And We End As We Began

Thursday, September 22 2005 @ 08:00 AM EDT

Contributed by: Jordan

Gregg Zaun did his best. Had his 9th-inning drive to left-centerfield fallen in, the Jays would've tied the game and would've had an excellent chance to win it. But Jeremy Reed made a fine running catch, and so my last Game Report of the year, just like the first 53 or so, ends with an L. I expect I'll be taking home the Unluckiest Rosterite Medal at the post-season Boxy Awards (televised live in Rogers Cable 23 in Iqaluit).

Lots to talk about from last night's game, which, as I mentioned in the Instant Replay thread last night, was about as good a match as you could ask for from two also-ran teams in late September.

--> So first, let's talk about the near no-hitter. By the third inning, it was clear that Hernandez had overwhelming stuff and that the Blue Jays were just about helpless against him. By the end of the 6th, I thought he had a pretty good shot at pulling it off; I figured Gregg Zaun, who was the closest Jay to draw a bead on him all night, might golf a double down the right-field line, but it was Corey Koskie who broke the spell with one out in the seventh.

Now, I mentioned this last night, but I just do not understand how that ball could be scored a base hit. If you missed it, Koskie waited out a change-up and poked it towards left field. Yuniesky (I love that name) Betancourt appeared to misjudge the ball's trajectory and jumped too soon; the ball banged off his wrist and bounced into left field. Now, I'm not an official scorer, and I don't know what the exact rules are. But it seems to me that when a batted ball actually hits the fielder and he doesn't make the play, it's an error. You know? I mean, how can you escape responsibility for the play when the ball bangs off your body? Betancourt clearly misjudged the path of the ball, and in any book, that's an error.

I was hoping, from that point on, that the Jays would get a clean hit, so that sports sections across America the next day don't read "Scorer Robs Teen Phenom of No-No." But Hernandez remained in command till the 8th, when Aaron Hill hit a ball so hard it ripped Hernandez's glove off for an infield single. So basically, the Jays had as many hits against the starter as they hit Mariner fielders. It's a novel way to mount an offence, but I don't think it's going to catch on.

--> Let's also talk about the pitcher who almost threw the no-hitter. This was my first chance to watch The King pitch, and I'm glad I caught him on a good night, because wow. He has (1) an overpowering fastball, (2) backbreaking off-speed stuff, (3) a really good change-up, (4) moderate to excellent control of all three pitches, and (5) the mound presence of a veteran. Last night, his command was merely very good -- if he has a night where it's laser-sharp, then the opposition will be lucky to get a baserunner, let alone a hit. With Hernandez, it's not a matter of if he throws a no-hitter someday, but when.

It may be just as well that Hernandez didn't get his no-no tonight -- I've always feared for a young pitcher who throws a no-hitter so early in his career, because really, it's all downhill from there (ask Bo Belinsky). It's one of the reasons I wasn't actually all that sorry when Bobby Higginson took Roy Halladay deep with two out in the ninth back in September 1999 -- that kind of intense experience at such a young age has the potential to really screw you up.

As a general rule, bringing a pitcher to the majors in his teens is a dicey proposition. Poor David Clyde is Exhibit A for that folly, and Dwight Gooden is a more recent example (CC Sabathia is hanging in so far, but I'm not sure of his long-term chances). But from Bob Feller to Bert Blyleven, there are success stories, too, and I suspect Hernandez fits better in the latter group. If I were in a fantasy draft next season, I wouldn't let this kid slide past the second round, and I rarely draft pitchers early. He looks like the real deal, and it was a treat to see him pitch as a rookie and come so close to the record books.

--> I've rarely seen a leash shorter than the one John Gibbons has attached to Dave Bush. Now, I can understand Gibbons' frustration, because (a) Bush had cratered against the Yankees his last time out, and (b) he lost his command altogether in the 4th inning. But honestly, does Bush have to match Hernandez zero for zero? He was terrific the first time through the order, punching out three batters and looking at the top of his game. Then, clearly, he lost his control in the 4th, walking the first two batters, issuing another free pass later, and hitting the last batter he faced.

But in between there, the two singles he gave up were seeing-eye grounders -- a couple of feet to either side and they would've been double plays. The HBP took place on an 0-2 count when he was trying to come inside. But by that time, Brandon League was warmed up, and out came the manager. Honestly, I've come to conclude that Gibbons simply does not have a good rapport with Bush -- for whatever reason, they're not hitting it off. You know how some commercials or some songs on the radio just come to annoy you, and you switch them off before they're halfway through? I think that's how Gibbons views Bush. I think he just bugs him, and the two of them are not on the same wavelength at all.

