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  • Frank Thomas knows good baseball teams and players, having spent 18 seasons in the major leagues and hitting 492 home runs.

    So it is instructive when the Toronto Blue Jays designated hitter talks about the team with which he signed a two-year, $18.12-million contract as a free agent over the winter.

    “This is a very good team,” Thomas insisted. “This team can contend for the playoffs and the division title.

    “There is no doubt in my mind that when once you see this team all together that we’re going to show everyone what we’re capable of doing.”

    The problem is that the Blue Jays haven’t been whole all season and won’t be now that closer B.J. Ryan underwent reconstructive elbow surgery this past week. Ryan’s surgery came one day before staff ace Roy Halladay underwent an emergency appendectomy that will sideline him through at least the middle of June.

    Ryan led all American League relievers with a 37.4 VORP last season. Halladay has ranked in the top five in the AL in that category in four of the past five seasons, excluding 2004 when he was on the disabled list twice with a sore shoulder: 2002 (66.4, fifth), 2003 (71.2, fourth), 2005 (53.3, third) and 2006 (68.0, second).

    “It’s been tough,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “Every team has a certain amount of injuries over the course of a six-month season, so we’re not making excuses.

    “I just wish our injuries would be spread out a little bit more than this. What’s hurting us, though, is it seems like we have already had a season’s worth of injuries in the first six weeks.”

    Indeed, the Blue Jays’ injury list runs long, far beyond Ryan and Halladay:

    • Catcher Gregg Zaun broke his right thumb on April 24 and won’t be back until at least the beginning June.
    • Left fielder and leadoff hitter Reed Johnson played in seven games at the start of the season then underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back. He won’t be ready to play again until at least the All-Star break.
    • Third baseman Troy Glaus was on the DL for 15 days in April with a bone spur in his left heel and re-injured the foot Friday night.
    • Left-hander Gustavo Chacin, the No. 3 starter, has been on the disabled list since April 29 with a strained shoulder. His return isn’t likely to come until at least the end of the month.
    • Right-hander Victor Zambrano, who moved into the rotation two weeks ago, went on the DL this past Thursday with a strained shoulder. That comes after he recovered from last May’s reconstructive elbow surgery, performed when he was with the New York Mets, in less than a year.
    • Right-hander John Thomson, signed as a free agent in the offseason with hopes he could be the No. 4 or No. 5 starter, has been on the DL all season with a sore shoulder.
    • Right-hander Brandon League, expected to be the set-up man for Ryan when spring training started, has also been out all season with a sore shoulder.

    That has left the Blue Jays with young right-hander Jeremy Accardo serving as the closer, veterans Jason Phillips and Sal Fasano splitting time at catcher, prospect Adam Lind manning left field and youngsters Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum filling rotation spots.

    “We’re fortunate to have built some depth in our organization,” Gibbons said. “We feel we have some good players as replacements. Still, it’s tough to lose as many front-line players as we have, there is no denying that.”

    Indeed, the injuries have taken their toll on the Blue Jays one year after a second place finish indicated they might be able to crack the Yankees-Red Sox dominance in the American League East that began in 1998. The Jays lost nine in a row before beating Tampa Bay on Friday and Saturday and sit 9 ½ games behind Boston in the division race.

    “It’s not only our division that’s tough but the entire American League,” Gibbons said. “It’s tough to compete in this league when you have a full complement of players, but it’s not like we’re just going to give up now. We’ll keep playing.”

  • The Milwaukee Brewers have the best record in the major leagues at 25-11. Could the reason be the magical powers of backup catcher Damian Miller?

    Miller is hitting just .211/.279/.263 this season in 43 plate appearances with a -1.4 VORP. However, the Brewers are 10-0 when he is in the starting lineup and 15-11 when he isn’t.

    “Yeah, I am solely responsible for our record,” Miller deadpanned to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

    Miller, though, knows the streak won’t last forever.

    “That’s highly doubtful, unless I retire right now,” he said.

