When the Blue Jays cut Roy Halladay from their major league camp last spring, the move was so drastic that they summoned a counselor from their employee assistance program to help break the news to him. Halladay, who had been hailed as an ace-in-the-making, was not simply demoted. He was dumped all the way to Class A "That wasn't even the worst part," he says. "The worst was walking back into the locker room to face my teammates and talking about what was going on. I wished I was invisible."
Halladay quickly discovered how far from the big leagues Dunedin, Fla., is. "The postgame spread," he says, "was peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches."
A year later the 24-year-old righthander is a completely overhauled pitcher with the sheen back on his future, and the Blue Jays have adopted the same rehabilitation program for themselves: Take a giant step back to take a leap forward. Under new general manager J.P. Ricciardi, the former Oakland player-evaluation guru, Toronto has launched a modified youth movement. "We need to change the perception of the Blue Jays," Ricciardi says. "The perception that's out there is that they are an underachieving team that doesn't play hard all the time, that doesn't know how to grind it out."
You want grinders? How about the humbled Halladay, who had a 10.64 ERA with Toronto in 2000. Organizational pitching coach Mel Queen changed Halladay's delivery so that he threw with a three-quarters arm angle rather than straight overhand. Halladay's once dead-straight heaters began sinking and cutting. Halladay also ditched his negative mind-set. The reengineering worked. He went 5-3 with a 2.71 ERA in 16 late-season starts for the Blue Jays.
The efficiency of Toronto's overall rebuilding depends mostly on how quickly its young position players develop. Catchers Kevin Cash, Josh Phelps and Jayson Werth, second baseman Orlando Hudson and outfielder Gabe Gross figure to make the club stronger in 2003, if not this year. The first wave of the New Jays is led by a green left side of the infield: shortstop Felipe Lopez and third baseman Eric Hinske. "We did it in Oakland with [Miguel] Tejada and [Eric] Chavez, and Tejada made 26 errors [in 104 games]," Ricciardi says. "There were days you wanted to jump off the third balcony. But you have to live and the with young guys."
Lopez, 21, signed as the eighth pick of the 1998 draft just days before his father, Felipe Sr., pleaded no contest to two charges of child abuse and one count of aggravated assault. In a police report at the time Lopez told authorities his father beat him for mistakes on the baseball field. Felipe Sr. was sentenced to 20 years in prison. While manager Buck Martinez says Lopez "has big power," Lopez says his only goals are "to hit .300 and steal bases. I want to hit for average before I worry about power."
The 225-pound Hinske, 24, is another budding slugger. Unlike the free-swinging Lopez, however, Hinske has a discerning batting eye. While in Oakland, Ricciardi took him in a trade with the Cubs sight unseen—he simply liked his power and on-base percentage numbers. Hinske was the first player Ricciardi acquired in Toronto.
Only the Royals drew fewer walks last year than the Jays. Fixing that and resisting the temptation to rush young players rank high on Ricciardi's to-do list. "In the past here," Ricciardi says, "if somebody had a good week in Double A they jumped to the big leagues, only to go back again because they weren't ready. There was no continuity."
Under Ricciardi no Blue Jay should have to go back to PB&J.
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