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Today in Blue Jays history: Jays trade Roger Clemens

Detroit Tigers vs. Toronto Blue Jays

Today in Blue Jays history, back in 1999, the Blue Jays traded Roger Clemens to the Yankees for David Wells, Graeme Lloyd, and Homer Bush.

After the strike-shortened 1994 season, GM Pat Gillick resigned. To put a bit of background to it, he put together a Blue Jays team that finished first in the AL East in 1985, 1989, 1991, 1992, and 1993 and had won the World Series in 1992 and 1993. 1994 didn’t go as well. The Jays finished 55-60, finishing 15 games back. We discounted it, figuring that it didn’t count since it was a shortened season.

Pat, well, maybe could see the writing on the wall, or perhaps he just figured he had done it all with the Jays and needed a new challenge.

Gord Ash got the GM job. Gord did a few things very well. For he made some excellent draft picks, like Roy Halladay and Vernon Wells. 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. Seemingly he hoped 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 vast slash, signing Roger Clemens to a four-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 massive 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 impressive 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 two is Pat Hentgen 8.6 bWAR in 1996). Josh Donaldson had an 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 pretty terrible. 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 two seasons for us, going 37-15 (better than the 27-18 Roger would put up for the Yankees those next two seasons), before being traded to the White Sox for a broken Mike Sirotka and three guys who we would never hear 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 new clubs to join 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 three seasons. The first was terrific hitting .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 a decent return for Clemens, it 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 out 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 think we would 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 excellent 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 unbeatable team in those years. It would have been hard to catch them up, but we might have had a shot with rebuilding.

We’d finish 3rd, in the division, for the next four years and, we replaced Ash with J.P. Ricciardi, who would continue to keep us in the middle of the division.

Clemens would play five seasons with the Yankees, three more with the Astros, and then back to the Yankees for one more season at age 44. He’d also continued to be a jerk.