I'm coming to suspect that Bush might not be in the organization's long-term plans. I was shocked when the Jays sent him down to Syracuse earlier this year, because I couldn't see any real reason for it. My guess, at this point, is that if Bush figures into a deal that can improve the club for 2006, he'll go. Assuming the Jays can fetch themselves a top starter like a Burnett or a Washburn next season, then with Halladay, Lilly and Chacin in the rotation, there's room for just one more guy. Dustin McGowan has the higher upside and could be all the way back from TJ surgery next spring; aside from the bullpen, there'd be no place left for Bush. I could certainly be wrong, but that's my sense at this point. At least Bush can tell his grandkids that he faced Randy Johnson and Felix Hernandez in back-to-back starts.

--> Usually, when Brandon League follows Dave Bush into a game, we can count on (a) a play on the term "bush league" that's already getting old, and (b) a small deficit widening into a large one. But League brought his A game out of the pen last night, and from the first batter, whose wood he shattered with a diving fastball, he had it all working.

For 3 2/3 scoreless innings, it looked like League and Zaun were playing catch out there: the youngster was quick, effortless, and relaxed -- all the things Bush wasn't in the 4th. Every pitch he threw had sizzle and spark, and Adrian Beltre is still looking for the fastball League blew by him. Although Koskie bailed League out with a couple of very nice plays at third, the Mariners had nothing else on him all night. For three innings there in the middle of the game, that was one of finest pitching duels I've seen in a long time.

That's what League brings to the table, and that's why the Jays really want him to find the arm angle, mechanics and command to match his raw stuff. Pat Tabler opined that command was the only thing separating League from Hernandez, and while I think that's overly complimentary to League, who's still basically a two-pitch guy, the point is taken. Contending teams need breakout seasons from young players, and to contend in 2006, the Blue Jays need either McGowan or League to put it all together ahead of schedule. If they both manage it next year, watch out.

--> Closing the book on last night's pitchers, it was another good outing from Shaun Marcum. Switching from League to Marcum is like climbing out of your Porsche and sliding into a Honda Civic. Both will get you where you're going, but the ride sure is different. Marcum seems to be about where Vinny Chulk is at the moment, and I'm reasonably confident he can be better. He should be contributing to the Toronto bullpen at some point in 2006.

--> A couple of managerial mysteries last night. John Gibbons started Reed Johnson instead of Gabe Gross last night, and after watching Sparky struggle just to make contact against Hernandez, I wondered if Gibbons was trying to punish him or something by making him face this brutal righty. But then Rod Black noted that lefties are hitting something like a buck-seventy against Hernandez, so I suppose it didn't make much difference (and Gross failed to come through as a pinch-hitter late in the game). Johnson's moment to shine was against the lefty Guardado in the ninth, but that didn't pan out either. Just one of those nights at the ballyard.

As for Mike Hargrove, I just shook my head when he called for the sacrifice bunt during the Mariners' three-run fourth. At that point, Bush was struggling badly to find the strike zone, and the promise of a big inning loomed. Why would you give up an out in that situation? The sacrifice bunt is a one-run strategy, trading an out for a chance to move the runner(s) into scoring position. The sacrifice has its place, but the middle of a potentially big inning is not it. Seattle came away with three runs before Bush was hooked, but I have to think they could have gotten more. That's last-place strategy.

--> The Jays were in very tough against one of the best young pitchers in the game last night. But the game only served to highlight that this offence just won't scare a lot of people. The Blue Jays have been shut out a league-leading 13 times this year, and there's no outstanding guy in the lineup on whom you can count for the big blows. The Mariners don't have much of an offence either, but when Richie Sexson strides to the plate, the other team's fielders all back up and the pitcher takes a deeper breath than normal. The Jays have no back-up-the-fielders batters, and that's a hole that needs to be filled.

So, there's my take on last night's game. The feature article today goes on at some length, and hopefully, presents a fairly thorough take on the subject. Hope you enjoy.

