The 1977 baseball expansion began, as all of them did, as a political ploy. Keep in mind that at this time, the AL and NL maintained separate offices under the banner of MLB. They were no longer enemies of any sort, and rarely disagreed on anything significant. But there were still differences between the two leagues and at times some friction between them. (It wasn't until Bud Selig became commissioner that both league offices were closed and unified under the MLB, essentially making the differences between the two leagues minimal).
In the mid-1970's, the American League was floating the idea of interleague play. The NL was not warm to this idea at all, and wanted to maintain the current 12-team format for both leagues. But in February of 1976, the American League voted 11-1 to expand, adding two more teams in Toronto and Seattle. The plan (according to Dewey and Acocella) was that there could be two 13-team leagues engaging in constant interleague play, with Toronto switching to the NL.
By going ahead and approving the expansion, the AL thought they would force the NL's hand. They didn't. The National League owners didn't budge, and so the AL was stuck with 14 teams (2 divisions of 7 clubs each), while the NL stayed with 12. It was really a remarkable era; the AL sported 14 teams to the NL's 12 from 1977-1992 (when the NL added Colorado and Florida as expansion teams). Whereas from 1901-1977, the two leagues sported an equal number of teams in every season except one, 1961 (the AL expanded to 10 teams in 1961, while the NL waited until 1962).
While the NL retained the old 6-team dual-division format, the American League looked like this as of 1977:
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
Toronto Blue Jays*
Chicago White Sox
Kansas City Royals
* -- 1977 expansion teams
Toronto Blue Jays
The Toronto Blue Jays became competitive very quickly and very quietly. The organization became famous for its back-to-back World Series wins in 1992 and 1993, but what was hidden was an amazingly stable, winning franchise for most of the 1980's. The Jays fell victim to the post-strike blues, but after a brief foray into the world of sabermetrics, have moved on to the tried and true method of throwing a lot of money at free agents. The choice of Toronto as a franchise was not unexpected; the city had been used by disgruntled teams for years as a threatened relocation spot. The Padres nearly moved there in 1971, and although the move never happened, Toronto voters did expand their Exhibition Stadium for use as a baseball park.
It looked like a certainty that the San Francisco Giants would move to Toronto in 1976. A deal was even announced, with the key ownership being Donald McDougall of Labatt Breweries. But the San Francisco mayor got an injunction on the deal long enough to find a buyer to keep the team in San Francisco.
It was in the context of this recently failed bid that many of the same investors came together to form the Toronto expansion franchise. Robert Webster, head of the 1971 bid for the Padres, was named Chairman, and the team did a fine job manning the executive offices with good baseball men. GM Peter Bavasi hired manager Roy Hartsfield out of the Dodger organization, Pat Gillick away from the Yankee farm system (a system which would serve the Jays well in coming years), and scout Espy Guerrero, who had intimate knowledge of the good young baseball players of the Dominican Republic, knowledge which would give the Blue Jays an edge.
The Blue Jays began life as most expansion teams do; dreadfully. Even a keen group of front-office minds can't do much with an expansion draft. The inaugural version of the team, the 1977 Toronto Blue Jays, didn't have a lot to cheer about as they went about their 54-107 last-place finish. Their first pick in the expansion draft (2nd overall; the Mariners got first pick) was Baltimore prospect Bob Bailor, who ultimately didn't pan out to much at all. But there were some key picks in the draft that would help the team: their 3rd pick, Jim Clancy (taken from Texas) would help anchor their rotation for 12 seasons. They also had a mind-bending experience with Rico Carty; they took the semi-useful fading star from Cleveland with their 5th pick. They then turned around and traded Carty back to Cleveland for John Lowenstein and Rick Cerone. This wasn't a bad move, as Lowenstein would later develop into a quality player. But the Blue Jays never found out, because they traded him back to the Indians a few months later for some guy named Hector Torres. (Lowenstein would later star with Earl Weaver's Orioles).
The Jays took Royals pitcher Al Fitzmorris with their 7th pick, then turned right around and traded him to Cleveland (getting dizzy yet?) for a catching prospect named Alan Ashby. Ashby was no star, but he was a fine catcher who gave the Blue Jays two good years. Then they traded him to the Astros, where he thrived. The Astros sent Joe Cannon, Pedro Hernandez, and Mark Lemongello (isn't that a Chevy Chase character?) in exchange. Buried down in the expansion draft is future star and franchise player Ernie Whitt (17th pick, Boston).
It wasn't a bad haul for an expansion team, but try telling that to the 1.7 million (5th in AL) who showed up to Exhibition Stadium to watch a last-place team. In order to add some pop to the lineup, the Jays traded for Texas 3B Roy Howell (who wasn't great, but was good enough considering his surroundings) and former Dodgers star Ron Fairly. Fairly had one good season left, and he gave it to the Jays in 1977: a 279/362/465 hitting line which is impressive even in the hitter-friendly park. The pitching staff wasn't much better, with the only stability provided by league-average innings-eaters such as Jerry Garvin and Dave Lemanczyk. There was a bright spot in closer Pete Vuckovich, who posted a 3.47 ERA and struck out 123 in 148 IP. But after the season, the Jays traded him to St. Louis for one good year of Victor Underwood. Vuckovich would later win a Cy Young with Milwaukee (undeserved thought it was).
Off the field, the team was a pretty good success, even apart from its attendance. Marketing and merchandising went into overdrive with a Name the Team campaign (that luckily rejected the Toronto Dingbats) and a Blue Jay logo that looks silly only in hindsight (see above link).
