Commentary

Blue Jays enter life without Roy Halladay

Toronto turns attention from departed ace to developing the prospects it got in return

Updated: March 17, 2010, 9:41 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- It's never easy, for any team, the year after it says au revoir to The Best Pitcher in Baseball.

You could ask the 2009, CC Sabathia-less Indians. You could ask the 2005, Randy Johnson-less Diamondbacks. You could ask the 1998, Pedro Martinez-free Expos -- if you could find them.

Or you could wander into Dunedin Stadium this spring and ask the 2010 Blue Jays.

There is going to be life for this team after Roy Halladay. There is going to be a baseball season. These guys have no choice about that.

They'll find an Opening Day starter. They'll find someone to call their No. 1. They have no choice about that, either.

[+] EnlargeAlex Anthopoulos
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAlex Anthopoulos doesn't have Roy Halladay anymore. He does, however, have a plan on how to best compete with the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East.

"We've turned the page," said their new GM, Alex Anthopoulos. "We have to."

But in fact, they don't only have to turn that page. They have to lead the league in page-turning -- because Halladay was more than just their best player, more than just their most popular player, more even than merely the best pitcher in their sport.

He was a franchise-changer. He was a man capable of masking nearly every other flaw in their grand design. He gave them a shot to contend just by showing up. And you could easily look that up -- except we already did it for you.

Over the past eight seasons, Roy Halladay's team was 60 games over .500 (149-89) when he started -- and 71 games under .500 (493-564) when anyone else started. Scary.

Want to look at this another way? OK, when Halladay started between 2002-09, the Blue Jays had a .626 winning percentage. When anyone else got the ball, they had a .466 winning percentage. If you forgot your calculators, that comes to a 160-point Halladay Effect.

That's more than double the Sabathia Effect (64 points) over the same period. And it's 26 points higher than the only other ace impact that was even in the same solar system, the Johan Santana Effect (134 points).

So how are the Toronto Blue Jays supposed to replace that?

"The honest answer is, you can't," said Anthopoulos.

And how right he is. So you can look at where the Blue Jays stand now, in the year 1 A.D. (After Doc), in a couple of different ways.

One of those ways, we're afraid, is to look back -- at the opportunity they squandered, employing the best pitcher alive for all those years and never making it to the postseason. Not even once. The trouble is, when they take that not-so-scenic look back, it's not a pleasant view.

"We weren't ready," longtime center fielder Vernon Wells said. "That's about the best way to put it. We weren't a consistent enough ballclub to win in this division and win at this level. ... So I can look at things realistically and say, 'We weren't good enough.'"

But by admitting that, it also brings them to the second, more constructive way to gaze at where the Blue Jays find themselves at the moment. They know now that it isn't enough to have one great pitcher at the top of your rotation, surrounded by just enough talent to straddle Mount .500. It takes more. If you're stuck in the AL East alongside those behemoths in Boston and New York, it takes a lot more.

"We know how difficult life is in this division," said Anthopoulos, who replaced the ESPN-bound J.P. Ricciardi in October. "To win in the AL East, we need to have above-average, high-ceiling players at as many positions as we can. And that's what we're trying to build."

In a perfect world, they wouldn't have started that construction project by trading the Best Pitcher in Baseball, of course. But what exactly was their alternative, anyway?

They couldn't brainwash Halladay into thinking they were going to win if he stuck around. They couldn't pay him enough to not care if he ever won. And they couldn't kidnap him. So in December, they did what they had to do.

They made the best deal they could make, with the only team their ace was willing to waive his no-trade clause to go to: the Phillies.

The consensus around the sport is that the Blue Jays did amazingly well in that trade, considering they only had one team in the auction house. They got a 22-year-old starting pitcher with big upside in Kyle Drabek. They got a 23-year-old, potential middle-of-the-order hit machine (via Oakland) in Brett Wallace. And they got a 21-year-old catcher who projects to be a starting catcher in the big leagues in Travis d'Arnaud.

That's "three future regulars," said one AL executive -- an excellent take for a team that was "in a box, with Halladay having so much control over the trade."

But now imagine having to walk in the spikes of the three young players in that trade. When you've just been traded for Roy Halladay, don't you have to think you will spend the rest of your Blue Jays career walking in his shadow?

"It's funny," said Wallace. "When I first got here, I heard the grounds-crew guys saying, 'Hey, that's one of the guys who got traded for Doc.' So I know that's there. But I just try to have fun with it. Some guys might take it as pressure. But you hold yourself to a certain standard anyway. To me, to get traded for Doc is a compliment. I mean, what a great player."

Then again, Wallace is getting used to these kinds of "compliments." Five months before he got traded for Halladay, he also got dealt from the Cardinals to the A's for Matt Holliday. So "the last six months," he said, "have been pretty crazy."

