« I feel great. »
Sun-drenched in their seats, several rows behind home plate, general manager J.P. Ricciardi and his aides seem miserable.
Frank Thomas has just struck out — again — leaving teammate Vernon Wells stranded on third base. The Big Hurt, as Thomas has become known because of his offensive prowess in the American League during the previous 18 years, returns to the Blue Jays’ dugout, shaking his head in dismay. Ricciardi also shakes his head.
“The Big Skirt!” a fan screams at Thomas, whose batting average in spring training is hovering around .100.
It is less than a week before Canada’s major-league team launches its regular season, and Thomas has become the target of insults — and questions. Is age — he’ll be 40 in May — catching up to him? Should Matt Stairs be the Jays’ designated hitter instead of Thomas? Is Thomas messed up because of time he spent in the off-season with Walt Hriniak, his former batting instructor with the Chicago White Sox?
Thomas himself dismisses the skepticism. “I feel great,” he says.
Scouts here in Florida, however, believe the potential Hall of Famer has lost bat speed.
Ricciardi knows it, too, although this is only one reason for his apparent misery.
A season-ending arm injury for Casey Janssen recently didn’t do much to lift the GM’s spirits, either. Despite some raw and possibly dependable arms in Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum, the Jays are devoid of pitching depth.
Veteran Roy Halladay is an established ace, irrefutably, but No. 2 starter A.J. Burnett is inconsistent and injury-prone and the bullpen is filled with uncertainty, with the likes of Brandon League, Jeremy Accardo and Brian Tallet struggling in spring training and with no guarantee that closer B.J. Ryan will rebound after missing last season.
Third baseman Scott Rolen, the Jays’ main off-season acquisition and their unchallenged cleanup hitter, will miss the first part of the regular schedule after fracturing a finger in a drill Sunday. Outfielder Reed Johnson’s defence will be missed, too. He was released, meaning retread Shannon Stewart and his subpar arm will be in left field.
Alex Rios and the apparently healthy Wells are multi-talented outfielders, but you wonder whether this team has what’s needed to even finish in the top three of the AL East. The Tampa Bay Rays seem improved, after all, and the Boston Red Sox are the defending World Series champions. And the Jays haven’t finished ahead of the New York Yankees since winning the Series in 1993.
Insiders suggest Ricciardi et al are goners if the Jays don’t make the playoffs this season. No wonder they seem miserable down here.