    Miller was disappointed that he lost his starting job when the Brewers acquired catcher Johnny Estrada from Arizona in an off-season trade. Estrada’s contribution at the plate has smoothed over any difficulties–he’s hitting .306/.330/.468 in 116 plate appearances with a 7.2 VORP.

    “Johnny has fit in really nice, meshing with our pitchers in what we’re trying to do out on the mound,” Brewers manager Ned Yost said. “They both understand our pitching staff. They understand our program, what we’re trying to do out on the mound.”

  • Sometimes, $46 million doesn’t buy you nearly as much as it used to.
    Take the case of lefty Kei Igawa and the New York Yankees. The Yankees paid $26 million to the Hanshin Tigers, Igawa’s team in Japan, just for the right to negotiate with him. They then gave the 27-year-old a five-year, $20-million contract.

    This past week, the Yankees shipped Igawa off to the Florida State League and Class A Tampa to work with Nardi Contreras and other instructors. He had gone 2-1 with a 7.63 ERA, allowing opponents a .540 slugging percentage and walking 14 batters in just 30 2/3 innings. His VORP was -7.9.

    “Mistakes he was probably getting away with in Japan he’s not going to get away with here,” said Contreras, the Yankees’ minor-league pitching instructor, who has been charged with getting Igawa back on track.

    Rookie right-hander Matt DeSalvo replaced Igawa in the rotation. He’s gone 1-0 with a 1.98 ERA, striking out two and walking six. All together, he’s posted a 5.7 VORP in his first two starts.

    The Yankees’ signing of DeSalvo cost considerably less than $46 million. They signed him as a non-drafted free agent following his senior season at Division III Marietta College in Ohio where he set NCAA records with 53 wins and 603 strikeouts.

  • Cincinnati’s bullpen began the season by pitching 14 2/3 scoreless innings. It’s been all downhill since. The Reds are now 14th in the 16-team National League with a 4.32 relief ERA, ahead of only Philadelphia (4.41) and Colorado (4.89).

    That led to Reds manager Jerry Narron making an honest admission–an increasingly rare occurrence in baseball these days–when asked if he was inclined to stay with his starting pitchers longer because of his bullpen’s problems.

    “Yes,” Narron told the Dayton Daily News. “I’ll be honest with you on it, but it also is something I have to be careful with by not trying to overextend a starter or overuse somebody in center situations.”

    Reds starters have logged 230 2/3 innings, the second-highest total in the NL behind Arizona’s 237 2/3.

From the rumor mill: Minnesota is in such need for a right-handed hitter that the Twins reportedly would be willing to deal relievers Jesse Crain and Juan Rincon or starting pitching prospect Scott Baker for the right bat … Speaking of the Twins, center fielder Torii Hunter continues to increase his value as he is eligible for free agency at the end of the season. Among the teams expected to jump to the front of the line for Hunter are Boston, the Chicago White Sox, St. Louis and Texas … The Orioles, with their starting rotation in tatters because of injury, are trying hard to make a deal and have their sights set on Kansas City left-hander Odalis Perez and right-hander Chan Ho Park, now with the New York Mets’ Triple-A New Orleans farm club, among others … Despite speculation to the contrary, Gibbons’ job is safe in Toronto through at least the end of this season … Jose Castillo, displaced as Pittsburgh’s second baseman after three years as a starter, has asked to be traded. His value is low since he hasn’t started since April 25 and it is doubtful GM Dave Littlefield would give him away … Fernando Rodney has replaced the injured Joel Zumaya as Detroit’s top set-up man, but the job could go to hard-throwing Double-A Erie right-hander Eulogio De La Cruz sometime soon … Jorge Julio is starting to throw strikes again in a middle relief role for Florida and could work his way back to being the Marlins‘ closer in the near future … San Diego seems ready to send struggling rookie third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff to the minor leagues after he has hit .115/.175/.207 in 95 plate appearances with a -10.7 VORPBrian Anderson, the Chicago White Sox’s starting center fielder last season, is now at Triple-A Charlotte, but hardly out of the plans with outfielders Jermaine Dye and Darin Erstad eligible for free agency at the end of this season. Left fielder Scott Podsednik could be a candidate to be non-tendered.

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