There are still questions about what position Wallace will wind up at, although for now the Blue Jays have him targeted as their first baseman of the future. But a year-plus into his professional career, he has already ascended to Triple-A. And he arrived in this camp with a .303 career average, .384 on-base percentage and .475 slugging percentage. So if this team can find someplace to stash his glove, he "can be a run-producing, middle-of-the-order threat," said one rival executive.

He also should be the first member of the Traded For Roy Halladay Trio to arrive in Toronto, an arrival that should come, by the way, about 12 seconds after the Blue Jays find a taker for Lyle Overbay. But the real heat figures to beam down on the guy who figures to hit town next.

And that's Drabek, who has the misfortune to be the only pitcher on this end of the deal. So if anyone seems destined to serve a life sentence full of comparisons to Halladay, Drabek is the man.

He was the "untouchable" the Phillies wouldn't give up for Halladay in July 2009. And then, five months later, it was the Phillies' decision to zap him off that untouchable list that finally made this trade doable. So north of the border, people already know precisely who Drabek is, before he's ever thrown a pitch in Triple-A. And they know precisely who they'd like him to be some day:

The next Roy Halladay, of course.

Nevertheless, Drabek has done a great job this spring of swatting away all questions that suggest he was the most indispensable, irreplaceable or superhuman centerpiece of this trade.

"I don't really think I was the main reason," he said. "Everyone had a part in it. If they couldn't have gotten all of those guys, it wouldn't have gone down."

But even if the three of them have to share this awesome responsibility, Drabek understands that "replacing" Halladay is not an assignment for the wimps of this Earth.

"Me, Travis and Brett -- we're going to have that for the rest of our lives," he said. "We were traded for the best pitcher at this time."

It's a heavy burden to lug around, all right. But Drabek says he's ready for the challenge of putting the living legend he was traded for out of his mind.

[+] EnlargeKyle Drabek
Jerry Lai/US PresswireKyle Drabek will always have the large shadow of Roy Halladay hanging over him.

"For me, it's not that hard," he said. "I feel real comfortable being out on the field. And I think that kind of helps me forget things off the field and just focus in on what I need to do that day."

With a fastball that touches 95 miles per hour, a drop-off-the-CN-Tower curveball and a cool, confident mound aura, Drabek generated major buzz last summer, on the way to a 12-3, 150-strikeout-in-158-inning season that carried him all the way to Double-A and the Futures Game.

Some teams, the Blue Jays obviously included, view him as a top-of-the-rotation talent. Others see a 5-foot-10 power pitcher with delivery issues who might max out as a No. 3 starter. What no one sees is the next Roy Halladay. But Anthopoulos detects no danger signs that Drabek will pressure himself to try to be that guy anyway.

"He's the son of a Cy Young Award winner," the GM said of Kyle and his dad, Doug, who won the award in 1990 with the Pirates. "I'm sure he's had expectations to deal with his whole life. And he's tackled those expectations so many times ... I don't see it being difficult for him at all."

Well, look at it this way: It can't be as difficult as trying to build a team that can catch the Red Sox and Yankees, anyhow.

The building of that team won't all be up to Drabek, Wallace and d'Arnaud, fortunately. That's Anthopoulos' job. And one thing you can say for this team and its new 32-year-old general manager: At least the Blue Jays have a blueprint.

They already have building-block young players in place: Aaron Hill, Adam Lind and Travis Snider, if he finally figures it out. And they have talented young pitchers already in the big leagues: Ricky Romero, Marc Rzepczynski and Brandon Morrow.

They also have the two big-time power arms they got from Cincinnati for Scott Rolen -- Zach Stewart and Josh Roenicke -- closing in on the major leagues. And they have Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan coming back from injuries to add to that pitching depth.

And they're so committed to improving their drafts, signings and trades, they did something unheard of this winter: They actually more than doubled their pro and amateur scouting staffs, giving them the largest scouting department in the entire sport.

So while this team may be an excellent bet to finish last this season, at least it will be a last-place team with a foundation and a plan. And you sure don't see that across the continent.

"We need to get to that point -- and it can't be short-lived -- where we're a contending team," Anthopoulos said, "but not a team that just contends. A team that can get to the World Series and win it, and then sustain it year-in and year-out. And we can't sustain it without a strong minor league department and a strong scouting department."

So for now, those scouting and development minds will go out and do their thing. And for now, Kyle Drabek, Brett Wallace and Travis d'Arnaud will begin their quest to make Toronto forget Roy Halladay under minor league cover. And for now, the pitchers Halladay left behind will do their best to match his work ethic, if not his winning percentage.

But while all that unfolds, the shadow of The Best Pitcher in Baseball will be lurking over this season, and, undoubtedly, beyond. And the Toronto Blue Jays realize that wherever this is leading, they can't ever make people forget Roy Halladay.

"I think we understand that this is just the nature of the beast in sports," Anthopoulos said. "We're certainly not the first club that has gone through this. We won't be the last. So we'll reflect and look back on everything Roy Halladay did for this organization. But we still have to move on."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com