Jays holding on to Halladay … for now

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Spring training living isn't as serene as it's supposed to be when you're a Human Trade Rumor.

But does that describe Blue Jays stud Roy Halladay, the best pitcher the Canadian dollar can buy? Or not?

Right now? Right this minute? That's a "not." A biiiiiig "not."

Halladay is not sitting in the window of anybody's trading-deadline department store. Sorry. Not in the last week of February, anyhow.

In fact, Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi is already more tired of this topic than he is of hearing about the Yankees' payroll, the Canadian economy or the number of pitchers occupying his trainers' room.

"Roy Halladay is not going anywhere," Ricciardi says, as emphatically as he can possibly say it without grabbing a bullhorn or splashing it on a billboard. "This has become kind of a hot topic in baseball, but we're not trading him. We have no intention of trading him. He allows us to be good. And we feel we are going to be good. And he's going to be The Guy."

So there. It's settled, right? Trading his ace has never entered the GM's mind?

"Nope," the GM says succinctly.

And would there be any scenario that could cause it to enter his mind?

"Let me ask you this," Ricciardi says. "What do you think we'd get for Roy Halladay? What do you think we could get that could ever replace Roy Halladay? He's the best pitcher in baseball. Who's going to give you a combination of guys that could [replace him]? All these guys you could supposedly get -- they won't become Roy Halladay. So if we think we're going to be good, we're going to be better with him here."

Anybody want to argue that point? Or any of those points? Didn't think so.

With Halladay, the Blue Jays effectively start the season 10 games over .500. Or just about.

That's the approximate number of games above .500 that Halladay has averaged for the past three seasons (while going 52-23). And it isn't hard to imagine that he could be 15 over, or even 20 over, if he can dodge those line drives up the middle for a whole season. Or if his teammates would just cross home plate a little more often.

He went 22-7 as recently as 2003. And he won 20 games last year even though his offense scored one run or none, while he was in the game, in nine of his 33 starts.

So let's make this simple: Roy Halladay is the most irreplaceable commodity in his sport. Especially on a team that had to lop $20 million off its payroll. Even more especially on a team that just lost three-fifths of its spectacular starting rotation to free agency or to those diabolical orthopedic surgeons.

As long as Halladay is around, the Blue Jays know that every five days, when it comes time to celebrate another official Canadian Halladay, they're going to win nearly 70 percent of the time. And you can look that up.

Roy Halladay That's really the only priority. And I think that's kind of where I'm at -- at the point where you'd sacrifice a lot of other things to have [a] chance [to win].

-- Roy Halladay

Since 2002, Halladay's personal winning percentage is .698 -- best in the big leagues. And over the past four seasons, his team has gone 77-38 in games he started (a .670 winning percentage) -- and is 15 games under .500 (259-274, a .486 winning percentage) when anybody else started.

So no general manager would think seriously, or sanely, about trading someone like that -- unless he had to. And that's where this plot thickens.

The Blue Jays had a $98 million payroll last year. They initially were projected to bump that to $105 million. Then the Canadian economy avalanched.

So they're now looking at an $84 million payroll and uncertain revenue streams. Which is the sort of thing, Ricciardi says, that has caused people to "come to their own conclusions" about which No. 1 starters his team might have to move.

But we should point out that Ricciardi hasn't always discouraged those people from drawing those conclusions. Earlier this month, he told the New York Post's Joel Sherman: "Ownership wants no part of trading Roy at this time. He's the face of the organization. Right now, we are not thinking about going down that road. But that is what we feel in February. Who knows how you feel in June?"

So as long as the stock market sinks and the AL East jungle stays treacherous and quotes such as that one bounce around cyberspace, this is an issue that isn't going to disappear. And the man in the middle of this tornado is well aware of that.

But for now, says Halladay, he isn't paying much attention to any installment of this soap opera.

"My relationship with J.P., I think, is very good," Halladay says. "If something were to happen, I think he'd be up front and honest with me."

That said, this is also a man who turns 32 in May, with free agency looming in fall 2010. So as loyal as Halladay has been to the only team he has ever pitched for, he also isn't going to lie.

He wants to pitch in October. He wants to win a World Series. And those aspirations are a bigger presence for him now than they've ever been before in his life.