The Ricciardi Report

It's more than a little strange that my first Richard Griffin reference of the year appears in my final Game Report. But Griffin’s recent interview with JP Ricciardi, which was positively effusive when compared to some of his earlier work, sought to answer the question of the general manager’s long-term future. Griffin’s conclusion: J.P. here after ’07? Don’t bet on it. Here are some relevant extracts for the article that will follow:

Usually, when a team's biggest star is nearing the end of his contract, the powers-that-be think about extending his stay. Not so, at least so far, with Ricciardi. Jays president Paul Godfrey responded to the question as if an add-on had been talked about but shelved. Yes, they'd like Ricciardi to stay, but no, they haven't discussed specifics beyond this deal through '07.

"I just want to win," Ricciardi said. "I'm not worried about a job. If I wasn't here, I'd get a job. It may sound crazy, but I don't need to be a GM just to be a GM. I want to do this job because I want to win.

“We could win in the next few years and I could say, ‘You know what, this is great,’ and go do something else. I'm not going to be a GM the rest of my life, I can tell you that. … Right now, I have two years left and I want to honour them," Ricciardi said. "We're going to play our best baseball in the next two years. We'll see what happens. I like it here.

"Going forward, we did everything we were asked to do. We've got the club in a financial situation where we have flexibility. Our farm system is doing well.

“Personally, I'm sick of losing. … The losses eat me up too much," Ricciardi said. "I don't want to lose anymore. I'm not going to do anything stupid, but we're all about winning going forward. We have a lot of things to sell. We're a good young club, with good young players. That's got to be exciting to some (free agent) that wants a challenge."

The Jays' credibility with their fans, as true players in the AL East, will be compacted into the next two seasons. For Ricciardi, working the final two years of this high-wire act without a net (or an extension) is a no-lose situation. He's secure enough he can get another GM job, but he wants to finish what he started.

"I'm more vested here, now," Ricciardi said. "When I was with Oakland, it hurt when we didn't win. We drafted those kids. We developed those kids. We made those trades. We've done that same thing here now. Even the kids we inherited that weren't ours, we've been through four years with those guys."

The last time Ricciardi had a chance for leverage, following his first year, he took shrewd advantage, working out a five-year extension. No doubt, he could sway the Jays, again. The lack of talks or effort regarding a Ricciardi extension speaks volumes. Early odds of Ricciardi being Jays GM in '08 are 40-60.

I actually have no idea whether JP Ricciardi will stay in his current position once this contract expires (although I'm sure he will be allowed to finish out that contract to the last day). I’m not sure he knows himself, and I’m actually not all that interested. What I am interested in doing is taking the pulse of his tenure as GM four seasons after his arrival.

It’s not just Griffin’s speculation that prompts to me to tackle this subject. I’ve been reading a lot of observations about Ricciardi’s performance here lately, and it strikes me that few of them take a sufficiently big-picture view of the situation. The job of General Manager of a professional sports team is like an iceberg: everyone can see and comment on the fraction above the surface, but it’s the nine-tenths behind the scenes that really matter. I’d like to explore that nine-tenths a little more, and try to provide a more complete assessment of JP Ricciardi, General Manager.

I suppose I should begin by listing what I’m not going to study. One is Ricciardi’s public persona, which has occasioned a lot of comment but doesn’t really contribute much to an evaluation of his record. I suppose that an intemperate comment or two on “Wednesdays with JP” could hurt the marketing efforts somewhat (though not nearly as much as the “let’s scalp the girlfriend” ad), but then again, how many GMs go on the radio each week and take calls from the mouth-breathing fan base? It seems to me that Ricciardi has been more than accommodating in that regard.

I don’t know what he’s like personally, and again, I don’t care. I was introduced to him once, at an exhibition game in Florida; we shook hands and had a conversation that was the very definition of terse, and that was that. It seems to me that he paid too much attention to the local baseball press when he started, but over time, he relaxed and dealt better with the media. As far as his public profile goes, Ricciardi appears to have been an exemplary GM. That’s nice, but it’s not why we’re here today.

I'd like to briefly review Ricciardi’s tenure by looking at four related but still discrete areas: the ballclub’s finances and economics, the minor-league system, the scouting department, and player transactions and acquisitions. I’ll give a little letter-grade at the end of each section, and issue an overall grade at the end, for whatever that's worth. Here we go:

1. The ballclub’s economics

When JP Ricciardi took over as the Blue Jays’ new GM in November 2001, this was the starting lineup that greeted him, along with the present-day status of those players:

Darrin Fletcher 	RET
Carlos Delgado 	        Fla
Homer Bush		RET
Tony Batista 		JPN
Alex Gonzalez  	        Tam
Shannon Stewart 	Min
Jose Cruz       	Los
Raul Mondesi      	RET
Brad Fullmer		RET

Chris Carpenter StL Esteban Loaiza Was Joey Hamilton RET Steve Parris RET Chris Michalak RET Billy Koch RET

That team finished 3rd, 2 games below .500, and cost about $72 million. Nine of the 16 starters are out of North American baseball; only Delgado and Carpenter are still solid players, the latter thanks in no small part to Dave Duncan.

