To put a bit a of background to it, after the strike shortened 1994 season, GM Pat Gillick resigned from the Blue Jays. He had put together a Jays team that had finished first in the AL East in 1985, 1989, 1991, 1992 and 1992 and had won the World Series in 1992 and 1993. 1994 didn’t go as well, the games finished 55-60, finishing 15 games back. We kind of discounted it, at the time, figuring that it didn’t count since it was a shortened season.
Pat, well, maybe could see the writing on the wall, or maybe he just figured he had done it all with the Jays and needed a new challenge.
Gord Ash was promoted to the GM job. Gord did a few things very well, he had some very good draft picks, Roy Halladay and Vernon Wells are good examples, but he was taking over an aging team and, instead of identifying the younger players that could slide onto to roster and build us our next great team, he seemed to want to double down on the old guys and hope they could find the magic they had when they were younger. He admits the team had no plan, maybe in part because they had ownership troubles.
Anyway, after a terrible 1995 season, the Jays went 56 and 88, finishing last in the AL East, Ash made a huge slash, signing Roger Clemens to a 4 year, $40 million contract. Clemens had been a terrific pitcher, putting up a 192-111 record and a 3.12 ERA over 13 seasons in Boston. But he was 34, and had a couple of down seasons. The Red Sox didn’t want to give him the huge contract he wanted.
Most power pitchers do lose a bit in their early 30’s. The fastball loses a little zip. Some need a couple of seasons to figure out how to win with their lesser stuff. Some never figure out how to compete without their best stuff. And then there is Roger Clemens.
Roger, found a third way to deal with the aging process. Pharmaceuticals.
Clemens had two amazing seasons with the Jays, winning 41 games and 2 Cy Youngs. His 11.9 bWAR, from 1997, is the top mark in team history. Number is Pat Hentgen 8.6 bWAR in 1996. Josh Donaldson had a 8.5 in 2015.
And he made some fun commercials:
Wow....Buck looked young, but then I likely looked young back then too, sigh.
Unfortunately, the team around Roger wasn’t very good. He decided he would like to leave Canada and pitch somewhere he would have a higher profile.
Ash got a pretty good return for Clemens. David Wells had great 2 seasons for us, going 37-15 (better than the 27-18 Roger would put up for the Yankees those two seasons), before being traded to the White Sox for a broken Mike Sirotka and three guys that would never be heard of again. Wells would play for another 7 seasons, bouncing from team to team, playing for the White Sox, Yankees (again), Padres, Red Sox, Padres (again) and Dodgers before running out of teams at age 44.
Graeme Lloyd had one great season for the Jays, as a LOOGY, in 1999, pitching in 74 games, with a 3.63 ERA. After the Season he left as a free agent, signing with the Expos, had arm troubles, and was never the same again.
Homer Bush was the Blue Jays second baseman for 3 seasons. The first was terrific, he hit .320/.353/.421 with 32 stolen bases in 1999. The next two seasons he battled hip injuries and wasn’t as effective.
As much as Ash got decent return for Clemens, it really was a strange trade. Here we were, with the best pitcher in baseball and yet, the two seasons he was with the team, we finished 22 games and 26 games our of first place. So we trade our aging ‘best pitcher in baseball’ for a 36 year old pitcher (pretty much the same age as Roger), a 26 year old second baseman, who had played 55 games in the majors, to that point, and a 32 year old LOOGY. Did Ash really think we were going to make up a 20 plus game deficit from the Yankees with these players?
The smart move, the move that 99% of all GMs would make, would have been to trade Clemens for 2 or 3 top prospects, who could have worked with some of the very good young players that we had (Delgado, Halladay, Green, Cruz) to build a team that could have been strong going into the start of the new century. Maybe trade off some of the other older holdovers from the glory days.
But Ash had a middle of the road team and he wanted to keep it there. To be fair to Ash, the Yankees had a pretty amazing team in those years, it would have been hard to catch them up, but at least with rebuilding we might have had a shot.
We’d finish 3rd, in the division, for the next 4 years and, Ash was soon replaced by J.P. Ricciardi, who would continue to keep us in the middle of the division.
Clemens would go on to play 5 seasons with the Yankees, 3 more with the Astros and then back to the Yankees for one more season at age 44. He’d also continue to be a creep.