The grand plan of general manager J.P. Ricciardi to return the Toronto Blue Jays to postseason glory got off to a rousing start in November when he added the feared bat of giant-sized Frank Thomas to an already offensively charged lineup.
As it turned out, that was the easy part.
The following month at baseball's winter meetings in Florida, Ricciardi was tripped up by the Chicago Cubs in his effort to re-sign starting pitcher Ted Lilly, who won 15 games for the Jays in 2006.
Ricciardi was also snubbed by free-agent starter Gil Meche, who opted to join the Kansas City Royals at the alarming rate of $55-million (all figures U.S.) over five years.
Unable to land the name-brand pitcher he desperately sought to bolster the back end of a rotation that features ace Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett and Gustavo Chacin, Ricciardi decided to tackle the problem by committee.
Welcome to Toronto John Thomson, Tomo Ohka and Victor Zambrano -- three unheralded free-agent pitchers who are all coming off various arm injuries from last season, but have proven in the past to be capable of chewing up valuable innings at the major-league level.
Ohka, 30, won 13 games as a member of the Montreal Expos back in 2002; Thomson, 33, won 14 games as recently as 2004 with the Atlanta Braves; and Zambrano, 31, who underwent elbow surgery last year and isn't expected to be ready to pitch until a couple months into the 2007 season, was considered the ace of a truly awful Tampa Bay Devil Rays squad when he totalled 12 victories in 2003.
With spring training to begin on Friday in Dunedin, Fla., the last day when pitchers and catchers are slated to report, Ricciardi is hoping this collection of bargain-basement free-agents will help put Toronto over the top in the cut-throat American League East.
"I think our pitching's going to be a little deeper than maybe even we think," Ricciardi said this week. "But you never have enough of it. We know that. And I think at least we're prepared this year to handle some adversity on our staff."
The Blue Jays made what they considered to be a major breakthrough last season when, despite a myriad of injuries to their starters, they passed the Boston Red Sox to finish second to the 97-65 New York Yankees with a record of 87-75.
That represented the first time the Jays had finished higher than third place in the AL East since their World Series-winning season of 1993.
It also marked the first time since 1997 that another team other than New York or Boston had managed to break into the upper echelon of the division standings.
Both Thomson and Ohka are expected to battle it out for the fourth and fifth openings in the starting rotation along with returnees Shaun Marcum and, yes, even Josh Towers.
Towers, who won 13 games for the Jays two years ago, is looking to rebound from a nightmarish 2006 season, when he was 2-10 with a bloated 8.42 earned-run average.
"You can't have enough depth," veteran catcher Gregg Zaun said of the additions to the Jays' pitching staff. "Things happen during the course of a season, injuries or somebody doesn't pitch well. Adjustments have to be made.
"It's fortunate for us. It's a nice problem for them to have . . . real healthy competition for those four and five slots in our rotation."
Of course, the Jays will only go as far as Halladay, who has battled through aches and pains the past two seasons, will take them. He signed a three-year, $40-million contract extension that will keep him in a Toronto uniform through 2010.
The Cy Young Award winner as the AL's top pitcher in 2003, Halladay struggled with forearm stiffness through much of last season but still finished with a 16-5 record.
In 2005, he made just 19 starts before his season was curtailed by a broken leg.
Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg says Halladay's relentless work ethic, even in spring training, may actually be a detriment to the 29-year-old staying healthy.
"He's such an icon, who wants to go out there and show why he's worth $12-million dollars a year," Arnsberg said. "He's always trying to prove himself and I've told him he has nothing to prove. He's already the leader on the team and he's by far the leader on the pitching staff."
Arnsberg says Halladay is in tip-top shape heading into spring training.
"I'm going to guess as long as there's no problems health-wise there's a real good chance Doc is going to make our team," Arnsberg deadpanned.
Vernon Wells, who signed the richest deal in Jays history when he agreed to a seven-year, $126-million contract extension in December, said he likes the route Ricciardi is treading with the pitching staff.
"I think it's a well-educated chance," Wells said. "We've got three quality arms that have experience. That's what we need right now in our rotation."
Zaun said he is not real familiar with any of the new pitchers except for Ohka, who was a teammate of his for a brief period with the Expos in 2002.
"He's one of those guys that chews up innings," Zaun said. "He keeps you in the ballgame. He's a lot like Josh Towers -- when he's on he's dynamite and when he's not, it's over quickly."
The catcher said the experience of Thomson, Ohka and Zambrano, when he's finally healthy, could be invaluable dealing with the murderer's row of AL East lineups.
"You've got to want to pitch against them or they'll eat you alive," he said.
"The offence in this division . . . it's unparalleled. It's not like any other division.
"When everybody gets done playing the season and the summer's over, you're tired, you're bloodied, you're bruised in our division. You're not going to see team's two games over .500 making the playoffs out of the AL East."
Five pressing issues for the Blue Jays in 2007
1. Who is going to replace Ted Lilly's 180 innings?
A gaping hole was created at the back end of Toronto's five-man rotation after the Blue Jays failed to re-sign the workhorse who won 15 games a year ago. After Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett and Gustavo Chacin, general manager J.P. Ricciardi is hoping that the likes of free-agent acquisitions Tomo Ohka and John Thomson will be able to carry the load. It's chancy, as both newcomers are coming off arm problems.
2. Armed for disaster?
Toronto's hopes this season will undoubtedly rest on the arms of the big three in the rotation -- Halladay, Burnett and Chacin. Problem is all three struggled with injuries last season, and the Jays can ill-afford a similar occurrence this time around. Burnett missed several starts dealing with elbow woes, while Chacin was sidelined on two separate occasions with left elbow and forearm complaints. Halladay was relatively healthy, although he shut it down for good late in the season after his forearm became sore. So far, the news is good for Halladay. He threw his first bullpen session in Dunedin, Fla., this week and everything was fine.
3. A Rolls-Royce or a lemon?
Journeyman player Royce Clayton is the latest addition to a long line of Blue Jays shortstops. The 37-year-old was signed by Ricciardi as a free agent during the off-season and you have to wonder how much gas is left in his tank. The fact that Ricciardi, at the team's state-of-the-union meeting with season-ticket holders on Thursday, said that Aaron Hill still might be shifted to shortstop at some point in the future makes it seem that the position is still in a state of flux.
4. Will Gregg Zaun catch on?
After playing second banana to Bengie Molina last season, Zaun has inherited the starting role behind the plate. While the lead-footed Molina was a bust defensively, he swung a heavy bat with 19 home runs and 57 runs batted in. Molina ranked fourth in the AL with a .358 batting average against left-handed pitchers. While better defensively and a switch-hitter to boot, Zaun, a .272 hitter last season, will have to improve some at the plate to equal Molina's output.
5. Who will set the table?
Justin Speier blossomed into a quality set-up man for closer B.J. Ryan last season, and took advantage by accepting a fat free-agent contract (four years, $18-million) to jump to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. With a 2-0 record and a 2.98 ERA in 58 relief appearances, Speier registered a career-high 25 holds to rank fifth in the AL, tough numbers to replace. Brandon League (1-2, 2.53 ERA in 33 appearances for the Jays last year) and Jason Frasor (3-2, 4.32 ERA in 51 appearances) will get first crack at the job.