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Originally published Sunday, March 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Larry Stone

Can Blue Jays fly into first?

J. P. Ricciardi, the Toronto Blue Jays' general manager, put their annual challenge like this: "It's a non-cyclical division. " That's his euphemistic...

Seattle Times baseball reporter

Stuck in middle of AL East

The Toronto Blue Jays have finished third in the American League East eight times in the past 10 years. Division win totals over the past three seasons:

286

N.Y. Yankees

277

Boston

250

Toronto

213

Baltimore

194

Tampa Bay

DUNEDIN, Fla. — J.P. Ricciardi, the Toronto Blue Jays' general manager, put their annual challenge like this: "It's a non-cyclical division."

That's his euphemistic way of saying that the Red Sox and Yankees — or, for variety's sake, the Yankees and Red Sox — will always loom large in the AL East.

But the Blue Jays honestly believe — and not just because they have to — that they will be a bigger factor this year in a division they haven't won since 1993. Because of the Yankees-Red Sox dominance, the Blue Jays haven't even had a sniff of the wild card in that time.

In fact, the Jays have pretty much nestled into a comfy little home in third place, behind New York and Boston (or, last year, Boston and New York). That's where they've finished eight times in the past 10 years.

As Ricciardi said with a shrug during a recent visit to Jays camp, "We don't make any excuses about it. It's where we are and what we have to do. Unless there's an earthquake or something, we're in the American League East. We have to deal with it."

The Jays have a quiet confidence that they can compete for the wild card, or even the division title, coming off last year's injury-riddled 83-win season.

"It's the strongest team since we've been here," said manager John Gibbons. "What that gets you, who knows? We still haven't accomplished anything yet. We've been back seat to Boston and New York the last couple of years. Sooner or later, we have to get over the hump. With the team we've put together this year, we think we have a chance to do that."

They just might, if A.J. Burnett can stay healthy enough to dominate with ace Roy Halladay atop the rotation; if closer B.J. Ryan, who had Tommy John surgery last May, can come back strong; if Vernon Wells, coming off shoulder surgery, can rebound; and if the Cardinals transfers on the left side of the infield, third baseman Scott Rolen and shortstop David Eckstein, provide the intangibles that Ricciardi envisions.

"They're grinders. They're dirt bags," Ricciardi said. "Not that the other guys weren't. But that might be the one piece we're missing from a standpoint of getting in with the Red Sox and Yankees. Just grinding it out from a day-to-day standpoint."

Ricciardi, however, fully recognizes that the Jays could be a demonstrably better team in '08 and still get buried by the juggernauts in the AL.

"We were saying the other day, someone is going to win 85 games in the American League and have a really good team and not even sniff the playoffs," he said. "It's just a reality. We won more games than the Cardinals the year they won the World Series."

Ricciardi added, "We like playing in the division, because at the end of the day, we feel like if we can make the playoffs out of this division ... I'm not saying it means more than any other division, but to us, it's a great challenge."

Besides, the chances of an East Coast earthquake are remote.

"Maybe a seismic tsunami or something," Ricciardi said with a laugh.

Broussard is happy camper

No one is happier this spring than ex-Mariner Ben Broussard, who was traded to Texas in December. The Rangers have installed Broussard as their everyday first baseman and plan to leave him in the lineup against lefties — such as their opening-day opponent, Seattle's Erik Bedard.

"I don't want him coming to the park every day wondering if he's going to play against a left-hander," manager Ron Washington told The Dallas Morning News. "He's going to play against them until he proves he can't."

A point in Broussard's favor: Playing full-time for Cleveland for a spell in 2004, he batted .362 against lefties with a 1.081 OPS (granted, in just 69 at-bats). A point against him: Over the past five seasons, Broussard ranks 79th out of 93 left-handed hitters with at least 250 plate appearances against lefties in batting average (.230) and on-base percentage (.296).

At any rate, Broussard is delirious after bristling over his lack of playing time last season.

"I feel like I'm in a movie scene where I've gained freedom," Broussard said. "It's like 'Wow, somebody believes in me.' I've been waiting for this my whole career. You ask any left-handed hitter, and they will tell you that facing lefties is going to make them better against all pitching."

Boone starts fast

After talking to Bret Boone in Florida early in Nationals camp and watching him work out, I had a hunch he was going to make a strong bid to make the team. And he's off to a strong start with a .364 average, including three doubles, in the early going.

The Nationals have two veteran second basemen (Ronnie Belliard and Felipe Lopez) but could trade one — or Boone, for that matter — if he continues to impress.

"I think certainly there are a lot of teams that have a need at second base right now that are noticing that we have three really good second basemen," Nationals GM Jim Bowden told the Washington Times. "Obviously we can't fit all three on this team."

Rickey left off

In writing Friday's column about the misleading nature of spring-training statistics, I neglected to mention one classic example.

In 1999, at the age of 40, Rickey Henderson struggled through a miserable spring with the Mets, hitting .130. But when asked about his struggles, Henderson repeatedly said he'd be ready "when the bell rings," signifying the start of the season.

Sure enough, in the Mets' season-opening series against the Florida Marlins, Rickey went 6 for 11 (.545) with two homers, three doubles, four RBI, five runs scored, three walks and a stolen base.

In the second game of the series, Henderson was particularly brilliant, going 4 for 4 with two long homers, two doubles, four runs and 12 total bases.

When reporters surrounded Rickey after the game, he grinned and said, before a question could be asked, "Ding, ding, ding."

Notes and quotes

• Best news of the week, by far, was the brain biopsy of former Yankees outfielder Bobby Murcer that showed no recurrence of cancer. What a relief.

• Reliever Matt Mantei, who began his career in the Mariners' organization in 1991, tried to make a comeback with the Tigers after missing the past two seasons with shoulder problems. But he retired on Monday when his arm started to hurt again.

Rafael Soriano, expected to be the Braves' closer, is having a rough spring. He had the stomach flu early in camp, then came down with a sore right elbow. The Braves don't believe it's serious. They are counting heavily on the former Mariner, whom they signed to a two-year, $9 million extension in January.

• The first bizarre baseball ailment of spring has occurred! Rays pitcher Andy Sonnanstine was treated for an ear infection he picked up by — wait for it — listening to his iPod. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Sonnanstine fell asleep on the bus returning from a game in Sarasota wearing in-ear headphones, leading to clogged pores, leading to the infection.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

UPDATE - 10:00 PM
Larry Stone: Young pitcher Michael Pineda offers glimpse of exciting future for Mariners

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