If you believe Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball) JP Ricciardi wasn’t exactly the Blue Jays first choice for General Manager when the team decided to part with former GM Gord Ash. The team, and more specifically Paul Godfrey had eyes for Billy Beane’s right hand man Paul DePodesta but unfortunately for the team DePodesta would only leave for the ideal situation – aka not a non-traditional baseball market like Toronto. The next logical choice for a team looking to compete on a budget turned out to be JP Ricciardi, a man who was supposed to have a real nose for talent and all in all a well respected baseball mind in the Oakland front office.
Ricciardi sold Paul Godfrey and the Blue Jays with the notion that less is more, especially when it comes to competing with less money than the big guys – New York and Boston. Ricciardi’s tenure started with a bang as he roped in Erik Hinske who won the AL ROY and looked to have a bright future going forward, at this point the city and fans were hooked and though none of us will admit it – “In JP we trust” was a common phrase. Anybody who says otherwise is flat out lying, Ricciardi was an exciting prospect for Blue Jays fans, and a slick tawking Bostonite who actually chose to come to Toronto, things were too good to be true. So where did things go wrong?
Not to make excuses for the man but Ricciardi had a serious handicap that was at times too much to overcome – the city of Toronto. The buzz and excitement of back-to-back championships was long gone and what was left was a fairly destitute baseball market, a market where no big time players really wanted to come. This caused a serious problem for a team that had to watch every penny it was spending as the Blue Jays were forced to basically give an open cheque book to even entice any free agents to consider coming here. Ted Lilly took less money to sign with Cubs, Gil Meche even took less to sign with the Kansas City Royals – to name a few. The Blue Jays were officially the Atlanta Thrashers, Detroit Lions and Portland Trailblazers of destinations for free-agents in major league baseball – think about that before passing judgement. You think any GM wants to sign Tomo Ohka?
Ricciardi gets raked over the coals for signing Vernon Wells yet every fan and most media people were basically celebrating in the streets that the “Franchise” re-upped with the team. Even with the huge commitment made the common thread was “Yeah, the money was big but it was going to look like a steal in 3-4 years with the rate salaries were climbing”. The market turned extremely sour over the next couple years and suddenly for the price of one Vernon Wells the team could have had Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn and Randy Wolf – but I don’t know many people with a crystal ball and who could’ve foreseen such a terrible economic time? In my opinion, JP made the best of a terrible free-agent circumstance – a team with less money than its competitors and a destination few American born players wanted to come voluntarily.
Voluntarily – a key phrase and a key argument against JP Ricciardi and his tenure with the Toronto Blue Jays. For a man who came from Billy Beane’s stable he certainly didn’t have all that much success in the MLB draft, especially early in his tenure. It normally takes about 3-5 years for a player drafted to be knocking on the major league’s doors and in a perfect world you have about 1-2 guys ready to take over (cheaply I might add) every season at various positions, or at the very least push the incumbents to stay in tip top shape or, be useable trade bait to round out a competitive roster. Did I mention they come cheap? Ryan Braun was one of the top hitters and best overall players in the game last year, giving the Brewers unreal production (37 HRs, 106 RBIs, and 14 SBs) and had a salary of 500k. Teams control the players they draft for many years before they are eligible for arbitration (and a raise) and most teams are buying out these years for even more cost certainty – think Evan Longoria (9 year total agreement at a max of 44 million!).
American born players might not want to sign with the Blue Jays but they certainly aren’t above getting drafted by them and taking the millions in guaranteed signing bonus, so this is the ideal time to strike and load up on young talent and control it for 7-8 years at a bargain price. The best example of this is the Tampa Bay Rays – Carl Crawford, BJ Upton, James Shields, Evan Longoria, David Price, Jeff Niemann to name just a few stars, all drafted, signed and developed by the team. Ricciardi’s drafts have shown a bit more promise lately as the team has showcased a few rising talents this season.
The Jays core looks better – Adam Lind, Aaron Hill, Travis Snider, Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil is decent but nothing compared to the Rays list and obviously the biggest weakness Ricciardi has shown over his 7 years at the helm of the Jays. Where is the James Shields taken in the 16th round? Where are the super athletic specimens in Crawford and Upton? In short, the cupboard is a bit bare and it has been for quite a few years. There is nobody pushing our supposed stars, nobody has to look over their shoulders and see a bright eyed kid coming straight at them trying to take their spots.
Defense has become a new focus in the world of sabermetrics with many new exciting metrics measuring a players worth in the field (Dewan’s +/-, UZR) and I think the Blue Jays front office was right at the top of the list in terms of teams that were revamping the way teams looked at defense. The Jays were one of the top defensive teams in the game nearly every season JP Ricciardi was at the helm – and I don’t think it was by mistake. Ricciardi and company astutely recognized that defense was being undervalued and he could get a bigger bang for his buck if he spent more money improving team defense – until this year when the team clearly gave up and in 2003 before JP put his stamp on the team. With this, he would also be improving his pitching staff without actually replacing any of his pitchers with expensive and mostly overpaid free agents year after year.
Another thing I wanted to address was the Blue Jays incredible bad luck on the field over the past few years, especially when you factor their Pythagorean record – Pythagorean expectation is a formula invented by Bill James to estimate how many games a baseball team “should” have won based on the number of runs they scored and allowed. This takes out luck, meaning the Jays might have had an even better 2008 if they had a bit of luck go their way. They gave up 3.7 runs per game, easily tops in the game which was a true testament to their pitching and defense game plan – something that never gets much credit.
Fact is, the Blue Jays were a top 5 team in 2008 based on Pythag. record, runs for and against, ability to suppress runs, team defense, lack of overall luck, strength of schedule and the toughest division in sports.
I didn’t include 2009, but for reference sake the Jays should have 8 more wins than they actually do even this season. With any luck, the Jays should have earned a playoff berth over one of the past 3-4 seasons. This isn’t even taking into account the strength of schedule and playing in the toughest, richest and best division in all of sports. I can’t help but think if the Jays were in the AL Central (Jays 23-15 vs. the Central this year) JP Ricciardi might have been celebrated or praised as I am almost certain the Jays would be perennial playoff contenders in almost any other division, especially the AL Central – a division no team seems to want to win consistently.
JP Ricciardi was not a perfect GM, far from it, but I think to place all the blame on one man and not take into account the many factors that go into building a championship baseball team is extremely short-sighted and judgemental. The next GM will have the same problems, issues and handicaps that the former GM had and for all the talk of Pat Gillick riding into Toronto and magically turning the team into a contender are seriously misplaced and even irresponsible – unless he is riding in with Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and the $130+ million they spend annually.