Paul Godfrey, when first explaining his choice of the relatively unknown Ricciardi as GM, emphasized that every other candidate they’d interviewed – and they’d interviewed a lot – each said he could deliver a competitive team, so long as the Jays raised the team’s annual payroll to $100M (at the time, among the game’s higher amounts). Godfrey told each of them that the mission was far tougher: field a competitive team on half of that per season, because that was what was coming down the pipe from the accounting people at Rogers.

Only Ricciardi said he could do it, and that was one of the reasons why he got the job. For all Godfrey was certainly impressed with Ricciardi’s baseball acumen, clear-cut team-building strategy and straightforward manner, it would be a mistake to think that any other factor in the hiring decision surpassed this: his ability to field a halfway-respectable team on a tight budget.

It’s a little fiction, peculiar to sports fans, that we come to believe the general manager of our favourite team must please us in order to keep his job. In order to gain our overall approval, the GM (or other official) has to make enough moves that we think help the team. Short of winning the championship, a rare event for most GMs, it’s these day-to-day and long-term actions that often determine how the fan base responds to him.

JP Ricciardi does not, however, report to his fans — neither the ones who post thoughtful reflections at Batter’s Box, nor the ones who harangue Mike Wilner on a regular post-game basis. Nor does he report to the members of the sports media, a far more demanding and jaded group than any fan could hope to be. Nor does he report to his manager, his players, or anyone else within the organization with an opinion on what the club should do (meaning, pretty much everybody).

JP Ricciardi reports only to Paul Godfrey — co-founder and president of the Blue Jays, former Chairman of Metro Toronto, and one of the most powerful men in the recent history of the city. Ricciardi and Godfrey both report, in turn, to Ted Rogers, a communications visionary and global power mogul. When you have to please these two gentlemen — not to mention a host of company directors, shareholders and politicians whose opinion Godfrey and Rogers in turn must court — well, you’ll find yourself focusing very exclusively on a narrow set of facts and issues:

1. Ted Rogers spent a ton of his company’s cash — literally — to buy the Blue Jays from Interbrew, in order to make the ballclub the centerpiece of a vertically integrated sports media empire.

2. It didn’t work. “Vertical integration” is a lost ‘90s buzzword, and Rogers has been losing money on the team pretty much since the day of purchase.

3. There are, I’m sure, more than a few people inside the Rogers empire who thought the purchase was a mistake, and who would be quite happy to see the company dump the team right back onto the open market or gut the annual payroll down to $30M.

4. The intense pressure these people would be bringing to bear on Rogers and Godfrey would have multiplied considerably during 2004’s Year From Hell, and that pressure would have migrated directly downwards to the General Manager’s suite.

So when assessing JP Ricciardi’s performance, you have to do it in the context of the complex, tense and extraordinarily high-stakes corporate environment that is the Toronto Blue Jays. A lot has been riding on how well Ricciardi’s team performs, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the ballclub’s continued viability has been part of it.

What Ricciardi has done, and it should not be overlooked, is to assemble a respectable roster every season since 2003 on a very limited budget — a budget that was, until this season, hamstrung by the Carlos Delgado contract. I do include 2004 in there, because the roster was competitive on Opening Day that year – it was, however, subsequently shredded by injuries, and while $50M spent intelligently can buy you a decent starting 16, it won’t buy you depth, as Dave Berg and Howie Clark can attest.

By keeping the team more or less respectable on a tight budget, Ricciardi was perhaps hoping to prove the old parable about those who show themselves trustworthy with small things being trusted with greater things. Reports from the financial pages have indicated that each year under Ricciardi’s rule, the Jays’ losses have shrunk, which presumably would weaken the arguments of the corporate doubters. It certainly set the stage for last winter’s momentous news.

