JP Ricciardi is on the phone from Florida. And he’s not real happy with Batter’s Box.
JP graciously stepped into Da Box right around this time last year to give us some insight into his expectations for the Blue Jays 2004. This year’s interview, intended to do the same for 2005, did not get off to a great start.
JP's immediate reaction was that yes, he was familiar with Batter’s Box, and he was disappointed with us. “I used to check the site twice per week. Now, I haven’t checked in over a month.”
How come? “Over the last year, you guys have lost perspective a little bit," he said. "You get more excited when we sign a minor-league free agent who has never played in the major leagues than when we sign Scott Schoeneweis, who we’re trying to make a reliever of – you guys rip it apart.
“A team might hit on one out of ten minor-league free agents,” JP continued, “but when we get a proven major-leaguer to come up here, you guys are disappointed. Every time we spend money, you guys get disappointed. It’s almost like you think we should put the 25 cheapest guys out there and win.”
JP is fully aware that numerous Bauxites have called numerous times for the acquisition of this or that player during the past few months. “We’re four steps ahead of you,” he said bluntly. The Blue Jays have already tried to trade for some of the players suggested by Bauxites – JP didn’t name specific players, but Brad Wilkerson, Austin Kearns and Nick Johnson were among the hitters most commonly suggested at Da Box.
Teams know the value of the players they have, and other teams presumably also call about them. JP asked me, “Would you trade Alex Rios and David Bush for one of those guys?” Because that’s what it would take, he says, to make a deal, and he’s not willing to pay that price.
JP went on to say that there are a number of aspects of deal-making that Bauxites simply would not know about – that a given player the Jays signed was maybe not their first choice, or that they gave a two-year contract to a player because another team was also willing to give it and the Jays either had to ante up or lose out. It’s a lot more complicated than it looks.
Basically, JP believes Bauxites don’t understand the issues he deals with on a daily basis:
· The willingness (or lack thereof) by other clubs to make deals.
· The offers to free agents that other clubs put on the table.
· The occasional need to sign a player to a generous contract because the talent pool for that type of player is drying up.
And the lack of understanding is starting to grate.
“When we first came here, you [Batter’s Box] embraced what we were doing,” he said. “We did have a bad year last year, but we had a lot of injuries. [Now] guys are saying, ‘I’m not sure about JP anymore.’ Well, that’s OK, I can take it. But I used to give you guys a lot more credit. It takes away from what you guys are trying to do when you become almost the equivalent of a call-in radio show.”
A different identity
After that preamble, JP talked about the acquisition of Shea Hillenbrand, one of the more controversial off-season moves, at least as far as Batter's Box was concerned. “The thing I like about Hillenbrand is that he’s a real aggressive guy, a real hard-nosed guy,” he said. “That’s the team we’re trying to be, and we’re going to be able to do that more now; he brings that toughness. With Koskie, with Hudson, and with some of the grinders we have, we have to be more of a grind-it-out team.”
Which brings to mind a comment JP made near the end of last season, essentially that the Jays were striking out too much. What does he believe is the appropriate level for a batter's strikeouts?
“Last year, not only were we striking out too much, but we weren’t hitting the ball in the seats – and on top of that, our situational hitting was terrible,” he said. “If we can’t get the ball in the seats, the next best thing for us is to be a contact team, maybe a high doubles club.
“We’re not going to replace Delgado’s power with one guy,” he continued. “But if Koskie can come in and hit 20 [home runs] and Hillenbrand 15, that’s 35 home runs. We think Rios will come into some power and we think Hinske will have more power – but we think our lineup one through nine is more of a contact and less of a strikeout team," he said."We lost Phelps and Delgado and their strikeouts. If we have a man on second with less than two outs, contact gets him to third. A man on third with less than two outs, contact gets him home," said the GM.
With this new contact approach, would JP have a problem if the Jays became more of a running team, as manager John Gibbons has promised? “We’d love to be a club that hits three-run home runs, but this is the least power we have had since I’ve been here. So we’d be foolish to say we won’t hit-and-run more or run more with certain guys," he said.
Does Ricciardi start building a team with a specific identity in mind, such as a “scrappy” outfit? “Ideally, you’d put together a team exactly as you wanted – but when you’re dealing with restrictions, you have to work with what you have that year,” he said. “We’d all like our 3, 4 and 5 hitters to hit 30 home runs and have 100 RBIs each, but you have to live in the real world.
“We scored over 800 runs two years ago, and we had the same lineup last year and we didn’t score that many runs. We’ll have to have a different approach this year, a high doubles team – move guys over and get them in,” said Ricciardi.
New faces, new approaches
The conversation came around to an inevitable topic: the departure of Carlos Delgado. His response was a familiar one. “If we have one guy making that much money, it’s hard to surround him with other good players. That doesn’t mean he’s not a great player, but the rest of the team becomes unproductive because you can’t surround him with good players, because you don’t have enough money.”
How difficult a decision was it not to offer arbitration to Delgado, considering that players usually accept the largest total dollar value as opposed to the largest one-year salary, theoretically reducing the risk that he’d accept? “Well, you have to remember there was not a lot of action on Delgado early,” JP said. “He was the last big name to sign – teams went after the other guys early – so it wasn’t a risk we could take. If Delgado didn’t get exactly what he wanted, he could have accepted [arbitration] and waited until next year.”
The concept of controversial transactions brought the conversation to Scott Schoeneweis, who, said the GM, was not brought in to be merely a LOOGY. “We signed him as a quality reliever who could give us more than an inning [at a time] out of the pen,” said JP. “Schoeneweis had offers to go other places to be a starter and offers for more money, but we gave him a two-year [deal] because we see him as a Rick Honeycutt type.
“Honeycutt had a great career as a starter, and then had a great career in the pen. We think [Schoeneweis] can be a guy to come out of the pen for 60 or 70 appearances and be effective against left-handers – we don’t have any of those in our system – and his numbers are better as a reliever. We’re just trying to be as creative as possible.”
Veterans like Schoeneweis and Hillenbrand are meant to supplement the growing cast of young players graduating from the minors. Chief among those is Alex Rios, who had a decent first season in 2004 but showed little power and had an extreme ground ball swing.
Will Toronto make changes to Rios' swing to get more of an uppercut going? “I don’t think so,” JP said. “Power is the last thing to come. He’ll have power; it’ll just take a couple of years. If he tried to change his swing, it would take away from what makes him a good player now.”
Rios’ former teammate, Gabe Gross, will start 2005 back in Triple-A, another decision that generated some waves on Batter's Box. JP is concerned about fielding a team with too many rookies, or at least rookies who don’t yet seem ready for The Show. “It comes down to the individual,” he said. “We have to have guys who can handle being in the big leagues. Bush and Rios handled themselves really well last year, [and] Russ Adams will be a rookie this year. But if you throw five or six rookies out there, you run the risk of disaster. So it’s easier to slide one or two in at a time.”
So what about Gross, then? “I think Gabe is going to be a very good player," said Ricciardi. "He always does better the second time around when he lets his natural ability play [and] be more consistent. We brought him up to get his feet wet and take away some of the aura of the big leagues. We hope he goes to Triple-A, gets off to a great start, and forces our hand.
“Sometimes, when young players get up to the big leagues, they forget why they got up here and try to do too many things,” JP continued. “That’s why we got him up here, so he could go forward and know, ‘I have to work on this.’ And he will – Gabe is a great worker, and he’ll only get better.”
The system and the draft
JP makes a point of seeing several minor-league games in person. “I try to get out to see New Hampshire a couple of times, and maybe three or four Syracuse games. I don’t get to A-Ball too much. I also go to the Instructional League for four or five days, and in spring training, when the big club goes on a road trip, I usually watch some minor-league games.”
Ricciardi saw New Hampshire in the playoffs last year, so what about Jamie Vermilyea? “We like Vermilyea," he said. "Jamie has a chance to be a middle [relief] guy. We’re going to get him over here to face major-league hitters [in camp] and get a taste of what this level is like.”
Who are JP’s favourites from the 2004 entry draft, other than his first round picks? “We like Curtis Thigpen a lot,” he said. “We think he might be the same type of player as Aaron Hill; we like that he can catch. We like [Adam] Lind a lot as a hitter; we think we’re going to move him to first base. We also like Eric Nielsen – the ball comes off his bat well.” And JP made a point of praising his two first-round left-handers: “[David] Purcey and [Zach] Jackson are throwing the ball real well down here.”
Moving on to the ‘05 draft, given the pitching depth in the organization, are the Jays more likely to select a hitter with their first pick? “If we had our choice, we’d take a hitter," said Ricciardi. "But if we have to take a difference-maker with an arm, we will. [We’ll] stock up on arms and spend our money on free agent hitters.”
Given the recent cash infusion from ownership, would the Jays be open to giving a player a major-league deal? Would they be willing to select a Scott Boras client? “We have to be open to that this year. It doesn’t mean we’re going to do it, but we have to be open-minded to everything. We’re not going to shy away from anything, but we’re not going to be held captive by it.”
During this past off-season, free-agent salaries jumped significantly and unexpectedly. Was this a permanent change, or just a one-year blip? “I don’t know,” said JP. “[What] you have to think about is, the Mets were under pressure to do something, and the Diamondbacks had money. The hardest thing to do is what we are doing in Toronto: we’re rebuilding and trying to be competitive at the same time. Fans don’t want to hear that, but it’s the reality of where we are.
“If the Diamondbacks don’t want to wait, and go and sign [Russ] Ortiz, etc. then good for them," said the GM. "But all credit to Paul Godfrey for saying, ‘Let’s do it the right way.’ I honestly believe we’re not that far away – when we turn the corner, we’re going to be good for a while, and I think we have a chance to be .500 this year. The way we’re doing it takes time, but I think that in 2006 and 2007, the best baseball will be played here.
“Now we have financial resources to do some things,” he added, referring to the recent $210M payroll hike over three years. “The timing of all this couldn’t be better. We’re more excited now. People forget that in the first three years here, we were trying to get our financial house in order. People also forget that when I was in Oakland, we had six straight losing seasons before we got good. Minnesota had eight losing seasons, [but] no one remembers that now. We’re not going to have six losing seasons or eight losing season. But it does take some time.”
Post-Moneyball, is any asset as undervalued these days as on-base percentage was? After all, OBP is clearly more expensive now than it was pre-Moneyball. “I don’t think so," said Ricciardi. "It all comes down to how you build your club: what do you value? Some teams value offence, others defence. We’re just trying to get the best players that can play and make the Blue Jays the best organization possible. Things change all the time, but there are some core things that we believe in and we continue to believe in.”
That last statement seems to be JP’s message to Blue Jays fans: he has a plan, and the plan has not changed. His focus is still on developing players through the farm system and strategically spending his available budget to fill in the gaps. JP wants fans to keep the faith.
When he complains about Bauxites’ “lost perspective,” he may be saying that the Jays are trying to do all the right things, but are receiving no credit for it. It’s true that fans don’t have all the information about what goes on in the GM’s office, but no team’s fans have that information – we all have to grade the moves as we see them.
The Hillenbrand and Schoeneweis acquisitions in particular graded poorly among most Bauxites, and that was a definite change from the past. There’s no group-think among Box readers or writers – a wide variety of opinions are held and expressed – but the organization had received mostly positive reviews from the site before this past year. Following the team’s struggles in 2004, many Blue Jay fans have become more pessimistic – but as many people have mentioned, a team is usually not as bad as it appears when it’s down.
The acquisitions of Hillenbrand and Schoeneweis, and the decision not to aggressively pursue Delgado, left some of us unsure what direction the team was following. After talking with JP, it seems clearer that the plan has not changed, namely: get the payroll under control and develop the farm system. With Delgado’s departure, and with the additional dollars from Uncle Ted’s wallet, the payroll will not be as limiting in the future as it has been.
The farm system brought Rios and Bush to the team last year and will bring Adams and Brandon League this year. But Ricciardi likely needs one more year to develop some more players, both for the big club and to be in a position to trade some of the youngsters for help. JP knows that his long-term plan has not changed, but as distant third parties to it all, fans can’t see the big picture as he sees it. Whether he’ll say it or not, Ricciardi has had to balance the need to field a competitive team with the long-term development plan.
“Keep the Faith” is the message. So Bauxites, do you feel better now?
Thanks to Jordan and Mick for their editing and general advice.