In end, '09 about regrouping for Jays

In end, '09 about regrouping for Jays

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays headed into the 2009 season with their eyes wide open. The pitching staff was young and inexperienced, the offense included a handful of unanswered questions and the American League East remains an extremely competitive division.

"We kind of expected that this year was going to be a year that you were going to have to regroup," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said.

In the end, the Blue Jays pieced together the type of season the organization anticipated from the beginning. That is not to say that Toronto is heading into the winter without a feeling of disappointment. The Jays unexpectedly stormed out of the gates, creating a glimmer of hope for a club that has not tasted the playoffs since 1993.

Toronto soared to a 27-14 record through May 18, using one of the best starts in franchise history to move past the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays for first place in the East. Suddenly, expectations were a lot higher. That was before a nine-game losing streak initiated a four-month stumble down the standings, ending in the dismissal of general manager J.P. Ricciardi.

Gaston -- at the helm for the Jays when the team captured consecutive World Series crowns in 1992-93 -- does not enjoy losing. Looking back at this season, though, Gaston allows himself to take the losses a little easier than he did in the past. After all, this season was more about development than making a run at the postseason.

"We have some young kids here playing, pitching especially," Gaston said. "It's just something building toward the future, whether I'm here or not. This team will always be a part of my heart no matter if I'm here or not, so I'd like to see them get better and I'd like to see them move forward and play well.

"It's never easy to lose. I really can't stand losing, but I understand it. I probably understand it a little bit more, a little bit better now."

The Blue Jays did have some bright spots to this forgettable campaign.

A year after suffering a serious concussion, second baseman Aaron Hill returned strong, making the AL All-Star team and setting club records for home runs and RBIs by a middle infielder. Designated hitter Adam Lind turned in a breakout showing as well, and rookie lefty Ricky Romero emerged as a reliable member of Toronto's depleted rotation.

Along the way, though, an assortment of issues took a toll on the Blue Jays' season.

Former closer B.J. Ryan -- struggling with poor command and diminished velocity -- was released in July due to his persistent problems on the mound, and Toronto still owes the left-hander $10 million in 2010. In August, the Jays also cut ties with Alex Rios, allowing the White Sox to claim the right fielder off waivers to trim $60 million off the books.

Third baseman Scott Rolen requested to be traded and was dealt to the Reds in a four-player swap shortly before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Given its direction and place in the standings, the Blue Jays also fielded trade offers for ace Roy Halladay but decided to keep him through the end of the season.

Halladay is signed through 2010, but the Jays might explore trade offers for their ace again this winter. After his final home start of the season, Halladay was asked if he would have interest in remaining with the Blue Jays beyond next year.

"If we're winning," he said with a smile.

The Jays were winning early on in '09, but even Halladay knew it was going to be difficult to keep that pace going, under the circumstances.

"It almost feels like a two-part season," Halladay said. "I think there's definitely positives that you can build on and look forward to. Obviously, we would've loved to sustain how we played early in the year throughout the whole year, but it's a tough division to do that and we had a lot of good teams stacked up here in the second half."

Record: 75-87, fourth place in AL East.

Defining moment: Halladay headed out of Toronto's dugout in the ninth inning against the Mariners on Sept. 25 and the fans were already giving the ace a standing ovation. He used 11 pitches to finish off a shutout in his final home start of the year and lifted his hat high in the air as he headed off the field. The crowd responded with chants of "Thank-you-Roy!", knowing Doc might be traded over the winter. Even the stoic Halladay admitted that it was an emotional moment.

What went right: Hill, coming back from the concussion, and Lind, in his first full big league season, formed one of the game's top offensive duos. The pair combined for more than 70 home runs and 200 RBIs, providing life to an otherwise disappointing Blue Jays offense. Veteran shortstop Marco Scutaro enjoyed a career year serving as a full-time player for the first time.

What went wrong: The Blue Jays had plenty of injury woes on the mound (Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan, Jesse Litsch, Scott Downs, and Halladay, among others), as well as a variety of other issues. Ryan's struggles led to his release in July and Toronto let the slumping Rios go to the White Sox. Center fielder Vernon Wells labored through a subpar showing in the batter's box all season long and rookie outfielder Travis Snider had an inconsistent campaign.

Biggest surprise: At the beginning of Spring Training, Romero looked like a long shot to make the Opening Day roster. The rookie was wild in his first few outings, but he worked diligently with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg and claimed a job in the Jays rotation in the final days of camp. All Romero did after that was fashion an inaugural season that made him a legitimate candidate for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.