The front office moved smoothly, making a decent showing in the expansion draft, with Gillick able to swing a few trades that managed to create some sort of long-term vision. One problem the Jays ran into (again referring to Dewey & Acocella) is that, having acquired the veteran (and thoroughly washed-up) pitcher Bill Singer, Gillick was anxious to spin him off in another trade. He had already agreed on a deal with the Yankees (who even then would pay anyone over the age of 30 just to put on a uniform), but upper management vetoed the deal, because Singer was on the cover of the team's media guide, and it would thus be a PR faux pas to trade away their "poster boy." Which was too bad, because the player the Yankees were going to trade away to get Singer was a fellow named Ron Guidry.
Toronto fans may have been a bit new to baseball (the city was previously loyal to the Tigers), but the fans knew what they wanted: beer. And Toronto laws prohibited drinking in public; thus "Prohibition Stadium" was dry until 1982. The fans were very cold and would often chant "We want beer," with nothing on the field to distract them.
While the organization did succeed in putting together a solid core of young minor leaguers, fans and writers grew impatient that the young talent wasn't showing up sooner. The Jays lost 100 games each of their first 3 years of existence, degenerating into a 53-109 record in 1979 that saw tempers flare and manager Hartsfield fired. GM Bavasi made no friends either by expousing to the players his "artichoke" theory: some players were "hearts" which would form the core of the team, while others were "leaves" who would be used and then discarded.
But the most embarassing episode from early Blue Jay history may be that of Danny Ainge. Ainge was a multi-sport superstar who favored college basketball over professional baseball. Desperate for a superstar who could sell tickets, make a media splash and perhaps help the team, the Blue Jays went out of their way in their pursuit of Ainge. They offered him a lucrative contract with concessions allowing him to play both college basketball and baseball. Ainge tried it for 3 years, but after 211 games and a 220/264/269 career hitting line, went back to basketball.
Things improved somewhat with a 67-95 record in 1980, but then the Jays fell to the league basement with a 37-69 record in the strike-shortened 1981 campaign (in the split-season format, the Jays finished in last place and last place).
There was some reason for optimism, even amidst all the hullabaloo. In the dark, 109-loss 1979, the Jays were able to count among themselves Rookie of the Year Alfredo Griffin, obtained in a trade with Cleveland (who apparently had a hotline to the Toronto front office). Even in 1980 and 1981, as old sluggers John Mayberry and the re-obtained Rico Carty failed to shoot the Blue Jays int0 contention, there were a lot of very good players emerging from the minor leagues. And, with his promotion to the job of General Manager, Pat Gillick was able to exploit his knowledge of the Yankee farm system. They also decided to hire a new manager, a skipper from Atlanta by the name of Bobby Cox.
All of these things came together in 1982, Cox's first year as manager, with a 78-84 record. It was only good for 6th place in a strong AL East, but it was a marvelous achievement for a franchise and a fanbase that had been told for years that the good players were coming. The Jays followed it up with an even more improbable 1983: 89-73, but still 4th place in their competitive division. They posted the same record in 1984, and this time it was good enough for 2nd place, albeit 15 games behind the juggernaut Tigers. Then, in 1985, it all came together: the Toronto Blue Jays went 99-62 and won a close race for the AL East over the New York Yankees. How were the Toronto bigwigs able to put together such a good team so quickly, reaching in the postseason in only their 9th season of existence?
Actually, they had been right all along: the good young players were coming. Mainly, they came in the form of a pitching staff and an outfield.
I'll start with the outfield, because that's the short part. The Blue Jays sported an outfield during the 1980's that was often referred to as one of the greatest outfields of all time. While I wouldn't go so far, you could do a lot worse than to have your outfield manned by George Bell, Lloyd Moseby, and Jesse Barfield.
Bell was a Dominican kid in San Pedro de Macoris, just like those signed by Espy Guerrero. History isn't so convenient, however; he was signed by the Phillies. However, Bell was taken by the Blue Jays in the Rule 5 draft. The Jays liked what they saw and kept him (making Bell one of the greatest players ever obtained via the semi-obscure Rule 5 draft).
Bell was considered to be a great hitter because of all the RBIs he picked up. I've ranted about the insane fixation with RBIs before, so suffice to say that Bell's RBIs made him look better than he was. Bell wasn't some great RBI machine (NOR was he the 1987 AL MVP; see previous blog). Bell was just a good slugger in the middle of a good lineup in a good hitter's park (and, in 1987, a great hitter's year). Bell hit for a decent average (.278 career), but didn't draw very many walks, leaving him with a pretty sorry .316 career OBP. In his best years, though, he could hit .300, and he did manage an impressive .469 career slugging percentage and 265 career home runs. But he was not quite the monster people imagined (as the unfortunate Cub fans later found out firsthand).
Lloyd Moseby was a good center fielder who had a solid career. Moseby had the reputation of a good defender, but that's an overstatement, especially when looking at his later years. He was a good enough hitter, compiling a career batting line of 257/332/414 over 12 seasons. But Moseby was easily the weakest of the three outfields. Replace Moseby with Ken Griffey Jr. and then you've got a historically good outfield.
Jesse Barfield's throwing arm enjoys perhaps the greatest reputation of any such in history. People reminisce fondly about Clemente and Carl Furillo, "The Reading Rifle." But there's a lot more videotape of Barfield, and his throws are often astonishing. The statistical evidence backs this up 100%, as Barfield's fielding stats in Toronto are absolutely eye-popping. People often forget, though, that Barfield was also a fine hitter. He was very similar to Bell, in fact. Bell hit for a higher average, but Barfield drew more walks. And the best hitter on the 1985 Jays was Jesse himself, posting a 289/369/536 batting line, with 27 HR and characteristically excellent defense.
