LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida - The best Blue Jays pitcher of his generation, arguably the best ever pitcher in Blue Jays' history, is walking away from the game.
Fittingly, Roy Halladay will do so in a Toronto uniform, signing a one-day contract to retire with the franchise that drafted and developed him.
"I was very lucky to have a lot of people in that organization really develop and help me become the player that I was able to become," said Halladay. "Without the organization and support of the people in the organization from the front office to the coaches to the players, it really turned my career around and made a difference in my career. So that's why I'm very fortunate to retire as a Blue Jay."
During his career Halladay, 36, was regarded as one of the hardest workers in the game. His preparation between starts, which featured a strictly regimented workout program, became the stuff of legend and so there's a cruel irony to Halladay being forced from the sport, just two years from his last dominant season and still so far from his 40th birthday.
Halladay won 19 games for the Phillies in 2011 but was limited to 38 starts over the past two seasons, owing to a deteriorating back condition which forced him to change the mechanics of his delivery that led to shoulder trouble.
The decline seemed to happen so fast.
"It was probably more steady than people knew," said Halladay. "There were times in the season before where later in the games it would be a challenge. You know, as you get older, that's how things go. You're going to stiffen up. You're going to get tight. I thought it was just due to age. But I know things were starting to change a little bit. I think the frustrating part was in the past I found a way through working out, through research, through talking to trainers, to overcome those things."
From the beginning, Halladay seemed destined for stardom. Selected with the 17th overall pick in the 1995 draft, Halladay won 15 games for Single-A Dunedin in 1996, posting a 2.73 ERA and 1.239 WHIP. He stalled somewhat in 1997, bouncing Double-A Knoxville and Triple-A Syracuse and while his numbers didn't jump off the page in 1998, Halladay earned a late-season call up.
In just his second start, on the final day of the 1998 season, Halladay took a no-hitter into the ninth inning. After retiring Gabe Kapler and Paul Bako, pinch-hitter Bobby Higginson was all that stood between Halladay and a piece of history. Higginson hit a solo home run, over the left field wall.
There would be bumps in the road. Significant bumps. After working a dual starter-reliever role in 1999, Halladay was torched by American League hitters in 2000. He posted a 10.64 ERA over 19 appearances, 13 starts, and the control for which he would eventually become famous was non-existent (he walked 5.6 batters per nine innings.)
It was back to the minors where, under the tutelage of late pitching guru Mel Queen, Halladay lowered his arm angle and developed the cut fastball which would induce ground balls for years to come.
What would follow after his return to the major league level was sheer brilliance. Halladay's 148 wins in a Blue Jays uniform puts him second to Dave Stieb (170). He is one of only two starting pitchers in franchise history to win 20 games more than once, accomplishing the feat in 2003 (22) and 2008 (20). Roger Clemens was the other.
Never tiring of the organization or the city but with a desire for playoff competition, Halladay discussed the possibility of a trade with then-general manager J.P. Ricciardi after the 2008 season. By the All-Star Break in 2009 it was no secret Halladay wouldn't re-sign with the Jays upon the expiry of his contract and it was left up to newly-minted general manager Alex Anthopoulos to make a deal. The Phillies, coming off back to back World Series appearances, were willing to oblige.
He pitched a perfect game, for the Phillies in Florida on May 29, 2010 and followed it up with a no-hitter in the playoffs later the same season.
Halladay's 1.198 WHIP over 2,046.2 innings in Toronto is second-best amongst franchise starting pitchers (Jimmy Key, 1.196 WHIP in 1,695.2 innings.) In all or parts of 12 seasons with the Blue Jays, he was worth 48.5 wins above replacement (WAR).
He won Cy Young Awards with the Jays in 2003 and the Phillies in 2010. Halladay finished top-5 in Cy Young voting on seven occasions.
For their part, the Blue Jays are interested in exploring ways to keep Halladay in the organization. He'll be invited to spring training where he'd be a natural fit to pass on wisdom to the club's younger pitchers. General manager Alex Anthopoulos likened Halladay's situation to that of Pat Hentgen's, who tried his hand in different areas before assuming the role of bullpen coach, a job he's holding for the second time.
Known for his intensity, Halladay transitions into a quieter life out of the spotlight. He's ready for it.
"It's actually a very peaceful feeling."
R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle seem to be the only "sure things" in the Blue Jays' 2014 starting rotation.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos, as far back as July, identified the rotation as a sore spot which required remedy. He hasn't been able to acquire outside help – at least not yet – and doesn't expect to before the winter meetings conclude on Thursday morning.
"I think if it's a signing it would be more of a January thing unless the prices change and they come down," said Anthopoulos. "Right now I would say trade. I would say the focus, while I'm here, is that absolutely talking to clubs about trades rather than having meetings with agents and things like that. I'm really trying to take advantage of having all the GMs here to continue to have dialogue."
Brandon Morrow, who was lost for the season at the end of May with an entrapped nerve in his pitching forearm, is being counted on to not only return to health but to contribute innings and wins next season.
"Based on the offseason so far, he's thrown two bullpens, thrown a (simulated) game, looks great," said Anthopoulos. "That's a big add to our rotation."
But can you count on him to make 30 or more starts?
"We got 180 innings out of him in 2011 and then in '12, before the rib cage, he was on his way to what looked like an all-star season for us," said Anthopoulos. "I think the one place we're in a much better position this year compared to last is our depth in starters six through 10."
If the Blue Jays get their way, both Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek will begin the season with Triple-A Buffalo. Both are back to full health after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgeries in 2012.
Youngsters Marcus Stroman, Sean Nolin and, perhaps later in the season, Aaron Sanchez could be afforded opportunities.
Swingman Esmil Rogers and journeyman Todd Redmond impressed at times last year. J.A. Happ slots in best at the back end of the rotation.
Barring a surprise signing or a trade to acquire a second baseman, the Blue Jays will go into spring training with Ryan Goins and Maicer Izturis as their two options at the position.
Asked to handicap the race for the job, manager John Gibbons gave the vote of confidence to Goins.
"We really like Goins," said Gibbons. "We like what he did in September. He gave us a shot in the arm. I thought he handled the ball well enough to be top dog going in there."
Izturis struggled early in his first season in Toronto. With Brett Lawrie and Jose Reyes injured for significant portions of the first half, Izturis bounced around the diamond and appeared to struggle with the adjustment to playing on turf. Later, he settled in before an August ankle injury ended his season, but Gibbons envisions Izturis returning to the role he had with the Angels.
"Izturis will be a utility guy; I think that's his strength," said Gibbons. "Today that's the way we look at it. Alex could go out and make a trade for somebody to bring a second baseman in. I don't know if that's going to happen. But if not, I really like what Goins did."
On Monday evening, Jon Morosi and Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported the Blue Jays agreed to a three-team trade, two weeks ago, which would have resulted in reliever Sergio Santos landing with the Texas Rangers.
According to the report, the deal fell through when one of the players involved failed his physical.
There were no other details.