No division in baseball has improved more than the AL East this winter. Most observers already considered it the best in the game, and with Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke, Javy Lopez, Miguel Tejada and Rafael Palmeiro among the newest stars on display, it's not getting any easier for the budget-minded Blue Jays. Can they compete with the big spenders?
Batterís Box caught up with J.P. Ricciardi last week in his last scheduled visit to Toronto before April. During a whirlwind day, between morning TV interviews and an evening with more than 400 seasonís ticket holders, the Blue Jays GM found time to talk to us about the clubís offseason moves and take a look ahead to Dunedin and the 2004 season.
The most significant addition to the roster is righthander Miguel Batista, signed to a three-year deal as the clubís #2 starting pitcher. The jubilation among Jays fans when his signing was announced was evident on this thread. Reportedly pursued by as many as a dozen other teams, the Dominican chose Toronto, so there must have been something special in the Jaysí sales pitch.
"We were creative, we were aggressive, we were honest," explained Ricciardi. "He just wants a chance to be in the rotation every fifth day. In Arizona, he would start one day, close one day, and he was looking for a place where he was wanted, so we worked on that. Heís always been a guy weíve admired, and hopefully heíll be a good fit for us."
Batista, who turns 33 on Thursday, is a very complex man away from the ballpark, already dubbed El Artista by the Batterís Box faithful. His new boss isnít too interested in the pitcherís off-the-field pursuits, which include writing poetry and a childrenís novel.
"Heís a quality guy, and youíre going to enjoy the fact that heís not afraid to take the ball. He knows how to pitch, heís gonna give you innings, and he can compete."
In the 2001 World Series, deadlocked at two games apiece, Batista got the call to start Game Five for Arizona in Yankee Stadium. He rose to that occasion brilliantly, taking a four-hit shutout into the eighth inning. Two days later, he was called upon in the eighth inning of Game Seven, and got his man, Derek "Mr. Clutch" Jeter. That kind of performance on the game's biggest stage left a lasting impression on Ricciardi.
"In our division, guys like Batista, like Lilly, like Hentgen, who have competed against those type of teams, give us a chance to be on even ground to win a game."
While not garnering as many headlines as his former teammate Schilling going to the Red Sox, the Batista signing stabilizes the Jays' staff in the spot where Kelvim Escobar's unique blend of brilliant talent and frustrating inconsistency made many of his starts an adventure for fans and teammates. If El Artista makes up for the loss of Escobar, the biggest strides forward in the rotation may be taken by the replacements for the disappointing Cory Lidle and Mark Hendrickson.
Ted Lilly, the lefty acquired in a trade for Bobby Kielty and a player to be named later, becomes Toronto's nominal #3 starter. The 28-year-old won six straight August and September decisions to help the Oakland A's win their division last year, then was nothing short of sensational in the playoffs against the high-powered Red Sox lineup. He allowed a single unearned run in his seven-inning start, and spun two perfect relief innings in the deciding game. Pat Hentgen, much beloved by Jays fans, returns to the scene of his Cy Young success as an older, craftier veteran. After missing most of two seasons, the 36-year-old's recovery from elbow surgery seemed complete after the 2003 all-star break, when he went 6-3 with a 3.10 ERA despite facing a steady diet of the best-hitting teams in baseball.
"We didnít bring Pat back for a farewell tour," J.P. told the fans at Alice Fazooliís last Wednesday. "He pitched his butt off in the last half of the season, and we think he'll be a great addition to our club. We'll take advantage of those extra things, like his leadership, but he has a lot of baseball left in his arm, and he'll help our staff."
Thereís been talk, some of it here in Da Box, about using Hentgen, supposedly the #4 starter, in the third game of the upcoming season against his hometown Tigers, reserving Lilly to open the subsequent series against Boston.
"I donít think anythingís carved in stone," hedged Ricciardi, "I think weíre going to be able to fool around with some things in spring training and see how they work out. We know we donít need a fifth starter for a while, and weíll try to get the best matchups we can against the Red Sox."
The GM simply isnít concerned about labels for his staff.
"Just the fact that we donít have to worry so much with the first four guys in our rotation about whether theyíre going to give us three innings tonight, make us use the bullpen, thatís a comfort level in itself, especially considering how tough our division is."
Much maligned in both 2002 and 2003, the Toronto bullpen has also been revamped. Recently, in another interview, Ricciardi mentioned Pete Walker, Jayson Durocher and Bruce Chen as being in a battle for the last spot on the 25-man roster. Asked if Rule 5 draftee Talley Haines is also a candidate to stick, J.P. was apologetic.
