The Most Disappointing Season For…The Toronto Blue Jays
The 1997 Toronto Blue Jays
Record: 76-86 (5th in the AL East, 11th out of 14 in AL)
Pythagorean Record: 77-85
Runs Scored: 654 (14th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 694 (3rd in the AL)
Prior Season Record: 74-88
Manager: Cito Gaston (72-85), Mel Queen (4-1)
Hype: The Blue Jays traded for proven vets and signed Benito Santiago and the prize of them all, Roger Clemens. Enough with the slow rebuild; it’s time to win.
The Gory Details: December 13, 1997 – a day that not only spawned the multi-media career of a bro fanboy from Boston, but it signaled to the baseball world that the Toronto Blue Jays had grown impatient of rebuilding from the ground up, and were ready to win now.
It was the day that Roger Clemens signed.
Earlier in the off-season, the Jays traded for Orlando Merced, Dan Plesac and Carlos Garcia as the Pirates were gutting their roster of anyone useful, and they signed Benito Santiago as a free agent.
This was a signal that the vaunted farm system, that at one point gave the editors of Baseball America prospect chubbies, wasn’t so hot for a while and that in order to win, they needed to go outside the organization.
It was quite true. It was thought the Blue Jays were loaded with prospects, and were always shrewd in picking up Rule V platers. But as the failures of Manny Lee, Lou Thornton, Sil Campusano, Eddie Zosky and others attest, that wasn’t the case anymore, at least for the prospects acquired during the World Series years.
Yes, Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green were prizes, and Alex Gonzalez could play a mean shortstop, but Toronto needed help in the outfield, at catcher and in the pitching staff that the likes of Sandy Martinez, Marty Janzen and Huck Flener weren’t giving them.
Plus, there was the perception that Cito Gaston wouldn’t play young players unless they were exceptional, or he was forced to play them. That was mainly because the team of the early 90’s was SO strong that they didn’t need to use their bench much or break in younger players. Plus, well, there’s Zosky and Campusano…
Adding Clemens was a huge get. Lining him up alongside Pat Hentgen and Juan Guzman would give them a formidable 1-2-3 in the rotation. Erik Hanson had a bad 1996 but looked to rebound as well.
The lineup, with Merced, Garcia and Santiago, looked strong on paper. After giving up any pretense of trying to catch, Delgado was on his way to becoming the next big AL slugger. Green was an exciting young player that needed to learn to hit lefties, but Robert Perez hit over .300 last year and looked to be a solid platoon player.
Joe Carter was still around and still had a penchant for filling up the RBI stat sheet. Ed Sprague was steady at third as well. The only question mark was in center field, where they still depended on Otis Nixon.
Cito Gaston and Gord Ash liked the makeup of this team so much, that they dealt Jon Olerud to the Mets for starter Robert Person. Olerud’s production had slipped, and it was thought the trio of Delgado, Carter and Merced could handle first, right and DH.
So with Clemens in tow, and fresh faces all around, Toronto looked to put three seasons of mediocrity behind it, and reach for another World Series title.
The season wasn’t even 10 games old when that plan started to go wheels up. Santiago missed some time with an injury that forced Charlie O’Brien into the lineup for about two weeks. Meanwhile, Gaston was not only platooning Green, but also giving Juan Samuel some plate appearances in Delgado’s stead.
Hanson was also down for the count. He sustained an injury in spring training, and when he came back in April he had two awful starts and then was shut down for a while. Person came into the rotation as the fifth starter, with Woody Williams slotting in as the fourth starter.
It wasn’t a very inspiring April. Sure, Clemens held his weight (4-0, 1.72), but Hentgen had four no-decisions already and a 4.43 ERA. Guzman, the AL ERA champ in 1996, gave up nine runs in 4 1/3 innings on April 20th at Texas and missed his next turn.
Meanwhile, Garcia was hitting just a buck sixty-three with no patience and minimal slugging. Merced recovered from a horrible start and was up to .258, a long way from the .300 average Toronto expected.
Both Merced and Garcia had DL stints with hamstring and leg injuries the year before. Perhaps they were just shaking off the rust? At least Sprague was hitting, and hitting well, for now.
Gaston loved vets, and catered to them. Carter didn’t like DHing much, so Delgado went to DH even though he was a better first baseman than Carter and needed the experience. Gatson then decided he liked Jacob Brumfield as a platoon player with Green (as he didn’t trust Green to hit lefties) so Perez went to the bench.
He’d rather have Santiago and O’Brien than a kid at catcher so no one from the minors came up when Santiago was hurt. That’s all well and good, but the loyalty to the vets can only go so far.