And now, the pitching:
I mentioned Jim Clancy before. Clancy was taken in the expansion draft from the Texas Rangers. He reached the majors in 1977 with the Blue Jays and stayed with them until he left as a free agent in 1989. He endured the rough years before they became contenders, and so his won-lost records are deceiving. But in the early years, Clancy was the only star pitcher the Jays had. In 1980, Clancy went 13-16 (the team went 68-94), but that was in spite of posting an excellent 3.30 ERA in 250.2 IP. Clancy wasn't the star of the rotation for long -- we'll get to him in a minute -- but his 1982 and 1987 seasons were good enough to rate him among the top 10 pitchers in the league, and even when he wasn't great, he was usually good.
Doyle Alexander was a well-travelled pitcher when he came to the Jays as a free agent in mid-1983. He had been released outright by the Yankees (the Yankees of the 80's not known for their good decision-making skills) and picked up by Toronto. Alexander spent two full seasons in Toronto and parts of two others there. His worst ERA during that span was a 4.23 mark in 1986 before getting traded to the Braves -- and even that was just a bit below average. (As a side note, many people remember that the Braves traded away Doyle Alexander to get John Smoltz -- great deal for them, yes. But many forget that in order to get Doyle from Toronto the Braves gave up reliever Duane Ward -- who went on to a great career with the Jays, whereas the best thing Doyle did in Atlanta was get traded away for John Smoltz). But to get to the point, Alexander's two full seasons in Toronto, 1984 (17-6, 3.13 ERA, 261.2 IP) and 1985 (17-10, 3.45 ERA, 260.2 IP) were a huge part of their jump into contention.
Whereas Clancy and Alexander were obtained from other teams, lefthander Jimmy Key was a home-grown Blue Jay; drafted in the 3rd round of the 1982 draft. If you didn't look closely, you might not think Jimmy Key was very worthwhile. But Key spent 9 years of his 15 year-career with Toronto, during which he compiled an overall 186-117 record with a career 3.51 ERA (122 ERA+). Key was just consistently very good; Key spent 8 full seasons in Toronto and pitched at least 200 innings in 6 of them. His ERA was below-average all but two years in Toronto, with his worst a mere 4.25 mark in 1990 (93 ERA+). I have Key listed as one of the league's 10 best pitchers 5 times during his career; he never won a Cy Young Award but finished 2nd twice (1987 and 1994). His best season was almost certainly a 17-8, 2.76 ERA performance in 1987, the Year of the Hitter, where he also struck out 161 in 261 IP.
Key won the World Series with Toronto in 1992, but left as a free agent to join the Yankees in 1993. Key was one of the unsung heroes of the mid-90's Yankee teams that set the stage for the dynasty. He had some very good years in New York and finished off with 2 good years in Baltimore before retiring in 1998. I don't think Jimmy Key deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, but I think he's a hell of a lot closer than most people think.
But what if I told you that Key wasn't the best pitcher on the Blue Jays of that era? What if there were someone even better and even more underrated than he?
Dave Stieb might be the best pitcher of the 1980's.
Got your attention, huh? Notice I said "might." That title often goes to Jack Morris, but the comparison is laughable; just check the facts. Great pitchers like Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux got their start in the 1980's, but no one would consider their careers to be "centered" in the 1980s. Dwight Gooden and Orel Hershiser were, at their best, probably better pitchers than Stieb, but neither of them were able to sustain for very long. You could make an argument for a relief pitcher like Goose Gossage. Or you could go with Nolan Ryan, who was a probably better than Stieb, but a) his best years didn't come in the 80's, and 2)it's hard to confine Nolan's career to one decade. And if I had to, I'd pick the 70's. But still, I have put forward a very radical suggestion about Dave Stieb. No one would suggest Steib for the Hall of Fame (very few have outside SABR meetings), but he just might belong there.
Stieb spent 15 of his 16 major league seasons in Toronto (his 1993 campaign with the White Sox was forgettable). Stieb was a product of the Toronto farm system, arriving in the majors in 1979. His emergence was a major part of what set the Jays on the road to the 1985 AL East crown. Stieb never won 20 games, and his 176 career wins are the major reason he'll never see his face on a Cooperstown plaque. Some of this is chance; pitcher "wins" are not indicative of quality. ERA, which is much closer, is what Stieb scores so highly on. 3.44 career ERA (122 ERA+).
But that sounds a lot like Jimmy Key? What made Stieb better? Stieb pitched about 300 more career innings than Key, which isn't a lot, but is still a factor. But I would contend that Stieb was a better pitcher, at his peak, than Key. I mentioned before that I have Key rated as one of the AL's ten best pitchers in 5 years. Stieb makes the list in 6 different years. Not a big difference, right? But consider that I have Stieb as the best pitcher in the AL in 1982 and 1985. Key rates no higher than third in his best season.
What about Stieb's 1985 season? It was his best, by far (and it also brings us back full circle). Stieb posted a miniscule 2.48 ERA, good enough for an ERA+ of 171. According to www.baseball-reference.com, Steib's 1985 season just misses being ranked as one of the 100 best pitcher seasons of all time, as judged by ERA+. Steib did walk 96, but he struck out 167 while pitching 265 innings. His ERA was the AL's best; he finished 3rd in IP and 7th in strikeouts. However, he finished 7th in the Cy Young voting. I'll list the vote totals along with corresponding stats and let you see if you can figure out why Steib finished so poorly:
1985 Cy Young Award Voting
1. Bret Saberhagen (20-6, 2.87 ERA, 145 ERA+, 38 BB : 158K)
2. Ron Guidry (22-6, 3.27 ERA, 123 ERA+, 42BB : 143K)
3t Bert Blyleven (17-16, 3.16 ERA, 135 ERA+, 75BB : 206K)
3t Dan Quisenberry (8-9, 2.37 ERA, 175 ERA+, 37 SV, 16 BB : 54 K, 129 IP)
5. Charlie Leibrandt (17-9, 2.69 ERA, 154 ERA+, 68 BB : 108 K)
6. Doyle Alexander (17-10, 3.45 ERA, 123 ERA+, 67BB : 142K)
7t Dave Stieb (14-13, 2.48 ERA, 171 ERA+, 96BB : 167K)
7t Britt Burns (18-11, 3.96 ERA, 109 ERA+, 79BB : 172K)
7t Donnie Moore (8-8, 1.92 ERA, 214 ERA+, 21 : 72K, 103 IP)
The only other vote-getter was Seattle's Mike Moore.
