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Blue Jays go from improved to rebuilding

Far be it from me to dissuade anyone to head up to the Rogers Centre to see the Blue Jays this year. I always give the trip to Toronto a big thumbs-up, but you might be more interested in the opponents in 2009 because things look like a big downer for the Blue Jays.

The Canadian dollar tanked along with the world economy and the team had to cut its payroll from the $100 million range to the mid-80s so A.J. Burnett was quickly bid adieu and there were no major additions. The Rays have suddenly ascended in the AL East (hey Red Sox and Yankees fans, you're chasing Tampa Bay first and not each other!), while the Orioles are expected to be improved too.

Spring training has already been difficult for the Jays down in Dunedin, Fla. Vernon Wells' $126 million hamstring is barking and initial reports said he might miss a month of the season (Wells thinks he can be back for Opening Day). And on the first day he spoke to the media, manager Cito Gaston had to revisit his December chat with reporters at the winter meetings in Las Vegas that had fans and media in TO scratching their heads.

At the meetings, Gaston said he saw 2009 as a rebuilding year for the Jays. Well, that became big news. Especially for season ticket holders, who stormed a winter town hall session looking for answers as to why a team that won 86 games last year and finished the season 51-37 could not be thinking about winning.

"Maybe that didn't come out right," Gaston backtracked when he got to the Sunshine State. "It's kind of like regrouping. Nobody likes to use 'rebuilding.' That's a bad word. We're not really rebuilding. We're getting ready for 2010."

Hmmm. That still sounds like rebuilding to me.

Truth be told, Gaston is probably right because the pitching staff that allowed the fewest runs in the game last year is hardly the same. Burnett, of course, is gone but so is Shawn Marcum (out for the season after elbow surgery) and Dustin McGowan (shoulder surgery) has a floating return date of May through August. It's ace Roy Halladay, former Rays batboy Jesse Litsch and then big questions.

"It'd be a different ballgame (if they were healthy for this season)," Gaston said. "I'm pretty sure [GM J.P. Ricciardi and interim President Paul Beeston] would've gone out and gotten some people and tried to keep A.J. or even just picked up another hitter."

Instead, the Jays have pretty much opted to stand pat. Never a good strategy in the AL East.

And what if the Jays are hopelessly out of things at the All-Star break? Does that mean Wells gets shipped out and Halladay presses for a trade to a contender too? Remember, the former Cy Young Award winner was pretty open last year about getting tired of waiting for the Jays to turn things around.

This is a franchise that hasn't made the postseason since Joe Carter's famous home run cleared the wall to win the 1993 World Series. The only other franchises not to play meaningful October games since the 1994 strike are the Royals, Pirates and Expos/Nationals. Even the manager brought back to try to rekindle the winning feeling he once spurred thinks it's not going to happen.

Yep. No need to rush to the box office now. I think come summer there will be plenty of good seats available.


Herd has hot prospect

Fernando Martinez, the 20-year-old Dominican outfielder who is expected to be the top Mets' prospect in Buffalo this season, was named the No. 30 prospect in the minors by Baseball America as the magazine unveiled its annual Top 100 list last week.

Martinez, the youngest player in the Double-A Eastern League last year, was the one hotshot the Mets refused to move to Minnesota in the Johan Santana trade.

One word of warning emerging already from Mets camp: Martinez is initially being limited to DH duties in spring games because he hurt his elbow making a throw in Dominican winter ball. Martinez was hitting .314 when the injury happened and had to turn down an invitation to play for his home country in the World Baseball Classic.

Mets pitcher Jonathan Niese, who will either be the No.T5 starter in New York or the Opening Day starter April 9 in Buffalo, was No. 77 on the Baseball America list. Former Bison Adam Miller, expected to battle for a slot in the Cleveland bullpen, was No. 82.

Looking for an early-line rookie pick for your fantasy team? BA has named Orioles catcher Matt Wieters as its top prospect. Rays pitcher David Price, whom we all got to know last October, is No. 2.


Care about 'Classic?'

Am I supposed to care about the World Baseball Classic? Hard to say. Blanket coverage on ESPN and my new best friend, the MLB Network, will certainly help.

It was pretty interesting the last time but it does cause quite a bit of chaos with spring training and has many teams nervous about their stars getting hurt. The Indians, for example, were probably relieved when Grady Sizemore pulled out Thursday due to a leg strain.

Don't forget that you can see some action in Toronto beginning with a doubleheader Saturday that features the US and Canada at 2 p.m. and Italy-Venezuela at 8 (separate ticket for each). Games continue there Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Tickets run from $12-$59.

Bernie Williams has been in Yankees camp preparing for the tournament (he's playing for Puerto Rico). Some rumblings if it goes well that he might be looking for a job again at age 40, whether it's with the Yankees or somebody else.


Promotion plans

Speaking of the Bisons, you've got to like some of the team's promotions unveiled for next season. To celebrate the new affiliation, Mr. Met will join Buster Bison cavorting Coca-Cola Field on April 9 and June 7, and former Mets legend Darryl Strawberry will be on hand for his bobblehead day on May 23 against Columbus. That comes in the midst of the four-game return visit by ex-manager Torey Lovullo and the Cleveland farmhands.

The team's ballpark replica series has been a huge hit the last couple of years but there are no more Buffalo ballparks to hand out. No problem. Now the team will start a Local Landmark Replica Series. It will be held Aug. 12 with a replica of the old Crystal Beach amusement park, featuring a depiction of the famous Comet rollercoaster.

The annual Independence Eve concert by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra could be an advance sellout this year because July 3 is a Friday night. The Famous Chicken is back on June 27. Call me a mascot geek if you must but I've seen his act dozens of time and I still laugh.


Around the diamonds

*Santana is feeling twinges in his elbow. You can hear the snickers all the way from Philly, led by Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels.

*Pudge Rodriguez, Orlando Hudson and Orlando Cabrera are still out and unsigned? Bizarre. How about Manny Ramirez? He should just take his bat and go home if he doesn't take the Dodgers' deal. Memo to MannyBeingManny: No one else wants you.

*The Indians are so taken by their new spring complex in Goodyear, Ariz., that some players have already bought housing nearby in the Phoenix suburb and others are considering it. It's a huge improvement from the spartan setup the team had the last 15 years in Winter Haven, Fla.

*How far Andy Marte has fallen. The Indians designated the ex-Bison for assignment off the 40-man roster and no one claimed him on waivers. So the Tribe outrighted him to Columbus, where Lovullo will be forced to try yet again to get something out of him.


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