Toronto takes a healthy outlook into '07

The Baltimore Sun

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Toronto Blue Jays won 83 games in 2007, but that's not the number they point to when considering last season.

Try 16. That's how many times a member of their 25-man roster hit the disabled list. Or 951, the collective number of games Blue Jays players missed in 2007.

"Health. We just have to stay healthy," Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "Like a lot of teams, you go through injuries, but we had 12 surgeries last year. If we can stay healthy enough and guide through it, we've got a good club."

Already, however, their ability to avoid injury is being tested.

Reliever Casey Janssen, who led the team in appearances last year, had shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum and is lost for the season.

Third baseman Scott Rolen, Toronto's top offseason acquisition, broke a finger and is expected to miss most of April.

And former Oriole B.J. Ryan, an All-Star closer who pitched only five games in 2007 before elbow surgery last May, has experienced forearm and biceps soreness and will start the season on the DL with hopes of returning by mid-April.

Jeremy Accardo, who had 30 saves filling in for Ryan last year, will have to close until Ryan can pitch on back-to-back days.

"Losing Janssen is a big blow to us," Ricciardi said. "And Accardo did a great job for us, but we are a better team with a healthy and productive B.J. You want the best guys out there."

Ryan, who left the Orioles for a five-year, $47 million contract after the 2005 season, wants to be out there, too. He said missing almost an entire season was the most difficult thing he's had to endure in his career.

"It [stunk] just being away from the team," Ryan said. "You have something taken away from you that you love to do. But it's your job, your profession, so you be a man about it, deal with it and move on."

Normally it takes at least a year for pitchers to return from Tommy John surgery, but Ryan attempted to do it in fewer than 10 months. He said he has to use good judgment if he is feeling any pain in his left arm .

"That's where being a professional comes into play," he said. "You've got to say something if it is barking a little bit, a little sore. You just have got to be smart about it and not try to do too much too fast."

Ryan, 32, is among a group of older players who are hoping to lead the Blue Jays back to the postseason for the first time since 1993. Of their projected starting lineup, only outfielders Alex Rios, 27, and Vernon Wells, 29, and second baseman Aaron Hill, 26, are younger than 30.

"You've got guys on this team that can tell a lot of stories. And it's a good thing," said designated hitter Frank Thomas, a likely Hall of Famer who turns 40 in May. "You don't have a lot of guys where you don't know what to expect. That's a key for a team that can go to the top."

This offseason, the Blue Jays added Rolen (in a trade with St. Louis for Troy Glaus) and free-agent shortstop David Eckstein, both of whom have World Series rings and are known for their hard-nosed attitudes.

"They are both dirtbags. They play hard. They leave everything on the field," Ricciardi said. "Those are all intangibles that they bring, but they are still productive players in our eyes and I think that's the most important thing."

Perhaps the Jays' biggest strength is their starting rotation, which could be the deepest and most talented in the division. It features four pitchers who won 10 or more games last year, including former Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay. Behind him is the enigmatic but talented A.J. Burnett, two quick-rising 26-year-olds, Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum, and last year's biggest surprise, Jesse Litsch, 23.

Due to injuries, Litsch was given a big league chance to pitch and made 20 starts, going 7-9 with a 3.81 ERA.

In a season that was torpedoed by surgeries and DL stints, the emergence of players such as Litsch and Accardo give the Blue Jays hope for 2008 and beyond. Assuming, of course, that this club can stay relatively healthy.

"The one thing I look on from last year as a positive is a lot of young guys had a chance to play in the season and that's going to make us a deeper, more powerful team for this year," said catcher Gregg Zaun. "That's why I am looking forward to it, because there is a lot of experience and depth on this club."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

LINING ORDER

Batting order

Pos. Name

SS David Eckstein

RF Alex Rios

CF Vernon Wells

DH Frank Thomas

LF Matt Stairs

1B Lyle Overbay

3B Marco Scutaro

C Gregg Zaun

2B Aaron Hill

Rotation

RHP Roy Halladay

RHP A.J. Burnett

RHP Dustin McGowan

RHP Shaun Marcum

RHP Jesse Litsch

AL East this week

Tomorrow: The Tampa Bay Rays have a new name, new uniforms and an old closer, Troy Percival, who is having a blast with his young teammates.

Online: To read previous articles in this series, go to baltimoresun.com/aleast

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