Okay, so I italicized the stat that kept Stieb from the Cy. Why didn't he win? Saberhagen was just bursting onto the scene as part of the Royals team that won the AL West. He had very good contr0l (a legitimate advantage over Stieb) and posted a good ERA. Oh, and he won 20 games. Whereas Stieb had been pitching well for years (although not this well), but no one really noticed anything happening in Toronto, especially since the Exhibition Park hurt pitchers by a fair degree. Stieb didn't even get the most votes on his team, coming in a close second to Doyle. Also take into account that over in the NL, a young phenom named Gooden was leaping tall buildings with a single bound and, along with several other outstanding pitchers such as John Tudor, overshadowed much of what was happening in the AL.
My own list of the best pitchers in the '85 AL has Stieb at the top, followed by Blyleven, Saberhagen, and Leibrandt. I may have slighted some of those good relief pitchers, it's true. But the AL's best relief pitcher in 1985 didn't even get a vote; good though Moore and Quisenberry were, I think Bob James (2.13 ERA, 203 ERA+) was better.
Now, having fully diverged from the original point, I'll sum up Stieb. The other numbers are important, but I'll focus on that career ERA+ of 122. That ranks Stieb as tied for 80th all-time. Who is he tied with? Four Hall-of-Famers: Bob Feller, Juan Marichal, Eddie Plank, and Babe Ruth (oddly enough). He's tied with teammate Jimmy Key as well as deadball star Orval Overall and 19th-century great Larry Corcoran.
Stieb ranks higher than: Don Drysdale, Joe McGinnity, Tom Glavine, Jose Rijo, and many others, of course.
Stieb ranks just below: Lefty Gomez, Mike Mussina, Tim Keefe, Jim Palmer, Mel Parnell, Dazzy Vance, Dizzy Trout, Eddie Cicotte, Silver King, John Tudor, Urban Shocker
Here's a group of Hall-of-Famers and non-Hall-of-Famers. We could safely say that we may have found The Gap that separates those who are from those who aren't. Where does Stieb rank? I really can't say. This isn't an essay about Dave Stieb, so I won't go into a 10-page comparison of Stieb to these people. But if baseball fans and historians can start considering Stieb as deserving to be mentioned in the same sentence as these people, then we've scored a victory for accuracy. And even if Stieb was only as good as Mel Parnell or Urban Shocker, that's still pretty darned good.
Oh yeah, the Blue Jays. Other important members of the 1985 team were catcher Ernie Whitt, taken in the expansion draft, 3B Rance Mulliniks (stolen from the Royals in a 1982 trade for Phil Huffman) and a very strong bullpen of 5 fine pitchers: veterans Bill Caudill, Dennis Lamp, and Gary Lavelle, a solid young arm in Jim Acker, and an awkward-looking future superstar named Tom Henke. In the years to come, when the veterans had gone and Acker was traded to Atlanta, Henke would be the rock of the Toronto bullpen. He and Duane Ward (obtained in the Doyle Alexander trade with Atlanta) would serve as co-closers of the team all the way through the championship years of '92 and '93.
One young player that scout Guerrero did manage to get first dibs on was shortstop Tony Fernandez. Having already expounded far too much on how underrated Dave Stieb was, I'll save my Tony Fernandez speech for later. But Fernandez was a good hitter for a middle infielder, had the flexibility to play multiple positions, and proved outstandingly durable, serving four separate tours of duty with the Jays during his 17-year career.
The other source of talent was from the Yankees via former company man Gillick. Whatever faults Willie Upshaw had, he could hit, and Gillick took him in the Rule 5 draft to play 1st base. They also got a quality second baseman in Damaso Garcia, taken from the Yanks in a trade that also netted Chris Chambliss, in exchange for Tom Underwood and Rick Cerone.
This very impressive group went up against the Kansas City Royals of Bret Saberhagen and George Brett in the '85 ALCS. The Jays took an early 3-games-to-1 lead, which would have won the ALCS under best-of-5 rules. But 1985 was the first season the LCS was played under best-of-7 rules, and the Royals won the last 3 games to take the pennant. It also helped earn Toronto the reputation of a team that couldn't win the big game.
What should have been the start of something grand . . . well, wasn't. After the season, Cox took over as GM of his old team in Atlanta. He was replaced by Jimmy Williams. While the team contended for the rest of the decade and beyond, it was plagued by internal strife. Some of it centered around the eternal baseball struggle of manager-versus-player. In this case, it was Williams against left fielder Bell. Bell was a pretty bad left fielder, but at least he could hit, and much worse than him have played the position. But Williams fixated on Bell's inability to field, trying to get Bell to agree to being the full-time DH. The disagreement sputtered on in various forms for the rest of Bell's tenure in Toronto, a constant distraction.
But the real distraction, a major one, was the division of the clubhouse into racial cliques and tensions over religion. Manager Williams rankled many feathers when he cancelled chapel sessions before ballgames, claiming players were too worried about God and not enough about baseball. This infuriated a group of born-again Christian players on the team, and did nothing to help a clubhouse that was firmly separated into white, black, and latin cliques.
