In November 2001, the Toronto Blue Jays hired Oakland A's director of player personnel J.P. Riccardi to be their new general manager, hoping that some of Billy Beane's sabermetric pixie dust could revive the declining franchise. The Blue Jays, the first team ever to draw 4 million fans back in 1991, and back-to-back World Champions in 1992 and 1993, had seen their attendance decline steadily in the wake of the strike, with fewer than 2 million fans coming to SkyDome in 2001. Their on field success was in similar decline, with their best post-strike season placing them 26 games behind the 114-win Yankees in 1998, and their record declining in each of the following three seasons.
Riccardi's first year saw the Jays decline by another two games, but their attendance saw a small but meaningful improvement. In 2003, Riccardi's second season, the Jays improved by eight games, winning just two fewer games than in 1998. Things seemed to be going according to plan, with young stars Vernon Wells, Roy Halladay, Eric Hinske, Orlando Hudson, and Josh Phelps leading the charge. But just as quickly the bottom dropped out. Injuries and disappointing seasons shaved 19 wins off the Jays' record in 2004 in a season when many, myself included, expected them to finally disrupt the New York and Boston hegemony at the top of the division. Instead, they broke Tampa Bay's hold on last place.
The Jays bounced back just as quickly last year, improving by 13 games despite finishing eight games below their 88-74 Pythagorean Record (an exact match of their real life 1998 finish). Emboldened by that improvement, signs of weakness from the Yanks and Sox (who tied for the AL East lead and were both eliminated in the ALDS), and an increase in cash flow in the wake of their buying out the lease on the rechristened Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays approved a total of $210 million in payroll increases over the 2006-2008 seasons. With the extra cash, Riccardi went out and signed fellow initialites A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan to absurd contracts and traded for high profile cornermen Troy Glaus (who also makes a pretty penny) and Lyle Overbay.
Still, despite their splashy offseason, I really didn't expect much from the Blue Jays this year. Thus far, I've been wrong as the Jays have been hanging tight in the AL East and Wild Card races and on pace for their first 90-win season since their last World Championship season. But the cracks are beginning to show.
Despite the big pitching contracts and the fantastic performance of Ryan (0.96 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 10.99 K/9), the Blue Jays have been winning this season primarily due to their offense. They currently sport the majors best team OPS and slugging percentage, are third in on-base percentage and are fifth in the AL in runs scored. The men primarily responsible for this surge in offense have been Vernon Wells, who was a key factor in their encouraging 2003 season, but hasn't lived up to that performance until surpassing it this year with a .311/.378/.597 line, and Alexis Rios, a 25-year-old former prospect in his third season who had been demoted into a platoon role entering the season only to take his full-time right field job back with a .330/.383/.585 performance.
The Jays have also gotten fantastic results from their platoon in the opposite pasture as well. Lefty Frank Catalanotto and righty Reed Johnson have been sharing time for three years, but this year they've hit a combined (and evenly distributed) .341/.439/.499, all of which would be career highs for either player. The man who was supposed to platoon with Rios, fallen Rookie of the Year Eric Hinske, has also been experiencing a renaissance, with a .267/.359/.507 line that rivals his career-best rookie season. Amazingly, Wells, Rios, Catalanotto, Johnson and Hinske are not the only Blue Jay hitters experiencing career-best seasons as Lyle Overbay, silencing all the doubters who didn't think he'd perform outside of Miller Park, has reverted to his 2004 form with a .305/.367/.517 line, and 24-year-old second baseman Aaron Hill has stepped up with an admittedly punchless, but otherwise strong .303/.352/.395. All of that easily outweighs the foolish decision to sign Bengie Molina (.286/.327/.425) coming off a career year when they already had Gregg Zaun (currently .301/.375/.510, and yes, that is a completely uncharacteristic slugging percentage) in a limited role. Though they really do need to do something about the fact that they're currently starting the notoriously good-field, no-hit John McDonald (.220/.255/.275) at shortstop.
The concern here, of course, is that six of the spots in the Blue Jay's line-up are filled by hitters having career years that may not be sustainable in the second half. Indeed, Rios has been out since late June with a staph infection in his left leg, Troy Glaus, up to his usual tricks, has missed the last three games with a knee injury, and the Jays are currently one game below .500 for the month of July, even with Johnson and Hinske taking their places.
Rios's infection, which apparently spread to rookie pitcher Ty Taubenheim, prompted the Blue Jays to disinfect what appears now to be a clearly poisoned clubhouse. Supposed franchise savior Riccardi has criticized his rookie pitchers in the press and, after the team lost its first two games in a series in Kansas City two weeks ago, said his three, four and five hitters were "killing" the team despite the fact that Wells, Glaus and Overbay are all are having excellent seasons and his team is on pace for a ten-game improvement over last year. Then came this whole Shea Hillenbrand mess.
For those who missed it, Hillenbrand and his wife applied to adopt a child, expecting they wouldn't be awarded a kid until the offseason. Instead, they were matched with an expecting mother in June who delivered last Friday, causing Hillenbrand to leave the team temporarily to be with his wife and newborn daughter. Upon returning to the team, Hillenbrand was outspoken about not being immediately reinserted into the lineup or even being congratulated by team officials on his family's new addition. The strife appears to have been the last straw in a season of discord between Hillenbrand and management and resulted in his being designated for assignment yesterday (Jason Phillips has been called up to take Hillenbrand's spot on the roster, while Gregg Zaun will likely become the team's new DH, at least until Rios returns and the position can be used for a rotation of the team's strong bench players).
The Blue Jays apparently believe that Hillenbrand is a clubhouse cancer and that his removal from the team is addition by subtraction, especially given the strong showings of their bench player and Hillenbrand's habit of disappearing late in the season (career numbers in August: .262/.304/.404 and September: .271/.302/.408 vs. overall .288/.327/.448). But the circumstances surrounding Hillenbrand's departure could have as negative an effect on this team as his presence supposedly did. Either way, the Yankees will be the first to get a look at the post-Shea Jays tonight in Toronto.
Here's hoping all of this Hillenbrand hubaloo doesn't overshadow tonight's absolutely top-notch pitching match-up of staff aces Mike Mussina and Roy Halladay. Last April, Halladay faced off against Randy Johnson in what was one of the most exciting pitchers duels I've ever seen, a 2-0, double complete game classic that the Blue Jays won when Eric Hinske hit a two-run homer just over Yankee Stadium's short right field porch. Here's hoping, with the location flipped, we see a similar game with a similarly inverted result tonight.