Stop him before he signs again! Actually, donít.

Sunday, November 03 2002 @ 06:03 AM EST

Contributed by: Jordan

JP Ricciardi is way ahead of the rest of baseball in picking up below-the-radar free agents, and his early-bird approach has paid dividends so far. Apart from the early acquisition of Doug Creek which, like the queens we use, does not excite me (my original, tres embarrassing misconstruction of this lyric has been corrected by a kindly reader), this has been a busy and largely productive week for the Blue Jays front office.

Hereís a quick run-down of the latest signings.

Jeff Tam, 32, reliever
2002 Oakland
1-2, 5.13, 40 G, 0 GS, 40 IP, 56 H, 13 BB, 14 K
2001 Oakland
2-4, 3.01, 70 G, 0 GS, 74 IP, 68 H, 29 BB, 44 K
2000 Oakland
3-3, 2.63, 72 G, 0 GS, 85 IP, 86 H, 23 BB, 46 K

Well, the Blue Jays either picked up one of the premier setup men in the game after one off-year, or they acquired a two-year sensation whose career has finally turned south. Either way, for $600,000, itís a very nice, risk-free transaction. Iíve provided Jeff Tamís last three season totals to pinpoint just how effective he was in 2000-01; before that, he rarely pitched in the majors at all. The Aís rescued him from the Mets after the 1999 season and he became a great reliever for them. The Blue Jays are gambling that Tam has one more career renaissance left in him.

From 2000-01, Tam was Oaklandís version of Paul Quantrill: a right-handed sinkerballer who gets a lot of groundball outs. In 2002, however, he was their version of Scott Cassidy, getting ripped from one end of the ballpark to the other. There was no indication of an injury or other ailment; like a lot of sinkerballers before him, it appears that Tam just lost his touch for the pitch. He was sent down to the minors from early June to late July to get his act together, and he did in fact perform much better after his return (6.55 ERA, 22 IP, 39 H, 8 BB, 6 K before the All-Star Break, 3.44 ERA, 18 IP, 17 H, 5 BB, 8 K afterwards), so thereís a very good argument that he simply had a terrible start to 2002 and the Aís gave up on him too soon.

The potential downside, of course, is that 2002 could be the beginning of the end for Tam, and that like Doug Creek, Ricciardi handed out a major-league contract and 40-man roster spot to a guy who mightíve sufficed as a spring-training invitee. Unlike Creek, however, Tam has a record of recent success, and odds are that if Toronto hadnít extended the offer, someone else would have. Itís also no coincidence that Ricciardi picked up Tam in the first place for Oakland, so loyalty is playing a part here as well. Even so, 600 Gs is a very reasonable gamble to take on the kind of setup performance George Steinbrenner pays $4 million for. And if Tam shows up next year back to his earlier form, he could well take over Cliff Politteís setup role if Escobar is dealt and Politte becomes the closer. Potentially, this is a very significant signing for Toronto, and at a bargain-basement price.

Evan Thomas, 29, starter
2002 Scranton-Wilkes-Barre
10-2, 3.90 ERA, 22 G, 20 GS, 113 IP, 106 H, 37 BB, 75 K
2001 Scranton-Wilkes-Barre
3-13, 5.28 ERA, 19 G, 16 GS, 104 IP, 123 H, 36 BB, 74 K

At 5í10Ē, Thomas is another iteration of The Latest Thing in baseball hot tickets: the short right-hander. Ever since Roy Oswalt opened a lot of eyes in Houston, avant-garde analysts have been rooting for the little guy, quite literally Ė for every tall galoot like Ben McDonald who gets scouts and opposing hitters equally excited, guys like Oswalt, Tim Redding and others please the sabr-types who enjoy the success of the overlooked underdog.

Anyway, Thomasís fastball rarely hits 90 mph, but he has three good pitches (curve, change, slider) that he mixes very effectively. His 2001 season was ruined by a pair of ankle injuries that led to a shoulder problem, but as you can see, he rebounded nicely last year. Check out those two BB/K ratios, though: thatís an eerie degree of consistency, huh? Despite getting pounded in í01 and then settling down in í02, Thomas still walked almost exactly one hitter for every two he struck out both seasons. That kind of consistency, even when his hits allowed are varying widely, is a good sign.