Although the Blue Jays played good baseball for the rest of the decade, the stigma of being "chokers" remained. This wasn't helped when, in 1987, the club blew a seemingly comfortable lead in the AL East to the Detroit Tigers. The final blow was on the last day of the season, Toronto still with a chance to tie in the division standings, when Jimmy Key went the distance, giving up only one run. But against Detroit's Frank Tanana, one run was enough, the Blue Jays lost 1-0, and the Tigers won the AL East.
The stigma of choking was never more horribly apparent than in the case of Dave Stieb. The 1988 club was in the thick of a very exciting 4-team race for the AL East in September. The stakes were raised when, down the stretch, Dave Stieb became unhittable -- to an extent. In back-to-back starts in September of 1988, Stieb carried a no-hitter for 26 outs -- only to lose it. On the second occasion it was not only a no-hitter, but a perfect game than Stieb sustained for 8 2/3 innings before succumbing. (This horror was thankfully corrected when Stieb threw a no-hitter in September of 1990). The Jays finished 1988 2 games back of the Red Sox.
1989 was a year of change. It saw the opening of SkyDome, the Jays' new home. Considered a modern wonder, SkyDome had a restaurant, hotel, SkyBoxes, a gigantic electronic scoreboard, and a two-story McDonald's. The '88 club finished 3rd in the AL in attendance in Exhibition Stadium, drawing over 2.5 million fans to see the pennant race. The club moved into SkyDome mid-way through the 1989 season, and business was good. The 1989 division-winning Jays led all of baseball with 3,375,883 in attendance. In 1990, that figure rose to nearly 3.9 million. In 1991, the Blue Jays became the first team in baseball history to draw 4 million fans in one season, with a final tally of 4,001,527. The attendance increased a little bit for the next two years -- until the 1994 baseball strike (and the dismantling of the 1992-3 World Champions) brought things crashing down.
(As a footnote, only 4 AL clubs finished with a better record than the Blue Jays in the decade of the 1980's: the Yankees, Tigers, Royals, and Red Sox).
So there was plenty of positive energy following the Jays into the 1989 ALCS. A lot of good it did them, as the 99-win Oakland A's took the series in 5 games.
After giving Williams a contract extension to back him in his dispute with Bell, Gillick changed his mind after a 12-24 start to 1990, giving the interim job to hitting coach Cito Gaston. While Gillick was off talking to the Yankees about hiring away "special advisor" Lou Pineilla, the Jays went on a tear under Gaston, finishing 77-49 and effectively removing his "interim" status.
There were plenty of old faces manning the 1991 club (Mulliniks, Key, Stieb, Henke, Ward), but also many new additions. Gillick didn't let the grass grow under his feet and get complacent with his winning 1980s teams; he kept rebuilding and kept winning. Coming through the farm system were young hurlers Todd Stottlemyre and David Wells, as well as sweet-hitting first baseman John Olerud. Gillick also took players such as Kelly Gruber and Juan Guzman in trades. But the biggest trade of the late 80's actually occurred in 1982. It's documented in Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders and deserves its status. Here it is:
Blue Jays get: Fred McGriff, Dave Collins, Mike Morgan AND CASH
Yankees get: Dale Murray, Tom Dodd
The Yankees turned over one good player (Collins) and two very good prospects (McGriff and Morgan) for a washed-up relief pitcher in Dale Murray? If you ever wondered why the 1982 Yankees went 79-83 (or why the 1991 Yankees finished 71-91 while McGriff was in his prime), then wonder no more.
Good though McGriff was, Gillick took a gamble by sending him and Tony Fernandez to San Diego for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar. This is a tough trade, in that the talent is balanced almost equally on both sides. But it worked out fine for Toronto; they had a replacement for McGriff at first in Olerud, Alomar was an even better player than Fernandez, and Joe Carter hit a home run you may have heard about.
Armed with Alomar and Carter, the 1991 Jays won the AL East by 7 games. It was their 3rd division title in their 15th major league season, making many wonder whether they still counted as an expansion franchise or not; only the Royals could compare. But the Jays again fell short when it counted, losing the ALCS to the Twins in 5 games.
Having tried most everything to get a ring, Gillick went to the free agent market in 1992. Having noticed the pitching of Jack Morris down in October of '91, Gillick signed him to anchor the rotation, weakened as the core of 80's regulars aged. He also signed Dave Winfield to DH. Both Winfield and Morris answered any questions as to their age, leading the Jays to another division title in 1992. Gillick scored another coup with the mid-season acquisition of David Cone from the Mets in exchange for Jeff Kent (Kent did eventually become a star -- but not with the Mets).
Against their old foes the Athletics, the Jays defied all of their critics with a 6-game victory in the ALCS. The club was led by all-around gem (and ALCS MVP) Roberto Alomar and a 281/346/471 team hitting line. In the World Series, it was another unlikely participant, the formerly laughable Atlanta Braves. The vaunted Braves pitching was still there -- Atlanta had a 2.65 team ERA -- but Brave hitters were held to a .220 average. Dave Winfield drove home the decisive run in Game 6, a fitting end to a glorious career spent in search of World Series glory. The Jays won a milestone World Series, bringing home the first World Championship trophy outside the United States.
The 1992-1993 offseason saw more turnover than for any defending World Champion in recent history, even moreso than the '97 Marlins (as I've blogged previously). Here's what the ledger said:
OUT: Dave Winfield, David Cone, Jimmy Key, Tom Henke, Kelly Gruber, Derek Bell, Manuel Lee, Candy Maldonado
IN: Paul Molitor, Tony Fernandez (again), Dave Stewart, Danny Cox, Tony Castillo
That doesn't look very equitable, does it? That's a BIG loss. And what did it result in? A 95-67 record (just 1 game worse than '92), a 3rd-stright AL East Title, a 6-game victory over the White Sox in the ALCS, and the survival of a World Series slugfest, defeating the Phillies in 6 games. The Jays won despite an ERA of 5.77 -- mainly because the Phillies' team ERA was 7.57. The "highlight" was a 15-14 game 4 victory for Toronto, marking a World Series-record 29 runs scored between two teams.
