Jays' rocky road looks bright ahead
Trials in 2009 allowed young players to gain experience
The Blue Jays had plenty of ups and downs in 2009 -- a year that signaled a transition period for the organization. For all the changes that took place, though, the club saw plenty of promise for the future of the ballclub.
Adam Lind and Aaron Hill developed into one of the game's top offensive duos, giving Toronto a pair of budding stars for new general manager Alex Anthopoulos to build around. On the mound, rookie Ricky Romero shined in his first tour of the big leagues, leading a pack of young pitchers, and Roy Halladay continued his mastery as the one of baseball's true aces in his final season with Toronto.
Those needing a refresher course in the year that was -- or those who simply want to relive some of the highs and lows experienced by the Blue Jays -- what follows is a month-by-month look at an '09 campaign that served as a building block for future seasons.
During Toronto's annual State of the Franchise event, then-interim president and CEO Paul Beeston discussed the plan for the 2009 season. In a depressed economic climate, Toronto did not add any Major League free agents over the offseason and planned on using the upcoming campaign to provide experience for many of the team's young, up-and-coming players.
Former Blue Jays player and coach Ernie Whitt received an unexpected honor in February. Whitt -- Team Canada's manager in the World Baseball Classic -- was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. "I'm thrilled to death," Whitt said. "This is something I would never have dreamed of, to be put into another country's Hall of Fame. It is truly humbling."
The Blue Jays opened Spring Training in Dunedin, Fla., with a pile of question marks on the roster. The biggest challenge for manager Cito Gaston was to map out the starting rotation behind Halladay. Toronto had a long list of pitchers in the mix for a starting job, including Jesse Litsch, David Purcey, Scott Richmond, Brett Cecil, Brad Mills, and Romero, among others.
Toward the end of the month, Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells suffered a right hamstring injury. The injury, combined with some other contractual issues, kept Wells from participating in the World Baseball Classic with Team USA. It was the first of many issues to come up over the course of a rough 2009 campaign for Wells.
With the Grapefruit League season under way, Toronto played host to both Team Canada and Team USA in exhibitions leading up to the World Baseball Classic. On March 3, Richmond, vying for a spot in the rotation, took the mound for Canada and faced his Toronto teammates. One day later, Jays Minor Leaguer Brian Dopirak delivered a walk-off single to defeat Team USA.
Blue Jays closer B.J. Ryan decided against taking part in the World Baseball Classic with Team USA in light of some mechanical and velocity issues. That marked the beginning of a tough year for Ryan, who entered the season without a firm grip on the closer's role. In the spring, Gaston made it clear that lefty Scott Downs might see time in the ninth inning.
Late in the spring, Wells skipped a Grapefruit League road trip due to some discomfort in his left wrist -- the same one he broke during a diving catch in May 2008. Wells would play through most of the 2009 season with wrist problems, and his offensive production took a hit. The center fielder never used the injury as an excuse for his subpar performance at the plate.
The race for rotation jobs narrowed as March neared an end. Litsch and Purcey were handed jobs and Romero secured the fourth spot on the staff after an impressive showing down the stretch. Early in the spring, the Jays were close to sending Romero back to Minor League camp, but the young lefty bounced back and emerged as one of the spring's best stories for the Jays. Richmond rounded out the rotation to open the regular season.
The Blue Jays stormed out of the gates with a 12-5 romp over the Tigers on Opening Day in Toronto. Lind led the way by setting a franchise Opening Day record with six RBIs. Lind and Travis Snider each homered to ignite the Jays' offense. Halladay extended his club record with a seventh Opening Day start in a row.
Snider -- selected in the first round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft by the Jays -- flashed his power potential early in the season's first month. Against the Twins on April 13, the young left-handed-hitting outfielder sent a pair of monstrous homers to the upper deck above right field at the Metrodome. It was the type of display Toronto hopes Snider can bring for years to come.
April also included the loss of another pitcher to injury. Litsch left a start in Minnesota with pain in his right forearm and later required Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery. Losing Litsch opened the door for left-hander Brian Tallet to shift out of the bullpen and into the rotation. Tallet wound up being a big part of 2009, making 25 starts for Toronto.
After going 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA in April, Richmond was named the American League's Rookie of the Month. That was a bit of good news for a pitching staff that was beginning to face a variety of issues. Toward the end of April, Ryan's continued struggles as the Jays' closer led to a trip to the disabled list. Downs and Jason Frasor would split ninth-inning duties for the remainder of the year.
Despite some injury woes, the Blue Jays continued with their early-season run, cruising to the top of the AL East standings. Lind, Hill and shortstop Marco Scutaro paced a potent offense and Toronto posted a 27-14 record through May 18. That represented one of the best showings out of the gates in team history.