Thomas was considered something of an organizational sleeper for the Phillies this past season, and Iím a little surprised he was available. I can see him auditioning for a role as a starter in spring training, though from here he looks more like a stalwart of the Syracuse rotation for Ď03, though with upside. I quite like this signing.

Tim Young, 29, reliever
2002 Pawtucket
5-3, 3.59 ERA, 57 G, 0 GS, 72 IP, 56 H, 37 BB, 63 K
2000 Pawtucket
1-1, 2.40 ERA, 32 G, 0 GS, 41 IP, 35 H, 12 BB, 43 K

If youíre wondering where Tim Youngís 2001 statline is, ask the Carp. He pitched for Hiroshima in 2001, and I have no clue where to even find those stats, let alone figure out how to translate them to North American numbers (though Clay Davenport produced an excellent article showing that Japanese baseball is demonstrably closer to the major-league level than previously believed). Young is a fairly rare commodity, a left-handed sidewinder; he came up as quite the prospect in the Expos system, but he blew out his elbow in í99 and the Red Sox picked him up on the cheap.

He was very effective in 2000 for the PawSox, showing excellent control and, even more importantly, displaying success against both lefties and righties. After his Far East sojourn, he returned and pitched well again, though with different results. He allowed far fewer hits than innings pitched, but his walk totals increased dramatically. Then again, he put together several multi-inning outings, so he doesnít look to be a LOOGY (Lefty One-Out Guy, prop. John Sickels) either. Right now, Jason Kershner and Doug Creek look to have the early lead on the two lefty bullpen spots in Toronto, so Young may be destined for AAA this year.

Itís important to remember that not all of Ricciardiís acquisitions are meant to help the big-league club in 2003, if ever. A couple of weeks after he was hired as GM, I was surprised and pleased to see Ricciardi visiting Syracuse and telling the local press that heís committed to putting a competitive club in place for the local fans. Several organizations (the Orioles spring immediately to mind) donít seem to understand that in addition to serving as a training ground for future major-leaguers, minor-league clubs are also businesses in their own right that need to be nurtured and kept as competitive as finances and long-term strategy will allow. In the last week, JP has signed Doug Linton, Trever Miller, Evan Thomas and Tim Young, with similar players no doubt to come; the reality is that several of these guys are destined for Syracuse, to provide support for the up-and-coming stars and to keep the local fans coming to the park, not to appear in a big-league boxscore. If these guys donít wear a Toronto uniform this year, that doesnít make them poor signings.

Mike Moriarty, 28, shortstop
Rochester 2002
311 AB, 48 R, .277 BA, .357 OBP, .379 SLG, 85 H, 18 2B, 1 3B, 4 HR, 37 BB, 50 K
Edmonton 2001
404 AB, 66 R, .243 BA, .354 OBP, .391 SLG, 98 H, 17 2B, 2 3B, 13 HR, 58 BB, 94 K

Itís great to see late-career comebacks, especially from a guy whoís been though such tough times. From the high point of his star turn on Law & Order, to the low points of incidents of public drunkenness and run-ins with the police, itís great to see Michael Moriarty return to his baseball roots, as he reprises his role as a minor-league baseball player from Bang the Drum Slo -- what? Itís a different Mike Moriarty? Oh. Ö. Never mind.

Okay, enough with the Gilda Radner homage. Moriarty is your basic utility infielder who fits the Ricciardi mold: takes a walk and has some power, while also playing good defence. However, while he was moving from Alberta to New York State in 2002, Moriartyís power must not have cleared Customs: his average increased at Rochester but his homers fell off dramatically, unsurprising considering that the PCL (and the Edmonton Trappersí home field in particular) are launching pads.

Moriarty's role with the Blue Jays could be to provide a true backup to Chris Woodward defensively, someone who can catch the ball and wonít be Angel Salazar at the plate. He received almost no playing time for the Orioles last year, but could make his way to Toronto as a 25th guy off the bench.

I hope to have the second half of my 2002 In Review article ready next week.

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