To the national media and to most Twins fans, the Blue Jays’ July 19 demotion and eventual July 22 trade of Shea Hillenbrand was viewed as addition by subtraction, similar to the local ballclub’s maneuvers with the likes of Tony Batista and Bret Boone. After all, Hillenbrand had posted a notice on the clubhouse wall comparing the team to a certain ill-fated cruise vessel, not to mention (according to reports) left the team for four days without providing proper notice to manager John Gibbons. However, as all things become clear with time, perhaps the move of the hitter who boasted an .848 OPS coming into July shed some light on some serious problems north of the border – problems that winning just three of the first thirteen games of the post-Hillenbrand era, effectively knocking them out of the playoff hunt, have now brought fully into focus.
There was no mistaking the offseason splash that Gibbons and GM J.P. Ricciardi made with such big-name signings as A.J. Burnett (5 yrs./$55 million), B.J. Ryan (5 yrs/$47 million), and Bengie Molina (1 yr/$4.5 million), as well as a trade that added former World Series MVP Troy Glaus to a hot corner already crowded with an impressive group: Lyle Overbay, Corey Koskie, Eric Hinske and Hillenbrand. The mistake, it seems, was in unmet promises made to some new and old Jays during their respective courtships. First, season long frustration revealed by 2003 Cy Young winner Roy Halladay on local television – both with pitch count limitations he claims to have never been privy to and Gibbons’ misuse of a bullpen that has blown four Halladay leads. Then Ryan, whose signing with the Jays made him the highest paid reliever in history and certified him as a bonafide closer, reportedly isn’t happy with Gibbons’ trigger-happy and unpredictable approach to his role, as evidenced by the 15 outings in which he has pitched more than the hallowed one-inning closer maximum.
All seemed fine on July 18, though, as the Jays were just four games out in the AL East, despite horrible fortune on the pitching side, losing starters Gustavo Chacin, Ted Lilly, and Burnett for significant stretches due to injury. That’s when Ricciardi’s apparent penchant of promising the world without either telling or asking the manager, Gibbons’ notorious hot head, and the ability of anyone to keep clubhouse matters within the clubhouse finally appear to have come home to roost. As Hillenbrand complained publicly about being promised a defensive role and only being allowed to DH, and Gibbons fumed over Hillenbrand’s having left the club to deal with something as “trivial” as the adoption of a child (despite Ricciardi’s admitted knowledge and approval of the leave), the whole matter blew its top. Gibbons then challenged Hillenbrand to a fistfight in the locker room, the confrontation once again entered the public record (limiting Ricciardi’s trade options), and less than a month later the Jays are eight games out of the wild card and nine games behind the surging Yankees in the division.
Oh, and did I mention that Molina is now complaining that he was promised an everyday role and is on pace to catch 98 games this season? I didn’t have to, it’s up front and center on the team’s official website. Makes you wonder if the Jays even bother with doors in the clubhouse to go behind.
On the Hill
Blue Jays: A.J. Burnett (3-5, 4.81 ERA)
- 2005(FLA): 209 IP, 12-12, 3.44 ERA, 198K
- 2006: 63.2 IP, 75H, 58K, 13BB, 9HR
- Remember the A.J. Burnett that had executives buzzing during last year’s hot stove? This is him in name only. Burnett followed a 5.97 ERA in July with a 6.30 start to August. He did get a decent start last week against the White Sox and continues to find a way to strike hitters out, but when he leaves the ball over the plate, watch out – the league is slugging .454 against him.
Twins: Matt Garza (0-0, 0.00 ERA)