Best forgotten Blue Jays teams: Why 2008 Jays deserved a better fate

Roy Halladay struggled mightily in his early years with the Blue Jays, but Paul Quantrill explains how he emerged from those hard times, a better pitcher, determined to succeed and with an unparalleled work ethic.

In the sports-less world we’re currently inhibiting, reminiscing about past sporting glory has become a common way to fill the gap.
 
Not only are sports channels broadcasting a variety of classic games across a multitude of sports and eras, Netflix’s The Last Dance is an absolute sensation. If the seemingly infinite parade of movie and TV remakes in recent years is any indication, nostalgia has always been plenty popular. However, during particularly grim days it becomes even more appealing.

When it comes to the Toronto Blue Jays, ruminating on the past can be an unsatisfying experience. The team has its unforgettable 1992-93 apex, a memorable glimmer of hope in 2015-16, and a few memorable squads from the 80’s — particularly the 1985 outfit. There has been a sprinkling of remarkable runs, but ultimately this is a franchise with seven playoff appearances in 43 tries, and a .495 winning percentage. Its most recent post-season drought spanned more than half the team’s history.

None of that is to say the experience of watching the Blue Jays has been a bad one. The team has been populated by larger-than-life characters and truly outstanding players often over the years. What it does mean, though, is that many of the club’s individual seasons seem destined for the wastebasket of history, particularly during the Blue Jays’ infamous 22-year playoff drought. 

That seems like a shame, so I thought today I’d highlight some of the teams from that dark spot between post-season appearances that won’t be showing up on broadcast television replays, but deserve to be remembered. Here are three clubs from those 22 years that are worth a short reminisce despite the fact they didn’t quite make their mark on Blue Jays’ lore:

The winningest team: 1998 (88)

What made them special: The simplest answer here is Roger Clemens. Clemens had a dominant campaign in which he led the American League in Wins, ERA, and K/9 on the way to his second consecutive Cy Young Award. However, behind him this group’s rotation lacked quality and the strength of the team was actually the lineup.

The important additions to the team were Tony Fernandez, who returned to produce a surprisingly solid season at 35, and Jose Canseco, who mashed 46 home runs (and did everything else exceedingly poorly) on the way to a 1.3 WAR year. The team’s offence was really driven by the young homegrown trio of Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green and Shannon Stewart. That group combined for 85 home runs, 89 stolen bases and 12.2 WAR. Each of those three would have their career years by 2001, but not together on the Blue Jays.

The What-Ifs: The biggest what-if for the 1998 Blue Jays pertains to the playoff format. This is the only team of the drought years that would have played October baseball under the two wild card format. With Clemens as a one-game weapon, they would’ve felt great about their chances in a play-in.

From a performance standpoint, a couple of things didn’t quite line up as well. Despite a 35-35 season, Green was still a year away from being a superstar and players like Jose Cruz Jr. and Darrin Fletcher were on the way up. This was also the season Pat Hentgen’s career took a major downturn. If he’d been able to retain his form from 1996-97 he would have provided Clemens with a credible partner in crime and bumped Chris Carpenter down to a solid number three. The fact Juan Guzman — who’d led the AL in ERA and K/BB ratio in his most recent full season — wasn’t able to bounce back from an injury-riddled 1997 dealt another blow to the rotation.

Notable debut(s): There was only one rookie of consequence to first wet his feet in 1998, but it was a franchise giant. On September 20, Roy Halladay made his MLB debut against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and put together a solid five innings of two-run ball.

A week later — on the last day of the regular season — he came within one out of a no-hitter thanks to Detroit Tigers slugger Bobby Higginson. The outing was the first hint of what was to come for the longtime Blue Jays ace, who was on his way to becoming the best pitcher of the next decade. 

The closest to an AL East crown: 2000 (4.5 GB)

What made them special: Delgado’s career season — which contained an obscene mid-summer tear was definitely the best of what this team had to offer. That said, the lineup included six other hitters who topped 20 home runs: Shannon Stewart, Brad Fullmer, Tony Batista, Raul Mondesi, Darrin Fletcher and Jose Cruz Jr. From Delgado’s raw power to Batista’s absurd batting stance to Mondesi’s utter recklessness, this group was fun to watch.

