Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Blue morning, Blue Jays

Roy Halladay may not have much longer to wear the coolest retro uniforms in baseball. Photo from this site.

After watching the Red Sox play the Orioles in Fenway Park at Camden Yards last week, I was tempted to write an entry about how I feel bad for the Orioles, who seem to finally have a clue yet are stuck in the most loaded division in baseball.

A week after our return from Baltimore, I’ve decided I feel almost as sorry for the Blue Jays.

You remember the Blue Jays, right? Were soaring high atop the AL East for most of the season’s first two months? On pace for 100 wins? Doing it all with a powerful offense and a pitching staff held together by duct tape and thumbtacks?

That spate of injuries was just one reason the Jays’ run was a smoke and mirrors concoction unlikely to last six months. Still, though, their descent has been a rapid one: After tonight’s 3-1 loss to the Rays, the Jays are 43-42, in fourth place in the division and closer to last place (six games ahead of the Orioles) than first (eight games behind the Sox).

Since going a season-high 13 games over .500 and taking a season-best 3 ½-game lead on May 18, the Jays are a cringe-worthy 16-28. In addition, the Jays are just 8-15 against the AL East, the worst mark in the division.

The Jays are also facing an uncertain future at the corporate level, which is why ace Roy Halladay may be in his final weeks in a Toronto uniform. The Jays had a healthy payroll the last several seasons under owner Ted Rogers, but it never translated into a playoff berth and Rogers died in December. The Jays’ payroll this year is just over $80 million, nearly $20 million less than it was in 2008, and beginning in 2011, they’ve got $40 million locked up in just three players—MVP candidate Aaron Hill and the underwhelming duo of Vernon Wells and Alex Rios.

The Jays have proven to have plenty of young pitching this season, and with six regular position players over the age of 30, they could hasten the rebuilding process by getting a sizable return on Halladay, who is quite the bargain—by baseball standards, anyway—at $15 million for next season, the last year of his contract.

Still, even if the Jays get plenty for Halladay and maintain an AL East-caliber payroll, there’s no guarantee they’ll hurdle the various other obstacles standing between the franchise and a return to the playoffs. The Jays were baseball’s model franchise in the early 1990s, shattering attendance records at baseball’s finest ballpark and winning consecutive World Series in 1992-93.

Sky Dome was rendered a dinosaur by Camden Yards, but the Jays have been competitive in recent years: They’re one of only four AL teams to post a winning record in each of the preceding three seasons. Yet they haven’t been to the playoffs since 1993, a streak surpassed in the AL only by the perennially woebegone Royals.

The other three teams to finish better than .500 each of the previous three years, meanwhile, have all been to the playoffs twice in that span: The Red Sox, Yankees and Angels. With the Jays nose-diving and Halladay likely on the block, Toronto seems doomed to another few years of being associated with the Royals rather than American League royalty.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

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