When Paul Godfrey announced the purchase of the Skydome from SportsCo. Ltd., longtime Jay watchers knew a turning point had been reached. When plans were announced to retrofit the stadium to make it fan-friendlier, there was finally hope that the team could play in a professionally run ballpark. And when Godfrey subsequently announced an increase in the team’s annual payroll to $70M for the next three seasons, it was the clearest evidence possible that Ricciardi had satisfied his most demanding critics and pleased two very hard-to-please bosses.

The purchase and renovation of Skydome was a major step forward in the resuscitation of the Blue Jays franchise, not least because it signaled the club’s return to truly competitive baseball. For keeping the club together through a harsh financial restructuring and helping to rescue the franchise from what might well have been the brink, JP Ricciardi gets an A.

2. The farm system

It takes years, quite literally, for a new general manger to put his stamp on his team’s minor-league operations. In most cases, the players a GM drafts won’t see the light of major-league day for three seasons after they’re chosen, if they see it at all. If a GM relies too heavily on high-potential high-school players, the time lag could be as many as five or six years. Under Ricciardi, who favours advanced players almost exclusively from college, five draftees have already reached the majors and many of the rest are at Double-A, a year away from The Show.

It might be helpful, at this point, to recall just what was left in the minor-league cupboard by Gord Ash before JP Ricciardi came on board. Here are the final starting rosters of the Jays’ three top farm teams at the end of 2002 (Ricciardi came onboard in November 2001, but I can’t find any rosters before ’02, so this will have to serve. Players brought in by Ricciardi in his first year are asterisked).

Syracuse 2002		Tennessee 2002		Dunedin 2002

C Josh Phelps C Paul Chiaffredo C Guillermo Quiroz 1B Gary Burnham* 1B Shawn Fagan 1B Aaron McEachran 2B Orlando Hudson 2B Jimmy Alvarez 2B Dominic Rich SS Glenn Williams SS Danny Solano SS Kurt Keene 3B Josh Klimek* 3B Jim Deschaine* 3B Joe Bernhardt LF Pedro Swann* LF Rich Thompson LF Shannon Carter CF Selwyn Langaigne CF Dewayne Wise CF Alex Rios RF Jayson Werth RF Gabe Gross RF Justin Singleton DH Chad Mottola DH Matt Logan DH Simon Pond*

SP Brian Cooper* SP Pete Bauer SP Dave Gassner SP Pasqual Coco SP Diegomar Markwell SP Matt Ford SP Mike Smith SP Ryan Spille SP David Abbott SP Mark Hendrickson SP Vinnie Chulk SP Aaron Dean SP Chris Baker SP Gustavo Chacin SP Jason Colson CL Brian Bowles CL Hugo Castellanos CL John Ogiltree

Out of these 30 position players and 18 pitchers three years ago, there is today one bona fide star (Hudson), three regulars (Chacin, Rios, Chulk), three marginal big-leaguers (Werth, Gross, Hendrickson) and one top prospect (Quiroz). The remaining 40 players (83%) are out of baseball or are minor-league veterans. Remember that regardless of who was general manager, Paul Godfrey was under orders to chop the team’s 2001 payroll of $72M. Now try to imagine the Blue Jays of the past few years with a $50M payroll, few if any free-agent acquisitions, and many of these guys filling out the roster.

Now, in fairness, there was some 2001 farm talent that had migrated to Toronto by the end of 2002. That group included Vernon Wells, Felipe Lopez, Chris Woodward, Kevin Cash and Brandon Lyon. Only Wells remains today, and whether Felipe Lopez would have blossomed in Toronto is open to debate. And keep in mind that players like Alex Rios and Gustavo Chacin were treading water developmentally until the new coaches installed throughout the system (led by the esteemed Dick Scott) finally made breakthroughs with them.

Today, the Jays have perennial playoff teams in two long-standing organizational cities (Auburn and Dunedin) and thriving relationships with three new cities (Manchester, Lansing and Pulaski, including a Double-A championship in New Hampshire). Only the Syracuse relationship is in dire straits, and while the situation there is far from ideal, it’s also the only minor-league outlet that is not humming along very nicely on and/or off the field.

Most of the Jays’ minor-league teams are stacked with decent-to-solid ballplayers, and they usually field fairly competitive teams while training and coaching the next generation of Toronto Blue Jays. For reviving a moribund farm system and bringing it almost all the way up to pre-eminence, JP Ricciardi gets a B.