Perhaps it was the delayed result of the post-1992 bloodletting, but the 1994 version of the team finished a disappointing 55-60. Not that anyone noticed, what with the baseball strike going on . . .
The 1994 club was a disappointment. The previously potent offense saw only Olerud, Alomar, and Molitor return as solid contributors. Catcher Pat Borders and 3B Ed Sprague slumped, and Joe Carter . . . well, he wasn't so great to begin with, but he did lead the team with 27 HR. The starting rotation was hurt by injury (no starter threw more than 175 innings) and ineffectiveness, with only Pat Hentgen pitching well. Having already lost Tom Henke to free agency, Duane Ward suffered an injury that kept him from throwing a pitch in 1994 and essentially ended his career, leaving the bullpen a very unimpressive bunch. The 55-60 finish marked he club's first sub-.500 finish since 1982. GM Pat Gillick resigned after the season, leaving the team in the hands of new GM Gordon Ash.
In 1995, it was again Olerud, Alomar and Molitor providing all the offense, leaving the club 13th of 14 in the league in runs scored. The pitching staff was little better; Pat Hentgen struggled to a 5.11 ERA, and while the team did re-acquire David Cone (3.38 ERA) to supplement Al Leiter (acquired from the Yankees in 1989 for an over-the-hill Jesse Barfield), it wasn't enough. The team went 56-88 and finished last in the realigned AL East. It was the franchise's first cellar finish since the dual finishes in both halves of the 1981 campaign. Less than 4 months after acquiring him, Cone was traded back to Kansas City.
The next two seasons were equally depressing, as the Jays lost 88 and 86 games, finishing 4th and 5th(last), respectively. The team's plunge to the depths of the division saw an ownership change (of sorts) when Labatt Breweries was taken over by a Belgium brewer named Interbrew. In 1992, there was a major uproar when the Mariners were sold to the Nintendo company. This was during the early 90's era of anti-Japanese sentiment, and baseball went out of their way to be sure there would be no "foreign control" of the Mariners. (Nintendo eventually made concessions placing controlling interest in the USA). When the Blue Jays were taken over by a Belgian company, however, baseball was conspicuously silent. Again quoting Dewey & Acocella, "... as far as Major League Baseball was concerned, Europeans were not quite as foreign as Japanese."
There were some highlights during these years. The previously unsung Pat Hentgen won the 1996 Cy Young Award with a 20-10 record and a 3.22 ERA, despite pitching for a 74-88 team (the rule that MVPs and Cy Youngs have to come from contenders only applies when baseball writers want it to).
But the most impressive pitching performance came from free agent Roger Clemens. It seemed unlikely that the Blue Jays, a team trending downward, would be able to afford the best pitcher of his era, but Clemens' departure from Boston came amidst concerns that he had already passed his peak years. The Blue Jays still had to pony up $17 million for the Rocket's services from 1997-1998.
The myth of Clemens' "downfall" in Boston was created by an inaccurate grasp of statistics. After going 18-11 in 1992, Clemens' W-L records in his remaining BoSox years were 11-14, 9-7, 10-5, and 10-13. An ignorant man (and there were many of them) would think that Clemens (34 at the time he joined Toronto) was done.
But the W-L records said more about Boston's descent into mediocrity than anything Clemens was doing. Clemens' ERA was above-average each year from 1993-1996, including an amazing 2.85 mark in 1995 (177 ERA+) and a 3.63 mark (142 ERA+) in 1996, the year before he left Boston. Clemens was still averaging nearly a strikeout per innning, the mark of an elite pitcher, culminating with 257 K in 242.2 IP in 1996. Boston GM Dan Duquette was off his trolley to suggest that Clemens was finished.
But when Clemens arrived in Toronto, something odd happened -- he became even better. Clemens' 2 seasons with Toronto -- 1997 and 1998 -- may not be his two best seasons, but they're very close. They're 2 of the best back-to-back seasons by a pitcher of the modern era. Here's what Clemens did:
1997: 21-7, 2.05 ERA, 226 ERA+, 68BB : 292K, 264 IP, 9 HR
1998: 20-6, 2.65 ERA, 176 ERA+, 88BB : 271 K, 234.2 IP, 11 HR
This was during an era of renaissance for hitters in a hitter's league, and in a ballpark (SkyDome) that tended to favor hitters. The AL ERA in 1997 was 4.57; in 1998 it was 4.65. Clemens' 226 ERA+ in 1997 ties him for 12th all-time, along with Dwight Gooden's 1985. The only pitchers since World War 2 to best Clemens have been Greg Maddux twice (1994 and 1995), Pedro Martinez twice (1999 and 2000), and Bob Gibson in 1968.
Getting back to the point however, Clemens alone was not able to bring the Jays to the postseason. Longtime manager Cito Gaston lost his job mid-way through the last-place 1997 campaign, a victim of his own harsh words and methods. Gaston unsuccessfully tried to turn John Olerud and Shawn Green into pull hitters, failing to disguise his contempt for the two quiet superstars. Both men were traded away (presumably due to these conflicts), whereupon both thrived in their new surroundings. Olerud, formerly a franchise player who made a run at a .400 batting average more than once, was sent to the Mets for a generic arm in Robert Person. Gaston cracked that Olerud would get swamped in the New York environment, but the quiet first baseman played as good as ever, helping the Mets into the postseason whereas the Jays sank. Green was sent to the Dodgers for the more expensive, more petulant Raul Mondesi. It wasn't such a bad talent trade, except that Mondesi's skills began evaporating in Toronto, while Green flourished in L.A. Gaston has not worked as a big-league skipper since.