"I certainly didn't mean to omit him; I think he is in the mix, and weíre going to see in Florida. All of these guys will fight it out, and they know we may break camp with 12 pitchers."
As with the rotation, the GM is less concerned about job descriptions than he is about the overall depth and quality of the bullpen talent.
"The thing we didnít have before, and weíre starting to get now, is competition, which makes only good things happen. In the gradual progression of how weíve built the organization, weíre getting to the point where not only is there competition between the guys we brought in, but from the guys coming up through the system."
That would include other minor-league free agents, like Josue Matos, and 2002 fourth-round draft pick Adam Peterson. The former Wichita State star, who was hitting 98 and 99 mph on the radar gun last year with good command, pitched well at three levels in 2003, and is tentatively slated to be the closer in AAA Syracuse.
In a remarkably successful offseason, one of the few free agents Ricciardi pursued and didnít get was potential closer Tim Worrell, who filled that role capably for the Giants last season when Robb Nen was injured. The righty reportedly accepted $500,000 less than the Jays offered, signing with Philadelphia as a setup man. There were rumours that he simply prefers the National League, or thought the Phillies were closer to championship contention, but J.P. shrugged that off, with a hint of what heís sometimes up against.
"Toronto isnít everybodyís first choice, you know."
Undaunted, the GM engineered a three-way trade with Colorado and Tampa Bay that brought righthander Justin Speier to Ontario. Mark Hendrickson, who had very little chance to beat out Josh Towers for the fifth starter role, is now a Devil Ray, and Sandy Nin, who has pitched only one game above Low-A, moves to the Rockies system. As usual, it's not just the physical tools that J.P. admires about his newest Fighting Jay.
"Speier is a sinker-slider guy, who has had some success at Coors Field. Heís a very aggressive kid, comes at you, we like that about him."
Neither Ricciardi nor manager Carlos Tosca is prepared to anoint a closer until they have seen everyone in Florida, but they have several candidates to choose from who have done the job before in the big leagues, including Terry Adams, the former Phillie, signed as a free agent.
"Adams is very good against lefthanders, with a good cutter and a good split," praised his new boss. "We like that he can get lefthanders out, so we donít automatically have to go to a lefty."
Speaking of southpaws, another former National League reliever joined the bullpen brigade, and J.P. likes his stuff. Valerio de los Santos, once a prize prospect with the Brewers, brings a different skill set than his predecessor.
"De los Santos is a guy who does have success against righthanders," explains Ricciardi, "and heís got a little bit more oomph on the ball. With Trever Miller, who did a great job for us, we were really limited; he really had just one role. This guy can be effective against hitters from both sides of the plate."
It sounds like fewer trips to the mound may be in store for the skipper, who caught some flak last year from fans impatient with three-pitcher innings. While careful not to criticize the way Tosca managed his staff in the past, J.P. agreed that it should be different.
"We like the fact that we have diversity in our bullpen. Weíve got a lot of ways now to come at you, attack you, and for the most part, we donít have to go to righty-lefty matchups all the time."
Considering sidearmer Kerry Ligtenbergís proven effectiveness against righthanded batters, and with both Aquilino Lopez and Jason Kershner returning from their impressive 2003 campaigns, many fans have wondered if the team really needs a seventh reliever, or if a versatile bench player and pinch-hitter like Howie Clark or Simon Pond had a chance to go north with the Jays.
"Weíre not ruling out anything like that," Ricciardi stated. "We want to stay real flexible on the last spot, or the last two spots, on the club. There are no preconceived notions about what we want to do; thatís why we have spring training. Guys can go down there and open up your eyes, with Reed Johnson last year being the perfect example. Thatís the fun thing about it."
When the subject of Pondís availability for the Canadian Olympic team was raised, along with that of B.C. righthander Vince Perkins, J.P. was enthusiastic.
"If itís something that they want to do, weíd encourage that. I was a part of the U.S. Olympic gold team in Australia, and it was a great experience for me, plus I know what those kids went through."
Of course, anything can happen between now and August, so it might be a last-minute decision.
"If weíre not in a situation where we need to bring Pond up, I think weíd definitely allow him to go. In Perkinsí case, heís probably going to be an A-ball or AA guy, and it would be a great experience for him, that would only help him."
Another probable Olympian in the Jays system is Taiwanese lefty Chi-Hung Cheng, the teenager signed as a free agent after a tryout last fall.
