For the first six weeks of the 2009 season, the Toronto Blue Jays were one of the year's feel-good stories. Despite losing the pitcher AJ Burnett to free agency and at least three other starters - Dustin McGowan, Jesse Litsch and Shaun Marcum - to the disabled list, the Jays broke from the pack early and held down first place in the American League (AL) East. Expected to finish far behind Tampa Bay, Boston and New York in the highly-competitive AL East, the Jays were, instead, surprise contenders.
Then reality hit. The Jays went on a three-city, nine-game road swing and were swept in Boston, Atlanta and Baltimore. When they returned home, the team which sported the best record in the league weeks earlier had fallen to just two games over .500. In all likelihood, the Jays are neither as good as they looked sprinting to the early lead in the division, nor as flawed as they appeared while dropping nine in a row. They are, instead, a thoroughly average team stuck in the game's most competitive division.
For years, the AL East was the sole dominion of the Yankees and Red Sox, who jostled for supremacy. The teams spent freely, managed wisely and outclassed the rest of the league. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays broke through the division's glass ceiling by winning 97 games to finish first, then ousting Boston in a seven-game AL Championship Series that some viewed as a passing of the torch. The Red Sox had already won two World Series in the previous four seasons and had all the makings of another title team before the upstart Rays blocked their path. Tampa, which had been the essence of futility - never having won more than 70 games in a season - had done one thing correctly: stockpile young talent by virtue of high draft picks.
The Jays, meanwhile, were caught in a sort of baseball limbo - not well-heeled enough to match the Yankees and Red Sox dollar-for-dollar and not bad enough to reap the best amateur talent through the draft. When the Jays broke from the pack this season, there were suggestions they were, in fact, this year's version of the Rays - a team which fooled the experts and far surpassed expectations. In reality, they were merely the beneficiary of a slight early-season schedule which had them bypassing both their division rivals.
Finally, when the Jays got a chance to prove themselves in head-to-head meetings, they stumbled, dropping two-of-three to New York at home, then rolled by the Red Sox as part of the winless road trip. The Jays are competitive and will likely stay that way, especially with Litsch, Marcum and McGowan all expected back before Aug 1. But unlike the Red Sox and Yankees, who have money to spare for mid-season improvements, Toronto are cash-strapped, having sliced their payroll last off-season.
If, on the other hand, the Jays go into mid-season free-fall and attendance dips accordingly, that might force their ownership to order the selling of Roy Halladay. Halladay is under contract until the end of 2010 and could instantly upgrade any contender's chances of winning the World Series. The Jays could use such a trade to re-stock their system and rebuild with younger, cheaper prospects, in much the same way the Texas Rangers used Mark Teixeira to acquire an inventory of young talent which could form the nucleus of the organisation for years to come.
Losing Halladay would be a tough sell in Toronto, but it might beat the alternative - holding on to him until free agency arrives, with the Jays still stuck in the middle of baseball's most demanding division. email@example.com