The 1998 club, under new manager Tim Johnson, posted a very surprising 88-74 record. It was good enough only for 3rd place in the AL East, but the Jays were a factor in the Wild Card race (finishing 4 games out), and looked to be climbing toward respectability. In the season before his trade, Shawn Green gave a preview of things to come by bashing 35 HR and slugging .510. Prospect Shannon Stewart provided a spark in left field while Jose Cruz, Jr., stolen from Seattle, provided some pop in center. DH Jose Canseco hit 46 HR, but then that doesn't seem as surprising now, given hindsight.
The key to the offense, though, was a young lefty slugger named Carlos Delgado. The Jays weren't exactly awash in young talent in the mid-90's, but Delgado was a gem. The slugger spent 9 full seasons in Toronto, hitting at least 25 HR every year, drawing 100 walks 4 times, posting a .400+ OBP 4 times, and never slugging below .490. Delgado was the rock of stability in a lineup that was sometimes good but never great. The quiet superstar incurred the wrath of some American fans when he spoke out against U.S. policy, particularly bomb testing near his native Puerto Rico. Delgado would later refuse to stand for "God Bless America," a quiet protest that nevertheless prevented him from being recognized as the superstar he was.
With a decent pitching staff, the 1998 Jays would likely have won the Wild Card. While they did have one last glorious season of Roger Clemens, that was about it. Former stars Pat Hentgen and Juan Guzman were unable to pitch with any degree of consistency, and the signing of free agent closer Randy Myers proved disastrous, with the Jays dumping him on San Diego mid-season. The Jays got good relief work from rubber-armed Paul Quantrill and the ageless Dan Plesac, but it wasn't enough to put them into October.
As it turned out, the pleasant 1998 surprise was but a fleeting moment of success. Manager Johnson would often use tales of his exploits in Vietnam to inspire his players. This proved a major embarassment to the club when press reports revealed Johnson had never even been to Vietnam, and that many of his other professional claims were questionable. He was replaced by Jim Fregosi.
Fregosi presided over respectable and forgettable clubs. The AL East entered a bizarre period, from 1998 through 2003, where the order of finish never changed over the 6 seasons. The Blue Jays finished 3rd every year during those years. They never lost more than 84 games during the stretch, but they also never rose above third, and were rarely in any sort of serious contention.
The "Third Place Quagmire," as it could be called, was a period of instability and change. Many faces came and went, and it was a rare player who stayed and produced (such as Delgado). Some of the faces to grace Toronto included third baseman Tony Batista, perhaps the worst player ever to hit 40 HR in a season. In 2000, Batista swatted 41 HR and netted 114 RBIs, making many commentators dub him a hitting phenom. What he actually was was Dave Kingman's spirit in a hitter's era. Batista hit .263 that year while drawing only 35 walks against 121 strikeouts. His 263/307/519 hitting line wasn't awful, but he got jobs for years afterward from teams who couldn't see past those empty 114 RBIs.
The pitching staff was a work in progress, even though it didn't actually make progress. Marginal major-leaguers such as Joey Hamilton and Steve Parris moved in and out of the rotation, with little hope for the future. Kelvim Escobar shuffled back and forth from rotation to bullpen to closer, generally doing a good job, but unable to save the team by himself.
The bullpen was generally good, although the team was unable to find a competent closer. They were very embarassed when they gave up "failed" closer Billy Koch in a trade with Oakland, only to see him blossom into a star. (There was some consolation to the trade; the Jays got Eric Hinske in return. Hinske won the 2003 AL Rookie of the Year Award and has since been dying a slow, painful death). And so the Jays were relieved when a pitcher arrived on the scene to save the day. He was a 6'6" righthander who may yet challenge Dave Stieb for the title of best Blue Jay pitcher ever.
Roy Halladay is a great pitcher -- in between injuries. Said injuries have become so frequent however, that it's difficult to predict his future with any clarity. After a 1998 cup of coffee, Halladay fought his way into the rotation in 1999, posting a 3.92 ERA over 149.1 IP. He was a fireballer, although control was an issue (79BB : 82K). The Jays were still utterly disappointed when injuries limited him to 67.2 IP in 2000.
Halladay made it back in time to throw 105.1 innings in 2001 with a great 3.16 ERA -- and a 25:96 BB:K ratio. Thoughts that the Blue Jays might have finally found their ace culminated in 2002 and 2003, when Halladay pitched as well as any other AL pitcher. Halladay in 2002 may have been the league's best pitcher, posting a 2.93 ERA with a 62:168 BB:K ratio. But it was his 2003 campaign that earned him the AL Cy Young; 22-7, 3.25 ERA, and an ungodly 32:204 BB:K ratio.
The problem was with Halladay's use, or overuse. He threw 239.1 IP in 2002 and a league-leading 266 in his Cy Young 2003. Subsequent injuries limited him to 133 innings in 2004. Halladay came back in 2005 healthy and with the Jays presumable watching his pitch counts; but then he suffered a broken leg off of a line drive. His season stopped with a 2.41 ERA in 141.2 IP and a 18:108 BB:K ratio. He could very easily have won the Cy Young Award last year had Kevin Mench missed that particular pitch.
Halladay is still with the Jays, having signed a lucrative extension to keep him in town. He turned 29 years old on Monday (the 14th) and still has many good years ahead of him. The Hall of Fame isn't out of the question at all, but that's providing that his arm (as well as his back, knees, etc.) can carry the load. Will he spend all of that time in Toronto? It depends. If the Jays start winning and make money, perhaps. If not, then definitely not.