"That kind of fell in our lap," explained the GM. "We were able at the time to move around enough money to make it worthwhile, and we were fortunate to be able to work him out for a couple of days. That helped convince us this was a guy we wanted to invest in."
The scouting report on Cheng, who Ricciardi was able to evaluate himself, sounds promising.
"Heís probably the equivalent of a third- or fourth-round pick in the draft, good arm, 85 to 90, probably going to pitch around 87-88 his first few years, good movement on the ball, really good breaking ball --thatís the thing we liked the most -- and a real good feel for the change. Worth taking a flyer on."
Several other young pitchers in the organization are returning from injury, and J.P. is particularly high on one of them.
"Francisco Rosario should be 100%; he threw real well in the Instructional League, and I would look for him to start the year in Dunedin, just to stay in the warm weather, but by the middle to the end of the season, heíll at least be in AA, if not AAA. Heís got a chance to come fast."
There are positive developments on a couple of other fronts, according to Ricciardi.
"Justin Miller is throwing off a mound (last Thursday); heís been throwing from 120 feet, and should be OK to get on the mound in spring training. He hasnít pitched against hitters in a year, so itís going to take him a little bit of time. Bob File should be 100% healthy, so heíll be coming into camp to fight for a job, too."
In 2002, the Jays used a seventh-round pick to select a lefty who was projected to be a first-rounder until he was injured just before the draft. Chris Leonard was Pitcher of the Year in the Cape Cod League in 2001, going 6-0 with a 0.98 ERA and whiffing 64 in 55 innings. Itís still too early to tell whether that gamble will pay dividends.
"From everything we understand, Chris was a little sore in the Instructional League, but weíre hopeful that he should be able to get on the mound and pitch for us somewhere this year, probably in Dunedin."
Several players in AAA seem nearly ready for the Show, but J.P. was unwilling to speculate on who might get the first callup.
"Itís so hard to say. You donít know if someoneís going to get hurt, or if someoneís going to catapult right by everybody. Quiroz could be one of those guys, Peterson, Bush -- thereís a lot of guys that could end up being the first to get here."
Of course, the distinction matters more to fans than to the front office.
"Weíre not really worried about that," he agreed. "The most comforting thing for us is that the major league club is going to allow the minor league guys to continue to develop, and theyíre going to tell us when theyíre ready to be up here."
When told that some of us were planning a trip to Erie in late April to see the Manchester team play the Tigers AA farm club, and asked if players like Russ Adams or Dustin McGowan might still be at that level, Ricciardi was non-committal.
"Weíre going to watch spring training, and see where those guys are. I would say itís 50-50 at this point."
Another possibility to start in Double-A, followed by a quick promotion is John-Ford Griffin, who will be getting some work in both the outfield and infield, wherever he plays.
"Heíll play a little first base, and left field, and hopefully he can stay healthy for the whole year."
Regardless of when their future stars are promoted, the Fisher Cats are unlikely to be as strong as last yearís New Haven squad.
"Youíd be hard-pressed to say that our AA club will be as good as the year before," admits Ricciardi, "but you might have Adams and McGowan, probably Rosario at some point. Knock on wood, Hill will get there, maybe Vermilyea. I think some of the kids from last yearís draft will eventually see Double-A this year, so I think weíll have a good group."
At the gathering last week for some of the club's most avid fans, the GM remained enthusiastic about his two #1 picks, Russ Adams and Aaron Hill.
"Theyíre both middle infielders we think are valuable; theyíre very athletic, very good offensive players," said Ricciardi. "Russ is a little bit ahead of Aaron defensively, but they both understand the game. Hill will be at the big league camp this year, so youíll get a chance to see him. We think heís going to be a very good offensive player, and if eventually we have to move him off shortstop, he could go to second or even third base."
Manager Carlos Tosca agrees that both players are still considered shortstops until one of them is asked to do something else, and ignoring the suggestions from some scouts that Adams is better suited for second base, likes his glove, his bat and his smarts.
"We were very impressed with Russ last year," the skipper said over the telephone from Dunedin. "He doesnít panic out there; defensively heís very creative and he has a good approach at the plate, getting deep into counts. Heís (in Florida) already, heís been here for about two weeks, working out, which shows the kind of dedication he has."
The revamped pitching staff may be the most obvious change this year for Blue Jays fans, but another welcome addition to the 2004 team is Joe Breeden, who will serve as the bench coach. Ricciardi deflected credit for his hiring.
"I brought Butterfield, Tosca and Gibbons over here when I first came over, and Iíve known Patterson for many years, but this was Carlosí chance to pick his own guy."