On the pitching side, David Wells was still surprisingly effective, and the duo of Carpenter and Kelvim Escobar seemed ascendant. They were, although their best work would come far later and elsewhere. Although the Esteban Loaiza trade was widely reviled for years to come, he did provide some good innings for the team down the stretch.

Billy Koch also has his only outstanding season as the team’s closer, managing 33 saves with a 2.63 ERA and a 1.8 WAR. The idea of an elite closer with a K/9 under seven seems wild now, but it was a different time.

The What-Ifs: The biggest what-if for this team concerns Halladay. In 2000 he completely fell apart and posted a record-breaking 10.64 ERA that earned him a trip to the minors. When he returned in 2001 he was utterly dominant. If he’d found his groove in the off-season, or on the fly, his presence in the rotation could’ve been a difference maker. 

It’s also worth noting that for all this team’s power, the lineup was dragged down by a middle infield composed of black holes Alex Gonzalez and Homer Bush. That pair took 916 plate appearances in an unbelievably kind offensive environment and turned it into a pitiful .239/.298/.350 line and -1.9 WAR. Things got so bad at second base in particular that the Blue Jays eventually had to turn to a washed-up Mickey Morandini, whose only redeeming feature at that point in his career was his nickname: Dandy Little Glove Man. Competency in the middle of the diamond would have been enough to get this team to the post-season.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which this group makes the playoffs, because they actually gave up significantly more runs than they allowed (-47) and were only in the hunt because the New York Yankees had an uncharacteristically uneven regular season — which they rectified by winning their third straight World Series.

Notable debut(s): Not one rookie on the 2000 Blue Jays produced a positive WAR, and only Chris Woodward — who’d already played in 1999 — logged significant time. Probably the most noteworthy cameo belonged to Josh Phelps, who was a solid and arguably under-appreciated DH for the team in 2002 and 2003. He got one at-bat in June and struck out. 

The ‘best’ team: 2008 (Expected W-L of 93-69)

What made them special: This was the rare iteration of the Blue Jays that was all about pitching. The 2008 group allowed 38 fewer runs than any other team in baseball despite playing in the AL East and sported the best rotation in baseball: Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch. That group led the majors in both innings pitched and ERA, and stayed healthy, starting 139 of 162 games. Less well remembered is a bullpen that also posted an MLB-best ERA (2.94) led by a quartet of southpaws: B.J. Ryan, Scott Downs, Jesse Carlson, and Brian Tallet, a group that combined for 245 innings of 2.42 ERA ball.

On offence, ‘special’ would not have been a good way to describe them. Only three teams in the American League scored fewer runs. There were average offensive seasons up and down the lineup, but only Alex Rios excelled, with a 5.5 WAR driven by defence and base running. Wells led the club with 20 home runs.

The What-Ifs: There are two kinds of what-ifs with this group. The first pertains to their run differential, which was the second-best in the AL, and better than the division and pennant-winning Tampa Bay Rays. If everyone had played to their expected record, this club would have made the playoffs in the wild card and possibly made some noise on account of their otherworldly pitching.

The other type of what-if relates to the average seasons they got from players who had more in the tank. Adam Lind and Aaron Hill broke out the next year for career-best seasons. Marco Scutaro came out of nowhere to become an excellent leadoff man. Scott Rolen had a mini-renaissance at 34. If a couple of these guys had come through a season earlier, things would have looked far different for the 2008 Blue Jays.

Notable debut(s): The aforementioned Carlson was a revelation out of the pen, making him by far the biggest rookie contributor. Canadian Scott Richmond, a 28-year-old who played the previous season with the indy ball Edmonton Cracker-Cats, was a great story who provided a few useful starts for the team down the stretch as well.

Travis Snider was the biggest deal, though. The fresh-faced 20-year-old was meant to be the cornerstone of the Blue Jays lineup for years to come. He initially looked the part, hitting .301/.338/.466 in 24 games. What looked like just the first steps to inevitable stardom ended up being some of the best baseball of his MLB career.

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