3. The scouting department

This topic doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and whatever attention it has gotten has been usually negative, thanks to columns from Bob Elliott and others with ties to the old regime. Much has been said about how the Blue Jays scouting department under Gord Ash was filled with solid baseball lifers who brought several high-ceiling prospects to the organization. And there is certainly a lot of truth to that, though you’d be hard-pressed to think so based on the 2002 farm system, above.

Now, Roy Halladay is a gem, and Vernon Wells is a Gold Glove centerfielder. But Halladay and Wells were selected 19th and 5th in the entire game in their respective draft years, and really, it’s a little hard (though certainly not impossible) to mess up first-round picks. But while the system produced a few stars, there was virtually no depth: beyond a scattered handful of potential impact guys, the system was verging on barren when Ash departed.

Look at it this way: the true test of a scouting department is in the players it delivers once the blue-chippers are off the board. Here are the Blue Jays’ post-first-rounders from 1995 through 2001:

Brandon League
Pete Bauer
Mike Snyder
Ryan Bundy (4th)
Billy Brown (3rd)
Brent Abernathy
Craig Wilson
League looks extremely promising, and Wilson had himself a more-than-decent career once the Pirates gave him playing time. Otherwise, however, this is entirely swing-and-a-miss territory.

More to the point, the Jays’ scouting department in the Ash administration had adopted, according to more than one report, a quasi-country club atmosphere. Salaries were generous and expectations were modest — one good signing could assure years of hassle-free scouting henceforth. It would be an exaggeration to say Ricciardi cleaned house, but not much of one.

Scouting director Tim Wilken — a scouting star with undeniable talent but with a philosophy incompatible with a rebuilding, college-focused organization – left for Tampa Bay, and numerous veteran scouts followed. In their place came young, hungry scouts on board with the organization’s fiscal realities and player development philosophies, headed by a new and equally young scouting director in Jon Lalonde.

Every year they’ve been on the job, Lalonde and crew have improved. The inaugural 2002 draft brought today’s starting shortstop and #4 starter, Russ Adams and Dave Bush, but little else. 2003 produced future infield star Aaron Hill as well as two solid command pitchers (Shaun Marcum and Josh Banks) and two useful late-rounders (Jamie Vermilyea and Ryan Roberts).

2004 was the Year of the Pitcher, with top-ranked prospects David Purcey, Zach Jackson and Casey Janssen coming onboard, along with powerful hitters like Chip Cannon and Adam Lind. And even lacking a 2nd-round selection, the 2005 draft looks promising, with potentially dominant lefty Ricky Romero, Lind clone Ryan Patterson, and intriguing pitchers Robert Ray and Eric Fowler. Just as importantly, the remaining drafted players have populated numerous competitive and occasional championship minor-league teams — an occurrence all but unknown five years ago.

At this point, it seems safe to conclude that not only is the scouting operation younger, less experienced and less expensive than the one Ricciardi replaced, but it’s also better. Barring a major financial restructuring within the game, the Blue Jays will never again be among the highest-payroll teams in baseball. Accordingly, they will live and die by their scouting department and their minor-league coaching operations. Both are healthy and thriving, especially compared to their predecessors, and the credit goes to Ricciardi, who merits a B+ for his gutsy work here.

4. Player transactions and acquisitions

Here is where the results begin to get mixed. Ricciardi arrived from Oakland with a lot of qualifications on his CV, but primary among them was his player evaluation talent and scouting acumen. He has said in the past that that’s what he prides himself most on as a professional — but it’s the area where most of the remaining controversy about his success as a GM still focuses.

Ricciardi’s player transactions can be broken down into three general categories: salary dumps from the Ash regime, minor-league acquisitions, and major-league acquisitions. Let’s look at all three briefly:

Salary dumps: From pretty much any perspective, these were all successful moves; Ricciardi was one of the first GMs to recognize the sensibility of sunk costs in player payroll. In his first winter as GM, he jettisoned the contracts of Raul Mondesi, Alex Gonzalez and Brad Fullmer. (Trivia challenge: who were the three players obtained in return for these veterans?) He cut ties with Homer Bush the following May. All four were on multi-year deals, and not one was missed after his departure. Paul Quantrill might be considered a salary dump, but personally I’d consider his trade as more of straight talent swap, which I’ll discuss below.