J.P. is familiar with his newest employee mostly by reputation.
"Iíve known of Joe Breeden, and I like that heís a very good catching guy; itís a good time to have someone like that. I donít know him that well, but he seems like a great guy. I had a hand in hiring him, but for the most part I wanted Carlos to be comfortable. Joeís going to handle some in-game stuff, and heíll be running spring training, so that gives all the other coaches a chance to concentrate more on other things. Iím looking forward to working with him."
At the party for season-ticket holders, the manager elaborated.
"Iíve known Joe for a long while, and heís a tremendous catching teacher. Heís worked with the likes of Benito Santiago, Charles Johnson, guys he helped turn into Gold Glovers. With Kevin, and with Quiroz coming, weíre trying to get as many teachers as we can on our staff."
Most of the work Breeden does with the catchers will be in spring training and between games, so most of his responsibilities will be in the dugout.
"Throughout the course of a game," continued Tosca, "if youíve seen me flipping through papers and looking at stats, Joe will be doing some of that this year, so I can concentrate a little bit more on whatís actually happening on the field. Managers use bench coaches in different ways, and Iíve got a real good idea of how I want to utilize Joe. Heís a very enthusiastic, hard-working, organized person in addition to being a great teacher, and weíre fortunate to have him."
Ricciardi is as proud of his staff as he is of his players. He spoke about the probable hiring of Paul DePodesta as the Dodgers GM as a good thing for the Jays, and baseball, if it happened. He also said not to worry about Billy Beane, even though Oakland has lost J.P., Grady Fuson and perhaps another talented executive. It seems that some clubs are as deep in the front office as they are on the field, including the Jays.
"Weíve got one of the best front offices in baseball," he says matter-of-factly. "Tim McCleary is a whiz with the numbers, arbitration, really knows the rule book in and out, the waiver claims, heís so valuable to us in that end. Keith Law amazes me every year with the things that he does; his heavy involvement with the draft, major league and minor league statistical stuff."
The portrayal of the Jays in some quarters as completely reliant on numbers is misleading and inaccurate. J.P. also has very capable "traditional" advisors whose opinions he values.
"To me, probably the best baseball guy we have, whoís going to be a GM whenever he decides thatís what he wants, is Tony LaCava. Along with Dickie Scott, Jon Lalonde and the rest of the baseball guys, we feel like weíve got a really, really good front office, and that gives us an edge."
Even though heís the point man, and will get the lionís share of credit, or blame, for the teamís performance, Ricciardi knows running a ballclub is a team effort.
"Thatís a challenge that Paulís going to have, and anybody else who goes on their own, to put that type of group together, because thatís what makes you successful."
Last yearís controversial bestseller Moneyball was a fascinating look at the Oakland Aís front office, but Jays fans were disappointed to learn that author Michael Lewis and his editors deleted a chapter about Ricciardi and the Jays. This year, another book is due to hit the shelves, and J.P. will be prominently featured. However, he cautions fans to expect more entertainment than astonishing revelations in Chasing Steinbrenner: Pursuing the Pennant in Boston and Toronto.
"The writerís a great guy, Rob Bradford. Iíve read the book already, and itís a very light-hearted look at us and the Red Sox. He sat down with Theo and he sat down with me, but itís not a real in-depth, day-to-day look at crucial decisions."
It sounds like Ricciardi enjoyed the process, but itís doubtful that any writer will ever get as close to his inner circle as Lewis did with Beane and DePodesta.
"If anybody is looking at it like itís another Moneyball, theyíre going to be disappointed," he warns. "I wouldnít allow total access to anybody, and we gave him more of a thumbnail sketch of how we do things. So itís not something cutting edge, it wonít have the same effect as Moneyball did."
Nevertheless, Chasing Steinbrenner will be on the bookshelves of a lot of Jays fans, and weíre eagerly awaiting its release.
J.P., who always shows ample respect for his big-budget AL East opponents, raised an eyebrow when his manager said last week that anything less than a playoff berth would be disappointing. Since then, thereís been a lot of discussion hereabouts as to the likelihood of the Jays winning anywhere from 78 games to 96 or more, and the latest enormous move by the Yankees has altered the landscape. Letís give the last word on the club's postseason chances to Ricciardi.
"We didnít take this job to finish third. We think weíre going to improve on 86 wins; on paper weíre a better club. Last year in May, everybody was asking about the playoffs, so itís not the first time itís been mentioned. We hope weíve given ourselves a chance to get there."