What it got them was a 26-25 record at the end of May. They were already 10 games behind Baltimore in the AL East but being over .500 were definitely going to be in play for the wild card. What was troubling was that the Jays had scored just 202 runs all season, last in the AL.
Guzman was another source of concern. His ERA was 4.87 after his ninth start of the year, and he was shut down again for a month to rest his arm. Luis Andujar came up to replace him.
The calendar turned to June. Toronto signed Ruben Sierra to help their offense, and used him occasionally at DH and LF. Clemens was dazzling, Hentgen and Williams eating innings. But still, the offense was in a torpor as the vets were collapsing right before Cito’s eyes.
On Dominion Day, the Jays stood at 37-40. It was just like the past few years again, except this team was old and full of experience, not young and hungry. The Blue Jays could not hit, could not get on base, and didn’t have much power. For the month of June, Sprague hit .198 with no home runs.
Carter hit .182 with a .248 OBP and a SLG under .300. Santiago hit an empty .200. Sierra couldn’t hit anymore and was released. The team’s stars made a lot of outs and their OPS+ for the month was 79, or about as effective as Tilson Brito’s June. That is, if Gaston would have played Brito instead of Garcia.
Still, except for the release of Sierra in mid-June, no moves were made except putting players on the DL or the occasional promotion and demotion.
July? No change, not really. They would win three, then lose three. They’d have a five game winning streak, then promptly lose six in a row. Clemens kicked butt, and newly promoted reliever Kelvim Escobar threw gas. Yet there were more issues, Guzman threw a few more games, and was shut down for the year, and Hanson was no where near coming back.
At least Green was playing more often, but as a DH more often than not. Gaston decided to allow Carter to dictate his playing time, and it was basically three games in LF and one at DH as the Jays decided to keep Delgado at first going forward.
Santiago was still battling injuries, so there was more Charlie O’Brien for everyone. Garcia was ceding a little time to Brito. Still though, Sprague, Merced, Nixon and Merced ate up the bulk of playing time. Proven vets, you know.
After 100 games, the Jays were 50-50, in third place, 12 ½ games behind Baltimore and seven behind the Yankees in the Wild Card. They hadn’t scored 400 runs yet as a team – only the woeful Reds and the absolutely (30-72) horrid Phillies hadn’t reached that plateau in all of baseball. This wasn’t 1906, where you could get wins by 2-1 and 3-2 all day long.
Through all of this, Roger Clemens was proving his worth. He lost game 101 of the season 1-0 to the Brewers when Steve Woodard, making his first big league start, threw a one-hitter. That hit, a double by Nixon, was on the third pitch of the game.
The loss was Clemens’ fourth alongside 16 wins. His ERA was 1.52. With that ERA in that offensive era, it was nothing short of a season for the ages, and here he is stuck on a team going nowhere full of geezers doing nothing run by a manager who’d rather eat curdled poutine than play a young player every day who wasn’t a defensive wizard at short.
So they made a few moves, finally. First, they grabbed Omar Daal. Oh, wait, that’s not a move they would trumpet. Daal had a 9.79 ERA in 33 games for Montreal. A couple days later they helped their woeful infield situation, as it seemed obvious that Garcia was playing like a man 10 years older than he was. So to improve their second base situation they traded for…
Mariano Duncan. They didn’t give time to Brito, nor Tomas Perez nor Felipe Crespo or any other young players. Mariano Freakin’ Duncan.
Finally, they made a move at the end of July that was in the right direction, age wise. On July 31, they traded veteran reliever Mike Timlin (now trade bait since Escobar was throwing lights out) and expendable lefty Paul Spoljaric to Seattle, and in exchange they got a legitimately young and exciting player – Jose Cruz, Jr.
While it may have been a necessity since Merced was done for the year with another leg injury, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone that they’d have just let Brumfield play every day, since he’s a vet and all.
But they did the right thing, and Cruz slotted into left field, moving Green to right for the most part and forcing Carter, finally, to DH whether he liked it or not.
The Blue Jays staggered into August a dead team walking. The fourth and fifth starters behind Clemens, Hentgen and Williams were trouble spots, but they could have survived the Andujars and the Persons and the on-the-job training for Chris Carpenter had they had any offense whatsoever. But they didn’t.
One more move was made in August. Nixon was sent to LA for rocks and garbage, but that meant young Shannon Stewart was finally given a legitimate chance to play every day in the majors.
Tomas Perez got some time at short as Gonzalez was injured a bit in August, so they actually had five young, developing players in the lineup (oh, wait Gonzalez was one too). They still played Carter and Sprague every day.
Duncan played almost every day in place of Garcia (six of one, half-a-dozen outs the other), and O’Brien and Santiago were alternating at catcher to help Benito heal up.
