly, Pat Hentgen and Miguel Batista -- but the Yankees improved their bullpen depth -- Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill -- and the Red Sox landed Keith Foulke.

The O's got Miguel Tejada, but the Yankees got Gary Sheffield.

See where this is going? Maybe, despite all the effort on the part of Toronto and Baltimore, nowhere.

"It's frustrating,'' acknowledged Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, "but we feel this is the best we can do with what we have. Are we a better club (than a year ago)? I think on paper, we're a much better club going in. It's just the reality of the division we play in.''

The reality is that the Blue Jays and Orioles are playing catch-up with two of the game's most profligate spenders, locked in their own intramural warfare.

The Yanks and Sox are fighting at the top of Mt. Olympus. The Orioles and Blue Jays are merely continuing their climb upward. Unless baseball reshapes it divisions or adds another wild card or two, it may be difficult to measure the O's and Jays' forward progress.

"We could win 86-90 games and still not sniff the playoffs,'' said Ricciardi ruefully. "But we're getting better.''

Interestingly, Baltimore and Toronto are rebuilding with different approaches.

The Orioles, free of past burdensome contracts, are spending liberally -- $72 million for Tejada and $22.5 million each for Javy Lopez and Ponson. Rafael Palmeiro was also signed for $4.5 million

Six straight losing seasons have sapped interest in the Orioles and owner Peter Angelos believes his club needs stars to draw fans back to Camden Yards.

As a number of young players have matured -- Luis Matos, Jay Gibbons, Brian Roberts -- the Orioles think it's time to supplement with established stars. And the O's might not be done spending. After failing in their bid for Vladimir Guerrero, they could still pursue Pudge Rodriguez and another veteran starting pitcher.

Some see this plan as flawed.

"If they ever get it, they could be a real handful,'' said another major league general manager. "But you would think they would have learned about free agents.''

In the mid-to-late-1990s, the Orioles fell into a funk after some costly free agents underperformed. Now, the Orioles are trying to buy their way back into contention.

Tejada will help immeasurably, and Lopez and Palmeiro will hit. But the Orioles probably don't have the pitching to compete with Boston and New York -- or Toronto for that matter. While Ponson is back in their rotation, they lost Hentgen to the Jays through free agency and non-tendered Jason Johnson, who signed with Detroit.

A rotation which begins with Ponson, Rodrigo Lopez and Kurt Ainsworth is adequate, but probably not good enough to leapfrog anyone.

Still, the Orioles will be entertaining. In cozy Camden Yards, Tejada and Lopez are capable of 40-homer seasons and providing the most interesting summer in years.

Meanwhile, the Orioles are closer to contending and perhaps positioned for a sale. One baseball executive, in fact, wondered if that wasn't part of Angelos' strategy -- put an exciting and respectable team on the field, then take Major League Baseball's payout for allowing the Expos to move to Virginia or Washington D.C. and sell off the franchise.

The Blue Jays are on another track, keeping their spending moderate while waiting for their bevy of prospects to infuse further talent onto the major league roster.

"We're producing more players in the farm system than (others in the division),'' Ricciardi said. "We might have arguably the best prospect in baseball in (Alexis) Rios and one of the top catching prospects (Guillermo Quiroz) on the way. I don't think we're that far away from guys coming to the major leagues to help us. That's what we have to hang our hat on.''

That's because, for now, the Jays can't match the Orioles -- much less the Red Sox and Yankees -- dollar for dollar. Toronto's payroll will be scaled back to just over $50 million in 2004 and more than half of that will be tied into two players: slugger Carlos Delgado and starting pitcher Roy Halladay.

"We don't have the payroll to answer every weakness on our roster,'' said Ricciardi. "That's just a fact. And to compete at $50 million is a really tough thing to do when you look at the teams in our division. Like everybody, you'd like to have more to spend. But you don't have it, so you go forward. It's a challenge.''

The Orioles and Blue Jays are, nonetheless, heading in the right direction. Just don't look for a big leap in the standings right away. For now, the AL East has a high-priced glass ceiling blocking their trip to the top.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.