On May 12, the Blue Jays and rival Yankees squared off in one of the most anticipated games of the year. A packed house watched Halladay take on New York's A.J. Burnett, who opted out of his contract with Toronto over the winter to sign with the Yankees. Halladay spun a complete-game gem to lead the Jays to a 5-1 victory.
Halladay earned AL Player of the Week honors for May 11-17 by going 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA during that stretch, but good news suddenly became hard to come by. Toronto went winless on a nine-game road trip through Boston, Atlanta and Baltimore, beginning a four-month slide down the standings. During that ugly trip, Snider was optioned to Triple-A Las Vegas in light of persistent struggles at the plate.
By this point in the year, the Blue Jays' thin rotation depth was exposed. Halladay landed on the DL for a brief period with a groin issue, and Toronto had started to test out some of its young arms. Cecil and Mills saw time in the big leagues, as well as rookie Robert Ray. The young pitchers showed promise for the team's future, but the Jays' chances of competing in '09 continued to decrease.
Two of the Blue Jays' most memorable moments of 2009 took place in June. In a game against the Phillies on June 18, Scutaro drew a walk in the third inning and caught the Philadelphia infield sleeping, stealing second base on the play. On June 28, Hill launched two home runs to give him 19 on the year, breaking Roberto Alomar's club record for homers in a single season by a second baseman.
Lind also rewrote Toronto's record book in June by connecting for hits in eight consecutive at-bats during one impressive stretch. Lind went 5-for-5 against the Angels in a 6-5 loss on June 4 to tie Rance Mulliniks (1984), Paul Molitor (1995) and Tony Fernandez (1999) for the most hits in a row by a Blue Jays hitter.
During the First-Year Player Draft in June, the Jays used the 20th overall pick on right-hander Chad Jenkins of Kennesaw State University. Toronto also drafted a pair of highly touted Canadian pitchers in James Paxton (sandwich round) and Jake Eliopoulos (second round), but neither player signed with the team, meaning the Blue Jays will have similar picks in the 2010 Draft.
After going 10-3 with a 2.85 ERA in the first half, Halladay was named to the AL All-Star team for a sixth time, but for the first time in his career he earned the nod as the team's starting pitcher. Hill was named an All-Star for the first time and wound up starting after Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia removed himself from the annual contest.
Shortly before the All-Star Game, then-general manager J.P. Ricciardi revealed that he was willing to entertain trade offers for Halladay, who would be eligible for free agency after the 2010 season. The Phillies emerged as the front-runners to land Halladay, but Toronto decided to hold on to its ace and Philadelphia wound up dealing for Indians lefty Cliff Lee.
The Jays did swing one major trade before the July 31 Trade Deadline. Third baseman Scott Rolen, who saw a career-best 25-game hitting streak come to an end on July 8, was sent to Cincinnati in exchange for third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, reliever Josh Roenicke and pitching prospect Zach Stewart. Toronto noted that Rolen had asked to be dealt before the Deadline.
Before the end of the month, the Blue Jays also parted ways with Ryan, who continued to struggle out of the bullpen. Ryan told the media that he felt he needed more playing time to work out his mechanical issues, but Toronto decided releasing the pitcher was best for both parties. The Jays are still on the hook for $10 million of Ryan's salary in 2010.
During the month of July, Blue Jays players also had to learn how to pronouce -- not necessarily how to spell -- the name of pitcher Marc Rzepczynski. The young rookie left-hander joined Toronto's rotation and impressed Gaston down the stretch, putting Rzepczynski in the mix for a starting role in 2010. In all, the Jays saw five pitchers make their Major League debuts during the '09 season.
In early August, the Blue Jays welcomed more than 35 former players and coaches from the 1992-93 World Series teams to Toronto. Former Series hero Joe Carter helped spearhead the BACK2BACK reunion, creating a memorable on-field pregame celebration at Rogers Centre.
On Aug. 10, the Jays parted ways with right fielder Alex Rios, who was claimed off waivers by the White Sox. Given the direction of the club, Toronto decided that allowing Chicago to assume Rios' long-term contract was a great way to five the Jays some much-needed financial wiggle room.
After a stint in the Minors, Snider returned to the Blue Jays for the rest of the season. Toronto also promoted career Minor Leaguer Randy Ruiz to the big league club after he put on a season-long show in the batter's box for Triple-A Las Vegas. Ruiz's first two hits with the Jays were home runs -- the first time a player had accomplished that feat for Toronto since Doug Ault in 1977.
Lind added another outstanding personal performance to his already impressive season during a wild 18-10 victory on the road against the Rangers on Aug. 31. The left-handed-hitting Lind smacked a pair of home runs and collected eight RBIs for the Blue Jays in the win. It was one of four multihomer games that Lind enjoyed throughout the season.