The Blue Jays brass, led by President Paul Beeston, were none too thrilled with how this season turned out. Ash had made some moves that all of baseball thought were sound, but only Clemens had turned out the way everyone thought would happen. Ash was spared, but Gaston was on the hot seat.
Finally, when the rosters expanded, did some players get a chance to play. Oh, no, wait, it was just Sprague that got benched, being replaced first by Tom Evans, then Crespo, and then at the tail end of the season by…Samuel.
Okay, screw the young players playing thing. The Jays and Gaston went down with their vets to an ignominious end in 1997. Gaston first, as he was fired with five games to go.
Clemens, he was a stud, of course. He threw 264 innings and went 21-7 with a 2.05 ERA (four rough starts in August and September did him in as far as an ERA under 2.00 went). Hentgen went 15-10 with a decent 3.67 ERA, and Williams didn’t do half bad, either. Person, Carpenter and Andujar were disappointments, sure, but not as disappointing as the injury riddled duo of Hanson and Guzman.
Escobar (14 saves ) and Paul Quantril (1.94 ERA and a 3 1/3 to 1 K/W ratio) led a pretty good bullpen. When you put it all together, the offense should have shouldered 100% of the blame for the failure of this team.
Delgado (127 OPS+, 30 home runs) proved why he was a Grade A prospect. He was pretty raw at first base, but maybe they should have played him there more often in the past and in the spring intstead of Carter Green showed flashes of excellence that he would later display every day, while Stewart did well in his first big league action. Cruz hit 14 bombs in 244 at bats. Those, those were the positives.
Garcia (.220/.253/.309) and Duncan (.228/.267/.263) were awful at second. Merced’s 101 OPS+ and injuries didn’t endear him to the faithful either – a league average hitting corner outfielder will put you behind most good teams. Carter hit 21 home runs and had 102 RBI, but didn’t slug .400, had a .284 OBP, and was awful on defense.
After a sizzling start, (.277/.352/.548 through May 31) Sprague ended with an OBP barely over .300 and a slugging percentage under .400. He hit zero home runs in June and July – yet he did not miss a game. Loyalty can be overrated.
After the season, with Gaston gone, Toronto had a mess on their hands. Beeston fled to become the President of MLB. Garcia, Duncan, Merced and Carter were not resigned. Santiago suffered severe injuries in a car crash in the offseason of 1997 and 1998. Sprague obviously was on the downward slope of a career.
Guzman and Hanson were big question marks if they would ever return. Ash was left trying to hire a manager, and rebuild again, but this time around Delgado, Cruz, Green and Stewart. Yet, as you know, it took forever and a day for the Jays to rebuild and contend, as they made one mistake after another in chasing free agents and locking up players that turned into duds.
Boring, mediocre and forgettable. A 76-86 season, made bitter by the millions they spent and the hopes they generated in the offseason that quickly turned to dust.
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Roger Clemens’ WAR was only 12.2. Yeah, just 12 games over replacement, for a player who started 34 games. Amazing. This incredible season is really forgotten about because, well, he did it in Toronto for a team no one cared about. Hentgen’s WAR was 5.7, and no position player made the Top four in war.
Quantril, a middle reliever, and Williams, a middling starter, had more WAR than every position player. (Delgado would have, but the defensive metrics hated him, and they never did like him much in his career…)
Honorable Mention Team: Cynics may point to EVERY season from 1993-2015 as disappointing, but I think 1986 may take the HM cake. After surging to the AL East title in 1985 and losing a tough seven game series to Kansas City, the first year under Jimy Williams saw Toronto fall from 99 wins to 86, as Dave Stieb tumbled from ace to an ERA+ of 89 and the back end of the bullpen, a strength in 1985, gacked up a lot of runs. Without Tom Henke or Mark Eichhorn (7.4 WAR as a middle man, unbelieveable), the Jays may have been under .500 as no one else in the bullpen could string two outs together.
Bad Blast from the Past: Before Toronto got an expansion team in 1977, they hadn’t had a minor league team since 1967. Boston was their last parent club (that team then moved to Louisville), and the Red Sox have had mucho disappointments in their history. The 1951 Red Sox were a decent club, finishing at 87-67 under Steve O’Neil, who had a 1 ½ season record of 150-99. So, of course the Sox fired him because they finished third behind the Yankees, and they hired Lou Boudreau.
Boudreau didn’t help the club as manager or as a shortstop. Ted Williams flying planes in Korea didn’t help, either, but runs weren’t the issue. Pitching and defense were, as the Sox fell to under .500 for the first time since the end of WW2.