Thursday, July 26, 2007

Kill the goat but hold your horses


Bye bye, J.P. Ricciardi.

Well, there’s no guarantee, but he could very well be gone from Toronto when the 2007 season ends. The five-game winning streak is nice, but the Blue Jays sit at 51-50, 10 games out of first place in the AL East and eight games out of the Wild Card. Not good enough. Given the big money and expectations Ted Rogers dumped into the team the last few years, Ricciardi’s beak may not survive the winter.

Ricciardi joined the team in 2002; since then, the Jays have gone 449-461. If you don’t fire your general manager after five and a half years of futility, regardless of his contract status, you’re criminally insane or your name is Charles Wang.

A GM on his way out of town means the team is in the dumps, right? And a team in the dumps should be a seller at the trade deadline, right?


Rumours are already swirling around the Jays as July 31 approaches. Will they trade Troy Glaus, or even Frank Thomas? Plenty of armchair GMs want it to happen. The Jays suck balls, they say, so it’s time to hit the reset button.

Looking at Toronto’s record alone, I understand why some people think this team is a failure, that it should ship off its veteran talent to build for the future while it still can.

But baseball fans should look closer. History suggests the Jays have most of the pieces in place to contend and adding more youth would only set them back several years.

The general rule of thumb in major pro sports suggests teams stuck in neutral should trade their overpriced, wrinkly vets for young pups and use the draft if they want to build a champion. Some cases confirm that idea. The NHL’s Jim Rutherford did it in Carolina, dealing veterans to acquire guys like Justin Williams and drafting Eric Staal.

That plan works in some sports. It doesn’t work in baseball. Not only do Major League Baseball drafts mean relatively little – Vladdy Guerrero and Johan Santana were never drafted – players take years to develop. Ryan Howard was a restless 26 when he won a starting job in Philly.

Go ahead and lynch John Ferguson Jr. for not rebuilding the Leafs through the draft; hockey, especially the new NHL, rewards youth and speed more and more each year. But baseball is different. Every winning team in any sport needs the odd cagey vet, but championship baseball teams need boatloads of cash and veterans to accompany their young guns. Even if that’s part of baseball’s flawed big-money system, it’s the truth. Yeah, the ’03 Marlins had home-grown gems like Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis, Miguel Cabrera and Derek Lee, but they also rounded out the roster with vets like Pudge Rodriguez, Mike Lowell, Juan Pierre and Ugie “The Machete” Urbina.

What’s that? Billy Beane built the Moneyball juggernaut in Oakland with astute drafting and ridiculous home grown talent? Hey, Zito was awesome in 2002, and the Giambi/Tejada/Chavez infield was badass. The Montreal Expos turned heads with Vladdy, Jose Vidro and Javier Vazquez in the early 2000s. But those teams won 0.0 World Series because they had no veteran support. Deadline deals (see: Jermaine Dye to Oakland, Bartolo Colon to Montreal) don’t count, either; championship teams acquire their primary veteran talent in the offseason, giving the roster time to gel.

The Toronto Blue Jays actually have many ingredients of a championship team. Home-grown stars entering their prime: Doc Halladay, Vernon Wells, Alex Rios. Big-money veterans: Troy Glaus, A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan, Lyle Overbay, Frank Thomas. Nifty role players with gimmicky facial hair: Reed Johnson, Greg Zaun, Matt Stairs. Youngsters ready to contribute: Dustin McGowan, Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, Shaun Marcum, Jeremy Accardo, Josh Tow – just kidding.

Not a bad roster at all, especially considering the horrible, horrible luck the Jays have had with injuries. Sure, Ryan and Burnett’s contracts look scarier by the day. But let’s not cry apocalypse.

This team has loads of talent, most of which is locked up long term. Of the veterans listed above, only Johnson is set to hit unrestricted free agency this winter. Rios’ contract expires, as do a few of the youngsters’ deals, but T.O. won’t have a problem retaining those players.

The talent is there, and Rogers’ wallet could even let the Jays sign someone else this offseason. Also intriguing: the freakish, unexpected development of half a dozen young Jay arms this season. Burnett’s injury and Lilly’s douchebaggery may have been blessings in disguise. Toronto could deal, say, Casey Janssen and Josh Towers for a proven veteran starter or reliever and still have youth left over in the rotation. Seriously, Philly’s assistant GM came to watch Towers pitch last week. Though he easily could’ve been filming a YouTube video – “Stupid crappy pitcher somehow gives up no runs – LOL! Five star rating!”

No, a .500 team shouldn’t buy at the trade deadline, but given their roster, the Jays shouldn’t sell. They should stand pat and reload in the offseason or, at the very least, get something back that helps them next year if they do sell.

