Back in business

The news barely made a ripple in many baseball cities, but when Toronto Blue Jays owner Ted Rogers earlier this month signaled a renewed commitment to baseball for Canada's only remaining franchise, it gave the Blue Jays something they had been missing: hope.

Rogers, who earlier this offseason purchased SkyDome and gave his franchise control over its own ballpark for the first time, pledged to spend $210 million in major league payroll over the next three seasons.

"I think what it does," general manager J.P. Ricciardi said, "is show that this franchise is solid from an ownership standpoint. They've made a commitment. Ted Rogers is a businessman who's been through good times and bad, and he's sticking with this."

The primary boost, of course, is the financial backing. With the roster already set for this season and approximately $50 million invested in 2005, Ricciardi will have $160 million to apply to the 2006 and 2007 Blue Jays.

"It's a shot in the arm," Ricciardi said. "It doesn't solve all of our problems. But what it does is allows us to get involved."

The Blue Jays made only a couple of significant moves this winter, signing free agent third baseman -- and Canadian native -- Corey Koskie, while adding lefty pitcher Scott Schoeneweis and infielder Shea Hillenbrand. Those moves alone won't close the gap between the Jays -- who plummeted into the AL East basement last season with just 67 wins -- and their more deep-pocketed division rivals in Boston and New York.

But in the future, the Jays can be somewhat more competitive when shopping for free agents -- and not limit their involvement to one per winter.

"The reason we've struggled," said Ricciardi, "is that we don't have the resources to bring in quality guys. Now, if we can add some guys to the players we've already developed, we might have something. We're never going to outspend the two teams in front of us [Yankees and Red Sox]. But having the ability to at least compete for some of the guys we want is a step forward."

It's the Blue Jays' misfortune to be stuck in the same division as the game's two biggest superpowers -- and a third club (Baltimore) whose revenues not long ago ranked among the top handful in the game.

Were the Blue Jays to be relocated to the AL Central, which houses predominantly small- and medium-market teams, the road to contention would be much shorter.

But they're not moving.

"It's very daunting," Ricciardi conceded. "The reality of the division we play in is humbling. You know you're not going to outspend those teams, so you have to be almost perfect in everything else you do. [Spending] $50 million in a lot of other divisions gets you in the game. In the AL East, you're not going to make a dent with that. Not that $70 million [in 2006] is the be-all, end-all. But that's a big difference over $50 million."

When Ricciardi took over for former GM Gord Ash after the 2001 season, the Blue Jays' payroll was set at $88 million, with losses expected to top $75 million. Three years later, the franchise lost just $3 million in 2004.

That sort of a fiscal belt-tightening has enabled Rogers to make the commitment he said he will.

"We've gotten our house in order financially," Ricciardi said, "and we're being rewarded for running a good ship and getting things in order."

It couldn't have come at a better time, given that Ricciardi's overhaul of the farm system is starting to pay real dividends. Outfielder Alexis Rios hit .286 in 111 games last year and Gabe Gross, another outfielder, has plenty of promise.

Catcher Guillermo Quiroz is one of the game's most highly regarded receivers and Russ Adams could make an immediate impact at shortstop. On the mound, David Bush posted a 3.69 ERA in 16 starts in the second half, while Brandon League and Francisco Rosario aren't far from being contributors in the majors.

Meanwhile, veterans such as Koskie, Vernon Wells, Eric Hinske, Ted Lilly and Roy Halladay form a strong nucleus.

"We've got a lot of help on the way," Ricciardi said. "I really think, with some of the young players we've got coming along, in 2006-07, we're going to be playing our best baseball. We have this core of young guys, and they're getting experience."

"What if we added two more bats and two good arms to what we already have? I don't think we're that far off. We're closer to being an 85-win team than a 65-win team. From there, it's what you bring in after that that can make you a real contender."

With the Expos' departure from Montreal, the Jays are Canada's lone MLB franchise. Hurdles -- including the exchange rate and the reluctance of some established players to come to Canada -- still exist. But the pledge to increase payroll seemed to create a buzz among fans, particularly those stung by the current NHL lockout.

"Fan reaction has been good," Ricciardi said. "People are starting to see there's more to work with. There's excitement here. This doesn't solve everything. But now we're going to have a better chance than we've ever had. I don't want to be a part of a futile situation.

"Now, there's some hope."

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