As a trying season wound to a close, the Blue Jays ended the month of September with nine wins in a 10-game span. That stretch included three of the best games of the season for a Toronto team that was well on its way to a disappointing four-place finish in the AL East.
On Sept. 22, Hill clubbed his 33rd homer of the season and later collected his 100th RBI of the year with an 11th-inning double against the Orioles. That two-base hit sent Toronto to a dramatic 6-5 victory in walk-off fashion. On Sept. 26, Lind launched two homers, including a walk-off blast in the 10th inning, to send the Jays to a 5-4 win over Seattle.
One of the signature moments of the season took place on Sept. 25. In his final home start of the season, and in his final outing as the ace of the Blue Jays, Halladay spun a shutout in a 5-0 victory over the Mariners. As Halladay walked off the field, lifting his hat high in the air, the crowd joined together, chanting "Thank you, Roy!"
As uplifting as the final homestand was for the Jays, the last series of the season in Baltimore provided an ugly finish. Toronto (75-87) lost three games to the Orioles and ended a run of three straight seasons with a winning record. The Jays also became just the second AL team in history to finish a season more than 10 games below .500 while scoring more runs than they allowed.
During the final series in Baltimore, the Blue Jays dismissed Ricciardi and named Anthopoulos the club's new general manager. Reports also leaked of a clubhouse rift between some of the players and Gaston -- a situation that was easily the low point of the season. Before the end of October, Beeston removed his interim tag and agreed to a three-year contract as the permanent president and CEO.
Anthopoulos quickly went to work on a long-term plan, deciding that a re-organization of Toronto's scouting and player development departments was critical. The Jays expanded the staffs in both sectors and Anthopoulos added a special assistant in Dana Brown, who left his role as the Nationals' director of scouting.
The Blue Jays also announced in October that Gaston would retire from managing after the 2010 season before transitioning into an advising role with the team. Anthopoulos named Bruce Walton the new pitching coach, Rick Langford the new bullpen coach, Nick Leyva the new bench coach, Brian Butterfield the new third-base coach and Omar Malave the new first-base coach. Former hitting coach Gene Tenace announced his retirment and former pitching coach Brad Arnsberg moved to the same role with the Astros.
In October, Hill was also named the AL's Comeback Player of the Year after missing most of the 2008 campaign with a serious concussion. In 2009, Hill hit .286 average with 36 home runs, 37 doubles and 108 RBIs. Among Major League second basemen, Hill ranked first in home runs, RBIs, total bases and at-bats (682), and he set club records for homers and RBIs in one season by a middle infielder.
During awards season, Halladay (17-10, 2.79 ERA) finished fifth in balloting for the AL Cy Young Award, marking the fourth year in a row he placed within the top five in voting. Lind (designated hitter), who finished the year hitting .305 with 35 homers and 114 RBIs, and Hill (second base) received AL Silver Sluggers, recognizing them as the league's top offensive performers at their positions.
The Blue Jays announced that Encarnacion and Wells each needed to undergo surgery to repair damage in their left wrists. For Wells, who ended the year batting .260 with 15 homers and 66 RBIs in one of the worst offensive seasons of his career, the development helped shed some light on why he struggled throughout the season.
As Anthopoulos plotted a long-term plan for the Jays, the Halladay trade saga was pushed back into the national spotlight. During the season, Halladay expressed a desire to pitch for a World Series contender, making it extremely unlikely that he would be with Toronto beyond 2010. While being careful not to comment publicly on Halladay, Anthopoulos admitted that he was willing to listen to trade offers for any of his players.
The Blue Jays re-signed free-agent shortstop John McDonald to a two-year contract and also signed free-agent shortstop Alex Gonzalez to a one-year pact. Scutaro, coming off a career season with Toronto, filed for free agency and signed with the rival Red Sox. As a result, the Jays will receive two compensation picks in the 2010 Draft.
The Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America handed out its annual Blue Jays awards. Hill was named the Player of the Year and was the recipient of the John Cerutti/Good Guy Award, while Halladay (Pitcher of the Year), Lind (Most Improved Player) and Romero (Rookie of the Year) also earned honors. Romero tied a Jays rookie record with 13 wins in 2009.
During the Rule 5 Draft, the Blue Jays selected righty Zech Zinicola, adding another arm to the mix for a bullpen job. Toronto signed catcher Raul Chavez and outfielder Joey Gathright to Minor League contracts in December and also avoided arbitration with utility man Jose Bautista and pitcher Dustin McGowan. The Jays also signed catcher John Buck to a one-year deal.
On Dec. 16, the Blue Jays pulled the trigger on one of the biggest moves in the organization's history. In a complicated series of trades involving four teams and nine players, Toronto traded Halladay to the Phillies. In return, Toronto netted a trio of past first-round picks in pitcher Kyle Drabek, first baseman Brett Wallace and catcher Travis d'Arnaud.
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.