Arguably, cutting Chris Carpenter could be considered a salary dump too, since he was about to become unreasonably expensive in arbitration. With Carpenter quite likely to win the National League Cy Young Award this year, that of course looks like a very bad move. But even Ricciardi’s harshest critics haven’t really ridden him hard on this one, and it’s not surprising. Carpenter had a lot of maturation to do, as a pitcher and a person, and he wasn’t going to do it in Toronto, where the Jays couldn’t afford to pay him millions in the hope he’d come around. St. Louis, where pitchers resurrect their careers, was the perfect place for him, and as Barbara Bush would say, it’s worked out very well for him.

Minor-league transactions: Where Ricciardi has made moves to bring in minor-league talent, he has not fared quite so well. Felipe Lopez, who has done some (though not a lot of) growing up and has become a solid shortstop, was dealt for John-Ford Griffin, who currently appears to be a bench player, and Jason Arnold, who has been a near-complete bust. Aquilino Lopez provided a decent year as a Rule 5 pick, but cratered shortly thereafter; another Rule 5er, Corey Thurman, never amounted to anything. Justin Miller has been noteworthy only for his tattoo collection, and Eric Crozier is about as valuable as Josh Phelps right now. Chad Ricketts was injured early and often.

The shining exception to the run of bad news might be Chad Gaudin, acquired for Kevin Cash and tearing up the International League (though he has struggled badly in multiple major-league appearances). Jason Frasor has also been a solid acquisition: that was your basic good-for-both-teams deal.

Where Ricciardi has also shone, interestingly, is in picking up veteran placeholders, especially catchers. Tom Wilson delivered reliable lefty-bashing offence after being rescued from Oakland, and Ken Huckaby has contributed. JP’s moment in the sun, however, was signing Gregg Zaun to a minor-league deal two seasons ago to provide depth at Syracuse. Zaun has now been Toronto’s starting catcher for about two seasons and has become one of the young team’s leaders. Pete Walker was also a great pickup, not once but twice. So the vets have worked out quite well overall, but the prospects, for the most part, have not.

Major-league transactions: It’s definitely a mixed bag here. Ricciardi deserves credit for dropping Billy Koch’s salary on the A’s while picking up Eric Hinske, a starting corner infielder the last three seasons. Whatever you think of Hinske’s production or his contract, he still represents tremendous value for Koch, who was at his peak value then and is now out of baseball. JP fleeced Oakland again two seasons ago by picking up Ted Lilly for Bobby Kielty. Justin Speier was also great value for Mark Hendrickson. But these deals are balanced by less successful ones.

Kielty, for example, was pretty much a bust after coming over from Minnesota for Shannon Stewart. Stewart had no place in Toronto, but he was also a valuable trade commodity; Ricciardi misread Kielty’s potential. Ditto for Cory Lidle, who was simply brutal after arriving in a deal for two lower-end prospects. Cliff Politte fizzled as closer, while Tanyon Sturtze was a low-cost, zero-return reliever. John Wasdin is a name we’d all rather forget.

Luke Prokopec is a tough call. The Blue Jays probably didn’t recognize Prokopec as the same pitcher they’d scouted with the Dodgers, and his injury soon showed why. It seems fair to give Ricciardi a mulligan here, though it’s worth noting that Cesar Izturis has become a better player than the Jays’ organization forecasted. And the best to be said about Paul Quantrill is that even if his salary was out of line with what the Jays could pay a middle man, Ricciardi may have underestimated the importance of having an effective veteran reliever in the bullpen.

The other aspect of major-league acquisitions, of course, is free-agent signings and contract extensions. Again, it’s a mixed bag. Frank Catalanotto has provided very good value for his salary, when he’s been healthy. Mike Bordick was an invaluable teacher for the likes of Orlando Hudson and Russ Adams. Shea Hillenbrand for Adam Peterson has to go down as one of the finer Blue Jay trades, even if the Diamondbacks were shedding salary to some extent.

But it’s on the bigger-ticket items that Ricciardi has been burned more often. Vernon Wells’ five-year deal was a wise and productive contract; Eric Hinske’s was not. Miguel Batista was signed to be a #3 starter, then was moved to closer; he has been an overall disappointment in both roles. Corey Koskie is looking like a mini-millstone at third base, a player who got old before his time. The wisdom of Frank Catalanotto’s two-year extension last September was highly debatable. Even low-budget gambles like Pat Hentgen haven’t always paid off.

As it stands, Ricciardi’s sense of which players will be productive for his organization has been about a .500 proposition, and there’s a good argument that big-league personnel moves have been his weakest link. At this point, it seems fairest to give him just a C in this category, pending this coming off-season’s moves. And that’s how we find ourselves at the crux of the matter.