But it was armed with this young arm that the Jays entered 2001. But there were many changes in the club -- mainly off the field. The hiring of manager Buck Martinez to replace Tim Johnson wasn't the most significant change, although Martinez has yet to justify himself as a major league manager. The biggest change wasn't even in ownership, when Interbrew sold off controlling interest in the team to the Canadian media group Rogers Communications. No, the biggest change came when Rogers went looking for a General Manager.
It was 2001, and word of Billy Beane's success in Oakland was spreading around the league. Moneyball had not yet been published, and so baseball traditionalists had not yet been possessed with the spirit of William Jennings Bryan in defying Beane's science. What Rogers saw in the new method was something that made sense - not just in a "baseball" way, but in a business way. Moneyball quotes the GM search committee as saying that almost everyone who came in said, "Give me enough money to compete with the Yankees, and we'll win." There was one dissident voice: J.P. Ricciardi, Asst. GM of the Oakland A's, and Billy Beane's right-hand man.
Ricciardi looked at the Toronto roster and said (according to Moneyball), "All of these guys can be replaced by people you've never heard of." And, with the exception of Halladay and perhaps Delgado, this was absolutely true. The Jays post-1993 had been overvaluing players based on all of the wrong reasons (Tony Batista's RBIs) for years.
Ricciardi took over, making one of his first moves the hiring away of Keith Law from the Internet think tank baseballprospectus.com. It was one of the first efforts by a baseball team to take a modern sabermetrician and pay him to do his thinking for only our team; instead of doing it on the Internet where all 30 teams can see it.
Ricciardi went about stripping away the more inefficient parts of the Blue Jays such as Jose Cruz, Jr., Raul Mondesi, and the entire pitching staff, except for Halladay and Escobar. In their place were prospects, because Ricciardi knew that the only way a team with Toronto's budget could compete was to have a group of unknown superstars making arbitration money filling the roster.
As a sabermetrician, I wish I could say that Ricciardi's plan worked. But it didn't. The Jays didn't get worse, but they did remain the same 3rd-place underachievers they were before (with the exception of an ugly last-place finish in 2004, where the team ranked below even the Devil Rays in the AL East).
Why did Ricciardi's plan fail? The main reason might be that he was in the wrong division. While the Jays' W-L records aren't inspiring, it must be taken into account that they were competing in the tough AL East. 88 wins in the AL East might have been good enough for 90-92 wins and an occasional playoff spot in another division, where they was usually some measure of competition from year to year.
But that's a cop-out answer that relieves Riccardi of responsibility. The truth is that while Ricciardi was able to find a decent group of underrated cast-offs and homegrown talents, they were never more than just that-- decent. You could do a lot worse than having Orlando Hudson, Reed Johnson, Vernon Wells, and Frank Catalanotto in your lineup. And you could do a lot worse than Ted Lilly, Miguel Batista, and Josh Towers in your rotation. But while the players I described could form the core of a competitive team and win 80-85 games (as they did), they were simply not going to win 95 games and pass either New York or Boston. If supplemented by an occasional top-notch free agent, the team could contend. But the only superstars on J.P.'s roster were Halladay and Delgado, who left after the 2004 season to strike it rich on the free agent market. It was some combination of a lack of luck and talent that kept Ricciardi from forming the farm system and major league roster he wanted.
So what did he do? This past offseason, armed with a bigger budget from the Rogers company, Ricciardi tossed his previous plan completely aside and went on a free agent buying-and-trading tear. The Jays signed big-name free agents A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan, and Bengie Molina. They also completed trades for Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay.
Apart from adding a lot of money to the team payroll, did Ricciardi's moves benefit the team? It's too early to tell, although as of this writing, the Jays are 22-17 and 1.5 games out of the AL East. But in my opinion, Ricciardi spent far too much money to only marginally improve the team. The contract given to Burnett is a huge risk because, while Burnett is good when healthy, 1)he isn't great and 2) he's rarely healthy, already back on the DL for the second time this season. The contract given to Ryan is the biggest contract ever given to a relief pitcher. Ryan has a more promising track record than Burnett, but 1) Ryan is 30 and 2) relief pitchers are the most volatile of any players. Even moreso than other pitchers, relief pitchers go up and down in quality from season to season for reasons that are at present unknown and mostly unpredictable. So if you're going to drop a healthy chunk of change on a stock, pick something reliable, not something that could go from top to bottom overnight.
The trade for Glaus gives the Jays a much better hitter at third base -- but at a steep salary. The Jays got Overbay from Milwaukee in exchange for Corey Koskie. Overbay is younger and cheaper, but is about to enter free agency and become 1) more expensive and 2) maybe not a Blue Jay anymore. And it's not clear that Overbay is that much better than Koskie. The essential problem with these deals is that the Jays have gone to a lot of expense and trouble to switch out their 1B-3B-DH positions from Hinske-Koskie-Hillenbrand last year to Overbay-Glaus-Hillenbrand this year. That's an improvement, but an expensive and troublesome one, and not enough to close the gap with Boston and New York.
As far as pitching goes, the Jays are still counting almost exclusively on Halladay. Burnett should be a big addition, but he won't be when he's on the DL (a problem which should have been foreseen). The Jays still have a reliable arm in Ted Lilly and a pair of promising youngsters in Josh Towers and Gustavo Chacin (although Chacin's low strikeout rate appears to be catching up to him). Without Burnett, this is still the same squad of pretty-goods as last year.
The Blue Jays are now capable of winning 90 games instead of just 85. Sure, they could hit some luck and win 95, but would that be enough to win the ever-toughening AL East? Or even the Wild Card? Can the Jays go into the free agent market against Boston and New York and expect to come out alive? And if this current group fails, will it mean the end of J.P.'s job and a start from scratch?
We'll have to watch this season to find out. But the 2005 Jays might end up being too similar to their 1980's counterparts: almost good enough to win -- but not quite.
Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders by Rob Neyer
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis