(transferred; posted Oct. 7)
I'm eagerly awaiting details of J.P. Ricciardi's rumoured contract extension. If the GM retains his "out clause" with six month's notice, what difference does it make if he has two years, five, or seven, remaining on his deal? Unless he surrendered the right to pursue a better situation, it's all optics, something Paul Godfrey is quite familiar with, and J.P. is learning fast. In other words, it's more important to give Toronto fans the impression Ricciardi will turn down the Red Sox job (if offered) to honour his commitment than it is to actually finish what he has so brilliantly started.
I'm a huge fan of J.P., comparing him way back in March to Pat Gillick as a "superscout" who could restore the franchise to its glory years. In fact, Ricciardi is as good as St. Pat used to be -- the 2002 model of Gillick, approaching retirement, isn't as tuned in to the talent of other organizations' low-level prospects as he once was, and J.P. would never have added the washed-up, expensive James Baldwin to a contender's pitching staff. However, there's a huge difference in personality between the GMs: Ricciardi seems more impatient, more autocratic, and less adept at "generally managing" the perceptions of the fans and the media. I'm not saying I don't trust his judgement on player personnel matters, but I'm suspicious of his public statements.
That said, if J.P. has in fact accepted that "the grass isn't always greener," (the spin he was giving his future last weekend) and intends to stay in Toronto as long as he's wanted, Jays fans should rejoice. He already has added by subtraction, purging the likes of platoon DH Brad Fullmer, ulcer-inducing Billy Koch, free-swinging 'K' machine Alex Gonzalez, expensive (and often ineffective) oldtimers Dan Plesac and Pedro Borbon, and that selfish waste of talent, Raul Mondesi. That's about $25 million in payroll "wiggle room" already, and makes getting out from under Carlos Delgado's obscene salary less of an emergency.
Look at the replacements for the aforementioned ex-Jays: Fullmer's departure opened up a daily spot for Vernon Wells, Koch netted Eric Hinske (and Justin Miller, for whom the jury is still in deliberation,) and Escobar was standing by to replace Wild Bill. Plesac turned into Cliff Politte, ten years younger and 15 MPH faster, at a fraction of the cost. Mondesi's banishment saved millions, and allowed the sensational Josh Phelps to begin mashing AL fastballs. OK, Felix Heredia wasn't a great acquisition, but his presence (plus the addition of Scott Wiggins and promotion of Mark Hendrickson) made it possible to shop lefties Plesac and Borbon.
You'll notice I haven't mentioned the Dodgers trade. I am a big Paul Quantrill fan, but I can't justify multi-million dollar salaries for aging middle relievers. Cesar Izturis, the young SS, is the antithesis of a Ricciardi player: gifted defensively, but not a contact hitter, and harder to walk than a rabid St. Bernard. Packaging them to L.A. for Luke Prokopec and Chad Ricketts may not appear to be J.P.'s finest hour, but I raved about the deal at the time, and would encourage him to do it again. Cool Hand Luke's elbow and shoulder turned out to be less than invulnerable, and Ricketts is harnessing his ferocious stuff in AAA, so the dividends were not immediate, but Prokopec is still only 23, and may yet surprise. I can't forget his 6-1 start in the NL, which I believe to be a tougher league, at the beginning of 2001, and as an Aussie, converted only recently from the outfield, it's not as if he's fully developed as a pitcher. Ricketts is just as Canadian as "Q" but much younger, much bigger, and much cheaper. Let's revisit this one in 2004, when Quantrill is selling cars in Port Hope.
All that's left for Ricciardi to implement an unbelievably fast turnaround from hopeless mediocrity to perennial contender is to trade his surplus talent (Delgado, Shannon Stewart, Jose Cruz Jr., Kelvim Escobar, Felipe Lopez) for the right arms. Easier said than done in this pitching-diluted expansion era, and not likely to be accomplished overnight. Carlos would have to waive a no-trade clause, and under the new Basic Agreement, most teams will be exercising a little more fiscal restraint on free agents, especially position players. I expect an offseason of tinkering -- maybe one OF for a mid-rotation starter -- and moves of greater impact at the 2003 trading deadline and during the following winter.
Stewart-Hinske-Wells-Delgado-Phelps-Cruz-Woodward-Huckaby-Hudson may be the best everyday lineup and batting order in the AL, and inserting Jayson Werth for Cruz shouldn't affect production too much, but saves a ton of dough. Dave Berg and DeWayne Wise are handy, versatile backups, Tom Wilson can hang on for a while as the extra C and righty pinch-hitter. Politte setting up Escobar is an acceptable bullpen situation, but Pete Walker setting up Politte is fine with me too. If a Cruz-Escobar package can be parlayed into a starter with potential (like Ted Lilly?) and a pitching prospect, the path back to the playoffs gets shorter. A 2003 rotation of Halladay-Hendrickson-Walker-Miller and a new guy, compared to the mix of overpaid stiffs (Loaiza, Parris) and sore wings (Carpenter, Prokopec) that surrounded Doc at the start of last season, is more reason for optimism.
The "sophomore jinx" talk has already begun, but Hinske, Wells and Hudson are all well-rounded individuals, whose defence and work ethic make them virtually slump-proof. I'm not expecting Phelps to lead the team in batting average again; pitchers may eventually stop throwing him strikes, or discover a weakness -- my guess is, like Hinske, he's susceptible to slow stuff low and away. But if big Josh hits .280, with his inevitable 30 HR and 100 RBI, that's not a bad contribution. Delgado, rejuvenated and inspired to play for his next mega-contract, should have his best year since 2000, so even with unproven starters, I'm predicting a lot of high-scoring, entertaining games, 25 or so masterpieces from Halladay, and at least 85 wins. If Ricciardi condenses the needed pitching overhaul from two years into one, we can start talking wild card.