Jays no longer playing second fiddle to Yanks, Sox

For the last five seasons, the Toronto Blue Jays have been fighting what sometimes feels like a losing battle.

Locked into a division with baseball's two biggest super powers, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, the Blue Jays have felt overwhelmed and undermanned. Though their payroll has been increasing steadily to the point where the Jays are now in baseball's upper half when it comes to spending, they remain far behind the two teams they must topple to reach the top of the American League East.

But lately, there are signs that the battle is being joined -- in the standings, and just as important, in spending. The Jays overtook the Red Sox to finish in second place last season, their highest finish since 1993.

Then, last month, the Jays signed center fielder Vernon Wells to a mammoth seven-year, $126 million contract extension.

In the history of the game, only five players have gotten bigger deals. Tellingly, the top three -- Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Manny Ramirez -- currently play for the Yankees or Red Sox.

Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi, who negotiated the deal with Wells, isn't sure that the signing represents a sea change. But he does see it as highly significant.

"I don't know if it puts us on an even keel with the Yankees and Red Sox [when it comes to resources]," said Ricciardi. "It wasn't like we said we had to do this to keep up with those teams. But what it means is that we now have our two best players [Wells and starting pitcher Roy Halladay] locked up for a number of years, in their prime."

It's more than that, of course. The mere fact that a team from a city other than Boston, New York, Chicago or Los Angeles handed out a nine-figure deal suggests that the Blue Jays can, on occasion at least, play with the big boys.

The Blue Jays' budget isn't bottomless, the way the Yankees and Red Sox seem to often be. The Jays didn't bid on Daisuke Matsuzaka or get into the fray for Barry Zito -- whose deal with the San Francisco Giants is for the same length and dollar amount as Wells' contract -- even though they need a starter to replace Ted Lilly.

They have their limits.

But by signing Wells and keeping him off the market and extending Halladay last spring to a three-year, $40 million pact that kicks in starting with the 2008 season, the Blue Jays have made a statement of sorts: If nothing else, the Jays can keep their own. That message was sent to the Toronto fan base -- which has yet to fully return after the disastrous 1994-95 strike -- and to the lower reaches of the Blue Jays' player development system.

"It was just a situation where we could keep our two best players here and build around them," said Ricciardi. "That was important to us, especially when you look at the timing. Vernon will be starting this contract at 28, so we've got him in the prime of his career. Same with Doc [Halladay]."

By his own admission, Ricciardi could not have forecast a team such as his giving out a contract such as this only a few short years ago. But after limiting his club's spending in his first four years to help balance previous losses, Ricciardi now has additional flexibility -- and resources.

It helped that Wells was a known commodity who has been part of the Toronto organization since 1997. There was no mystery about the kind of player -- or person -- they were getting for their investment.

"We know Vernon will never do anything to embarrass the organization," Ricciardi said. "He plays hard, he plays every day and as good as he is, I don't think he's really reached his full potential. I think there may be another gear there. When you're dealing with this kind of money, the biggest thing is that we not only liked the ballplayer, but we know what he's all about."

For Ricciardi, the signing of Wells follows on the heels of a series of moves in the last 15 months that have moved the Jays into baseball's upper middle class. Since the end of the 2005 season, Toronto has traded for Lyle Overbay and Troy Glaus, signed free agents B.J. Ryan, A.J. Burnett and Frank Thomas and extended Wells and Halladay.

"We have to be a little choosier with our decisions," emphasized Ricciardi. "I don't think we're in the same [economic] class as the Yankees and Red Sox and we probably never will be. But we've come a long way."

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.