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October 7, 2010 at 4:51 PM

Should Roy Halladay story really be used as a gauge for Mariners prospects? Yes and no

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There has been some talk locally, after yesterday’s playoff no-hitter by Roy Halladay of the Phillies, that his unique story can be used as a signpost of sorts for Mariners fans to lean on when it comes to young prospects trying to break in with Seattle.
Halladay, for those who don’t know, was absolutely terrible his first two major league seasons. Then, in a radical move, he was demoted all the way to Class A ball at the start of his third season in 2001. From there, he rallied to become the dominant pitcher of his era and a potential first-ballot Hall of Famer. Sounds good. The kind of movie the Disney folks like to make.
The lesson here for M’s fans, therefore, should be, at first glance anyway: don’t give up on your prospects after a year or two. After all, they could turn out like Roy Halladay.
Now, who wouldn’t like that message, if they’re an M’s fan? Makes them think that the .200 batting averages for guys like Justin Smoak, Adam Moore and Michael Saunders can vanish as well. And truthfully, they could. It’s tough to give up on any prospect after one full season. Which is why you’ll certainly see Smoak back next season and pretty likely Moore in some role, whether it’s as a starter or a backup. Saunders? Not so sure, yet, but we’ll see.
Here’s the thing, though. Using Halladay as a gauge is a little misleading because the real story behind his ressurection is a lot darker than the fairy-tale Hollywood ending he’s in the process of living. Also, one of the things we can take away from the Halladay tale is the exact thing many Mariners fans do not want to hear: that yes, it is true that teams give up on players after only a couple of years — even former No. 1 draft picks projected to be stud pitchers.
Because despite what you may hear today, the Blue Jays back in 2001 were getting ever so close to giving up on Halladay at age 23 after only two full seasons. And those weren’t full seasons of 34 starts. They were seasons where he bounced between the rotation and bullpen so the Blue Jays could ease Halladay in and see how he looked against major league opponents.
Sort of what has happened with Saunders the past two seasons. No, he didn’t play 150 games in either of them. But he got extended playing time in both. Just like Halladay did.
What happened with Halladay in Year No. 3 was that he was demoted from the majors all the way back to Class A ball and did not do very well at first, even against scrubs. He had an ERA up around 4.00 and had allowed 33 baserunners in 22 2/3 innings as a reliever. His fastball was straight and hittable. His change-up was all over the place. He was still fiddling around with a “knuckle curve ball” that was awful and getting him nowhere. The team had no idea what to do next.
That’s when they came up with a last-ditch plan.

They decided to “sick” Mel Queen on Halladay. The former big league pitching coach was a roving minor league advisor at the time and he joined Halladay in Class AA. Halladay thought, foolishly, that he’d been promoted. Instead, Queen tore into him. Verbally berated Halladay and told him that if he didn’t make something happen with him right then and there, his career was over.
Yes, at age 23. After only two seasons, neither of which was as a full-time starter. As a No. 1 draft pick and the highest rated prospect in Toronto’s organization when first called up the final few weeks of 1998.
Back in 2003, when I wrote a lengthy feature story on Halladay’s ordeal for the Toronto Star, Queen told me: “As far as baseball-wise, I told him he was pretty naive and stupid. And that’s got to change.”
And Halladay, to his credit, did change. But only after constant berating by Queen. In a last-ditch move by the organization to salvage something from their investment. If this plan had failed, Halladay was done in Toronto. After only two seasons.
Yes, the plan worked. But the point is, it would not have worked for everybody. Queen was fortunate that Halladay had very little ego and was able to take his daily abuse and do something constructive with it.
“I verbally abused him pretty hard that first week,” Queen said. “A lot of guys wouldn’t have taken it. A lot of guys would have walked away. A lot of guys would have punched me.”
I’m not going to re-print the whole story for you here. You can look it up on the paid archives site of the Toronto Star. Or, save some money and just read this blog post, which uses roughly 1,700 words, including entire paragraphs and quotes, word-for-word from the original story (without credit, but I’ll live). Or, read the redux version Sports Illustrated did online back in April in a piece by Tom Verducci. It was very well done and depicts what Halladay went through.
In fact, Verducci even writes the truth about why the plan was hatched: Privately, the organization wanted to fix him just enough to be able to trade him
The point of all this?
If it ever gets to a Halladay point with any of the M’s prospects, chances are that things will not work out. You don’t want to go the Halladay route, simply because it was borne out of desperation, not any brilliant overall strategy. Frankly, I doubt a lot of the Mariners prospects could go through what Halladay did. Queen tore into his psyche so badly that it took Halladay years to stop being afraid that he’d revert to being a nobody. Had to hire sports psychologists to help him. The team tore him down, mentally and physically, and rebuilt him. Fortunately, for him and the team, he survived the process. I’m a big Queen fan as are many pitchers. But he is not like many of the pitching coaches we’ve had in Seattle recently. Not a buddy like “Chavey” was to Felix Hernandez, or a cerebral type like Rick Adair. Queen was old school tough. I’m not sure a lot of the current young Mariners would be able to handle him.
The moral of this story? That the Halladay story is unique and probably not the best measuring stick. He barely survived his ordeal and only because he turned out to be one of the mentally toughest pitchers of his generation.
And yes, teams have and will give up on prospects after only a couple of years. They just can’t afford to wait and wait on something that might never happen. At some point, you make a judgment call, based on expertise the average fan doesn’t have. Some of those discarded prospects will turn into busts. And some will go on to greatness like Halladay did. But the Blue Jays — as Verducci’s story notes — were perilously close to giving up on him before Queen pulled off the miracle that he did.
And they would not be the only team to have pulled a plug in a situation like that. As Verducci noted, they’d already mentally pulled it and were just trying to build up Halladay’s trade value. That’s the real story. A little different from how the situation is commonly viewed today.
So, with Mariners prospects, as we’ve said all along, yes, by all means, give Smoak a chance to show what he can do. Moore as well. Saunders has had chances for parts of two seasons now and if the team feels there’s more to see, I’m sure they’ll run him out there in left field again.
But the chances are not unlimited. And come next season, all three, if given the chance again, have to take their offensive — and defensive in all cases — games to a different level than we saw in 2010. Yes, that is putting pressure on them. But there has to be. Even a No. 1 draft pick like Halladay wasn’t going to get unlimited playing time if he kept producing numbers that were terrible.
That’s all I’m saying. That yes, young players need time. But no, that time is not unlimited. Ask Jeff Clement. Ask Phillippe Aumont. Two No. 1 draft picks that Jack Zduriencik did not hesitate to part company with before either had experienced much playing time — none in Aumont’s case — in the majors.
So, yes indeed, the clock is ticking on Seattle’s young prospects. And they cannot assume they’ll have unlimited time to get it together. That, more than anything, is the lesson we can take away from the Halladay story: that even the very best and most-hyped young talents have to produce before the window slams shut.



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