The moment of truth

This winter, JP Ricciardi faces his fourth off-season as GM of the Blue Jays. The organization he leads to the Winter Meetings will be vastly different from the one he inherited from Gord Ash: better stocked with player and front-office talent, more streamlined, and less costly, with the big-league club playing in a revamped stadium and confident about the future.

Despite those substantial successes, however, Ricciardi’s regime will likely be judged by what he does this fall and winter, and how the team he thus assembles performs in the last two years of his contract. Ricciardi himself may be his own toughest critic in this regard – as he told Griffin, he hates losing and he’s tired of it. This off-season, he has $20 million to spend and a truckful of prospects from which to deal. This is his time.

More than one observer at Batter’s Box has said – accurately, I think – that Ricciardi can no longer be satisfied with simply bringing in nice, useful, solid-average players. Another Shea Hillenbrand or two will not put the team in a serious dogfight with the Red Sox, Athletics, Indians, Yankees, White Sox or Angels. The Blue Jays have exactly one great player (Roy Halladay), a couple of very good ones (Vernon Wells and Orlando Hudson), a few youngsters who could break out big-time (McGowan, Hill, Rios), and a whole bunch of ordinary guys. The team needs, at the bare minimum, a powerful cleanup hitter (left field? First base? DH?) and another ace pitcher in order to make the leap; another power hitter, to bump Koskie to the #6 spot in the batting order, would be even better.

Ricciardi has said repeatedly this season that such players are going to be difficult to acquire. And I’m sure he’s right. Nonetheless, as Anthony Hopkins said to Tom Cruise in MI-2: “Well, it’s not Mission Difficult, Ethan, it’s Mission Impossible.” It is not impossible for Ricciardi to make these kinds of moves, and while it’s probably going to be difficult — well, that’s his job. JP is going to have to make a couple of very bold moves this off-season, wagering much of the organization’s money and/or tradeable commodities to make a serious playoff run.

There is a lot of risk entailed in that, and so far, risk is not something for which Ricciardi has shown much of a penchant. Whether strictly because of budget constraints or because he just prefers it, he has largely collected low-risk, medium-upside players; his bigger investments, as detailed above, have not often paid off. But with fewer budget constraints and a crying need for impact players in 2006 and 2007, he must abandon the low-risk strategy, take a deep breath and dive in.

There are tough calls to be made – relegating Eric Hinske to a bench role and Miguel Batista to long relief, despite their contracts, should be just the first moves. Treasured young players, including some of my personal favourites, should be shipped off to purchase a star player or two, even if (as is almost certain) JP will have to overpay in a seller’s market. A major free agent will demand a contract richer than any current Blue Jay’s; if he’s the right guy, he should receive it.

These would be breathtaking moves, signaling to everyone that this organization is going for it. Ricciardi would be opening himself up to tremendous amounts of second-guessing, and there will be no shortage of people happy to nail him if the moves don’t work out. But that doesn’t change the absolute necessity of the task in front of him. The brass ring is coming around, and Ricciardi has to grab it. For the record, I think he will.

The very first article I wrote for Batter’s Box, way back in November 2002, was an assessment of the big-league roster and the expectations raised by the Ricciardi regime. And those expectations were high indeed; after suffering through the Ash decline, Jays fans were revitalized by the energetic young GM unafraid to drop popular underperformers, versed in scouting and player development yet open to new sources of information that his in-house statistical department could provide him.

It was, in a word, fun, and it’s still fun to be a Blue Jay fan. How many other teams have a present and a future as exciting as Toronto’s? How many other GMs in the game would you prefer to have running your favourite team? The Blue Jays have a plan, and despite misfortunes, both predictable and otherwise, they’re sticking with it. It’s hard to ask for more.

The final judgment on JP Ricciardi’s tenure as Blue Jays GM will be largely influenced by his performance in the next 12 months. It’s possible that he won’t capitalize on the present opportunity, and that the big-league team will continue to tread water or perhaps even fall back. But it cannot be overestimated how significant is the rebuilding job JP Ricciardi has done here, creating an organization that virtually any other GM would love to enter. Even if the Jays don’t advance further, Ricciardi gets a B+ from me for his work as GM.

And if — when — the Blue Jays do make the playoffs, you can bump that grade to an A.