When the Blue Jays signed third baseman Eric Hinske to a five-year, $14.75 million contract on the eve of the 2003 season, the organization, flush with optimism, saw him as a cornerstone of what could quickly become a contending team. Hinske had just hit .279 with 24 home runs and won the American League Rookie of the Year award, and Toronto believed it could soon disrupt the Red Sox-Yankees fiefdom atop the American League East. Two years later expectations are much more restrained. Hinske cratered in 2004, hitting .246 with 15 homers and a .312 on-base percentage, and the Blue Jays, beset by injuries to virtually every key player, finished last in the division for the first time since the Devil Rays joined the league in 1998.
"We need Hinske to bounce back," says Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi. "We need him to be the solid player he was his first year. We didn't sign him to hit .390; we'll take .260 to .270, 25 home runs, 80 to 90 RBIs."
Hinske's return to form is pivotal to the Blue Jays' fortunes because Toronto did little this winter to improve an offense that was 12th in the league in runs, on-base percentage and slugging, and it lost its best hitter, first baseman Carlos Delgado, to free agency. Club officials identified three off-season priorities: finding a lefthanded power hitter, a frontline starting pitcher and a closer. They achieved the first, signing former Twins third baseman Corey Koskie to a three-year, $16.5 million deal, but lost out to the Red Sox for righthander Matt Clement and were priced out of the closer market.
Hinske, who'll move to first base to accommodate Koskie, finds himself in a make-or-break spot. "My last two years have been subpar," he says. "My second year I wasn't 100 percent, and last year a lot of times there were some confidence issues. I wasn't right with my swing, and I'd go up to the plate thinking about everything but actually hitting the ball."
Hinske's problems began early in 2003, when he suffered a broken hamate bone in his right hand. It went undiagnosed for several weeks, and the weakness in his bottom hand forced him to alter his stance, shifting two thirds of his weight to his back foot and drawing his hands in close, tight to his chest.
Though the bone healed last season, the swing endured, and Hinske became prone to chasing fastballs up. "He was chasing a lot of those," says Blue Jays hitting coach Mike Barnett, "because he wasn't confident that he could get there. You start speeding up your swing, you become vulnerable to the changeup away."
So this winter Barnett and Hinske spent a week together working on the infielder's swing. They implemented two changes: raising Hinske's hands from chest to ear level while extending them out slightly from his body, and distributing the player's weight evenly between his front foot and back. Hinske has a cleaner swing now and can better use his legs to drive balls. "I've got my swing feeling pretty good," he says. "I'm anxious to get the season going and just prove to everybody that I can do it."
Because it whiffed on adding a starter and a closer, Toronto has retooled its staff, moving righthander Miguel Batista to the bullpen and creating rotation spots for 25-year-old righthander Dave Bush and 24-year-old lefty Gustavo Chacin, who have 18 big league starts between them. The Blue Jays believe Batista can better focus while closing and will be able to emphasize his fastball and cutter, his best pitches.
The gap between the AL East's haves and have-nots has only widened, but Toronto remains hopeful, not least because its new owners, Rogers Communications, have authorized the team, whose payroll is $50 million this season, to spend a total of $210 million over the next three seasons. "We know what division we play in, and we're realistic," Ricciardi says, "but we're not wavering from our plan. In a rebuilding, everything doesn't go in a straight line, but if we had been healthy last season, we would be a .500 team. We've still got a good core, good minor leaguers and a little bit of money next year. We're as excited as we've been." --D.G.H.
Despite playing in only 111 games last season, Alexis Rios led all AL rookies in multihit games (34), triples (seven), stolen bases (15) and outfield assists (11).
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Blue Jays
"Vernon Wells still has not reached his potential. He hasn't shown consistent home run power, but he could break out.... Alexis Rios is another mystery. He's not hitting with authority.... Orlando Hudson's pitch recognition and plate discipline is much better, but he'll chase the ball down out of the strike zone.... Russ Adams has problems at shortstop because his arm is not strong enough to make all the plays.... They've got a guy on the bench, Reed Johnson, who I'd love to have on my club. There may be a scenario taking place to move Frank Catalanotto because of the money he's making ($5.4 million over the next two seasons) and put Johnson in the leadoff spot and play him in either leftfield or right.... Roy Halladay is throwing the ball great again, but he doesn't have the support to help him win 20 games. If he stays healthy, he could win 15 to 18.... Miguel Batista has overpowering stuff. He looks like he's a take-charge guy, and I like that in a closer.... I don't think they are going to be better than last year. I don't see them winning 70 games."
projected roster with 2004 statistics
2004 RECORD 67-94 5th in AL East
RUSS ADAMS (R)
COREY KOSKIE [New acquisition]
MANAGER John Gibbons
second season with Toronto
SHEA HILLENBRAND [New acquisition]
GABE GROSS (R)
ROTATION - PITCHER
RH Roy Halladay
LH Ted Lilly
RH Dave Bush
LH Gustavo Chacin (R)
RH Josh Towers
BULLPEN - PITCHER
RH Miguel Batista
RH Justin Speier
RH Jason Frasor
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)