He has won a Cy Young (in 2003). He has won 20 games twice. He has made five All-Star teams. So he is at the point in his career, he says, "where it becomes about winning."

"And that's really the only priority," he says. "And I think that's kind of where I'm at -- at the point where you'd sacrifice a lot of other things to have that chance."

The funny thing is, though, it's not as if the team he's playing for has been confused with the Royals recently.

The Blue Jays are one of only eight teams in the sport that have averaged 85 or more wins for the past three seasons. But here's a momentous difference between Toronto and those other seven teams:

The Blue Jays are the only ones who haven't played a single postseason game.

They won more games in 2006 (87) than the Cardinals team that won the World Series -- and won more games last year (86) than the Dodgers team that made it to the NLCS. But it hasn't been enough. When you play in the AL East, there's a good chance a win total in the 80s is never going to be enough.

"You know what we need?" Ricciardi laughs. "We need a tsunami to move Toronto to the [NL] West."

That looks kind of unlikely, though, so what the Blue Jays really thought they needed was to build baseball's most dominating pitching staff. And, in a development ignored by pretty much the entire solar system, they actually did that.

In fact, you could stump pretty much every living sports fan south of Manitoba with this little trivia question: What team led the major leagues in ERA last season?

Yeah, right you are. That team wasn't the Dodgers or Cubs or Angels. It was the Toronto Blue Jays. And not only that. The Blue Jays were the first American League team since the 1967 White Sox (and just the third in the expansion era) to lead the majors in both starters' and bullpen ERA.

But here we are, only a few months later, and you're tempted to ask: Who kidnapped this team's rotation?

Dustin McGowan: out until midyear after shoulder surgery. … Shaun Marcum: probably out all year after Tommy John surgery. … And A.J. Burnett: uhhh, guess you know what happened there.

Halladay admits having three rotation compadres that good disappear on him is frustrating -- "but I think it is for a lot of people," he says. "I know J.P. would have loved to bring A.J. back … but obviously, when New York decides to go after somebody, they go pretty hard."

And the Blue Jays? They didn't have the money to add a single major league free agent all winter. So although they have a bunch of intriguing young arms in camp -- led by Jesse Litsch, David Purcey, Brett Cecil, Brad Mills and a healthy Casey Janssen -- they also have pretty much no idea what their rotation will look like six weeks from now. Let alone six months from now.

But at least they have Halladay to lead it, whatever it looks like. And you won't find any No. 1 starter who sets a better, more industrious tone than this man.

"What he does in between starts is even harder than what he does on the mound," says longtime teammate Vernon Wells. "The other day, he came in early. Then he went on a 30-, 40-minute run. Then he came back in and did the Tour de France on the stationary bike. Then he went out for our workout. Then he came back in and did another 30-minute run.

"It's infectious," Wells says. "You can talk to A.J. about his experience with Doc. I think he learned a lot about the preparation and focus he has to have every fifth day. Once A.J. realized the things he could learn from Roy, it turned around his career."

Halladay will do his best to make the same impact on the next generation. But more and more, the big issue for his team will be his own career.

He's the only active pitcher in baseball with 100 or more wins who has yet to pitch in a postseason game. And he's ready for that to change. The Blue Jays haven't approached him about an extension. But for a million reasons, he knows, this would be "a tough time to discuss it" -- for either side.

To say yes, he says, "I really feel like we'd have to have a chance to win, and there would have to be a commitment to winning. Really, my entire decision would be based on that fact. That's why, in some respects, it would be nice to see what direction we're going."

To most outside observers, that direction, for now, appears to be south. But Ricciardi isn't ready to concede that -- not when this team is easing two talented young mashers, Adam Lind and Travis Snider, into its lineup. And not when McGowan and Marcum figure to return eventually, to join all these enticing young arms.

In a year, when all those pieces are ready to fit together, "Doc may want to stay," the GM says.

But between now and then, who knows how many Halladay trade rumors you might read. A billion? A trillion?

Here in the spring of 2009, however, Halladay isn't thinking about any of that.

"I just want to have the best chance I can have to win," he says. "And hopefully, that's here."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.