Am I contradicting myself? Fire Ricciardi, but don’t change the team too much? Ricciardi must go regardless; any team not producing over six seasons needs a scapegoat, plus Ricciardi’s Pinocchio act with players’ injury statuses was a nightmare. The Jays need a new GM to give them a fresh, friendlier face and make minor roster adjustments.

The Jays ain’t vacating the AL East anytime soon, and the AL East runs, like it or not, on big money, veterans and power. Until the contracts expire or the vets croak, the Birds should keep considering themselves contenders. They’re screwed for ’07, but I’m hopping on the Hillary, er, Blue Jays bandwagon again for ’08.

-- M.L.


malcolm said...

I like the idea of not blowing up the team, but I disagree that we don't need somewhat of a shakeup.

We have a lot of pieces that are essentially for a championship team: guys like Glaus, Doc and even players like Overbay are money.

We need improvement, though, and we need to make sure we provide ourselves a means to get it. You're absolutely right that improvement will come in free agency rather than the draft, and that means we need to clear up a bit of salary space for next year.

Without looking over the numbers carefully, Thomas and Burnett are the main ones who come to mind. Their contracts, and any other bloated, underperforming ones, will handcuff us this offseason when we need to add arms. Who cares if we get 50 cents on the dollar for them? We just need them off the books.

Kevin said...

I don't agree that Burnett's contract is that bloated. Yeah, he's expensive, but Gil Meche and Lilly are Making Burnett money too... and let's not even think about Barry Zito, who fans were screaming for in the off season. The thing that makes Burnett's contract scary is that he can't stay healthy. Imagine we pulled in Zito for $130 mill or whatever he's getting for a 7-10 record?

The only signing I'm unhappy with is Thomas. Glaus would be a perfectly great DH, we could move johnny mac to 3rd and find a reasonable SS.

I totally agree that with one key signing this off season, we could belooking at a playoff team next year.

Paul Barnes said...

This might make me unpopular, but I think they should try to deal Wells. He's making over 15 million a year and is batting around .270. I'm not sure his good out fielding makes up for that.

However, he might just be having a bad year and not hitting around .300 like he usually does. He is a five tool player and has excellent potential. In other words, I might be full of Hurk (and by Hurk, I mean crap).

Kevin said...

Paulie, you're full of crap. Baseball is the one sport where numbers don't lie, and chances are that over the long term, we'll be more than satisfied with Wells in a Jays uniform.

Knee-jerk reactions bcs of one slow season across an 8 year term are not the solution.

malcolm said...

I dunno why you'd move Glaus to DH, Kevin. He's a solid defender, too. Great arm.

Mark P said...

The problem with Glaus at third, Malcolm, is that I'm not sure he's physically able to play it over the course of a long season. The Jays' situation last year was actually pretty ideal...they could slot Hillenbrand in at third to give Glaus some rest days in the DH spot. Now, with Thomas locked into DH both this year and next, Glaus can look forward to missing 20-30 games resting his knees and feet in 2008.

The Blue Jays right now remind me of early 1989....most of the pieces are there, but they're just not gelling. Those Jays fired Jimy Williams in favour of Cito, and the rest is history. Perhaps Gibby should be updating his resume -- the fact that his boy Jason Phillips got released isn't a good sign for Gibby's influence in the organization.

Matt Larkin said...

Malc, i know what you're saying about Burnett in principle...but who's gonna take Burnett in a trade? Would you trade for a guy with three years left at 11 mil per year when he's on the DL and one bad throw away from another Tommy John surgery? No one will take him...not even the Yankees, since they blew their load on Clemens and don't really need another arm with Phil Hughes coming back.

Jays are stuck with A.J. at least until the winter...

Marshall said...

It's interesting that you make the example of Beane's A's and the Expos, both suffered from the fact their players' talents were realized as they played there and then they left those teams for greener grass. They were indeed simply glorified farm teams for the money tams of the league. The nice part is that, as you mentioned, that many of the Jays are locked up for the long term.

It has been said before, but this year's Jays have been plagued by injuries that has not only affected the actual perfmormance of the team but also, argably, the morale. Whether Ricciardi stays or not is not necessarily the question. The Jays have a great team put together. The team needs a certain something, an intangible, a spark that will get them through the long season and then into the playoffs and onto to the World Series. I will be honest, I don't know what the spark is, but I'm not sure if sacking the GM is the answer in the long run.

I'm inclined to think there should be something done with the manager position. A good leader of men there could do some great things for the Jays.

Just a layman's thoughts though.

malcolm said...

Very true, Larkin.
No chance of anybody picking him up for free on waivers?