Tao of Stieb: Jays must learn from Loaiza trade

Esteban Loaiza. Aaron Harris/CP

The positive start to the 2014 season and the continued discussions around the need to improve the rotation – now more than ever! – has me thinking back to the summer of 2000.

Not ringing a bell? Blocked it out of your memory? It doesn’t surprise me. Some fans gloss over much of what has transpired over the past two decades in order to cling to the notion that Toronto Blue Jays haven’t sniffed anything remotely close to a meaningful game since Joe Carter took Mitch Williams deep in October of 1993. But those who forget history are damned to call Mike Wilner after every game, begging for the team’s front office to repeat it.

In retrospect, the 2000 season looks like many others for the Blue Jays. They finished in third place in the American League East with a record of 83-79, trailing the Yankees and Red Sox. In some ways, that record flattered them, as they allowed 908 runs, versus the 857 they scored. But in a down year for the rest of the division, the Blue Jays spent much of the summer within striking distance of first.

In fact, a solid run through June saw the Jays surge ahead by three games in the division, finishing the month at 44-36. Take a moment if you need to re-read that sentence. The Toronto Blue Jays held the lead in the American League East at the end of June, 2000. By three games. It happened.

It’s not as though the team was any sort of powerhouse. Homer Bush was in the midst of losing his second base job, and manager Jim Fregosi probably unknowingly lost his by inexplicably trying to wedge Bush and Alex Gonzalez into the second spot in the batting order for most of the year. It was a year in which they traded to get Rob Ducey from the Phillies in July, and then sent him back to Philadelphia for Mickey Morandini two weeks later.

But of all the good fortune that shone on the Blue Jays that season, nothing stands out more than the fact that they stayed in the race deep into the season with an improvised, shambolic pitching staff. Joey Hamilton, a high-profile acquisition in 1999, spent most of the year injured. Roy Halladay pitched to a 10.64 ERA and found himself in A-ball by year’s end. Chris Carpenter was hittable and didn’t strike out many but allowed 4.3 walks per nine innings. Kelvim Escobar saw himself jerked between the rotation and the bullpen, because someone in the organization thought he was a closer.

Meanwhile, the team was forced to rely on an unspectacular David Wells (4.11 ERA, 3.50 FIP, 1.29 WHIP in 229.2 innings), and journeyman Frank Castillo, who somehow managed to become the staff ace (3.59 ERA, 1.22 WHIP) by the time July rolled around.

Within this context, and with the Jays sitting a game and a half back of the Yankees on July 19th, they did what every red-blooded fan would have wanted. They went and got starting pitching help.

In retrospect, trading Michael Young for Esteban Loaiza draws ire and titters and scorn. But within the context of that season – a season not unlike this season – the Blue Jays had limited options on the trade market and needed someone passable to keep them afloat.

More help was still needed, though, and just before the deadline, the Jays sent Brent Abernathy – one of their top prospects at the time – to Tampa for the Human Rain Delay, Steve Trachsel and lefty reliever Mark Guthrie.

In the aggregate, Loaiza pitched fairly well, posting a 3.62 ERA in his 14 starts, though four of his first five starts for Toronto were shaky and by the time righted himself, the race was mostly over. Trachsel arrived as the Jays were in the midst of a six game losing streak, and by the time he took the bump for them on August 4th, they were five and a half games back and spinning their wheels. He was also maddening to watch pitch, to a point where I clearly recall hearing the aggravation in Hall of Famer Tom Cheek’s voice as Trachsel dawdled between pitches.

Those acquisitions weren’t much, and they certainly weren’t enough to put the Jays over the top. But what other options were there? Among the pitchers moving around that deadline were inconsequential back-of-the-rotation fodder like Rolando Arrojo, Jason Bere and Kent Bottenfield. The Yankees’ big move was to acquire Denny Neagle, who stunk through the balance of the regular season and three playoff starts, and has a World Series ring to prove it.

There was one big name pitcher in the market, and there was plenty of chatter that summer that the Jays should reunite Fregosi with his ace from the Phillies days, Curt Schilling. Five days before the Jays settled on Trachsel as a consolation prize, Schilling went to Arizona for four young guys with big league experience (Vicente Padilla, Travis Lee, Omar Daal, and Nelson Figueroa.) It’s not hard to imagine that a similar package from Toronto would have included Vernon Wells, Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay.

And for what? Schilling’s numbers were essentially the same as Loaiza’s with their new teams, with Toronto arguably getting the better short-term value (141 ERA+ versus Schilling’s 130), and both teams finishing out of the playoffs. And while Schilling was instrumental in helping the Diamondbacks to a title the next year, it’s hard to imagine that his presence on the 2001 Blue Jays would have been enough to get that team out of their doldrums.

So what’s history’s lesson here? It’s hard to find good starting pitching. You probably won’t, and you might have to settle for someone. And even if you do land someone notable, there’s no guarantee that they help you unfurl a flag that flies in perpetuity.

Now go think on that as you dream of James Shields. If you wish hard enough, you might just end up with Jason Hammel.

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