Friday, 11 December 2009

Archive - Post Mortem: The JP Ricciardi Era

So it begins. For several years now the impatient McFans of the Toronto Blue Jays have cried out for the head of the GM and today they finally got their wish. I have said in this space, and believe, that the time was right to let him go, because the team has imploded this year in multiple ways. I'm not convinced all or even most of the current wreckage is his fault, either actively or passively. It's not without importance that the real downward spiral didn't start until Paul Beeston returned to power. It pains me to say that because he, much more than Cito, is among my heroes from the glory days but there it is.

Still and all, there was no reasonable way out of the current mess that didn't involve JP getting the ax. As for the timing, it seems to me self evident that the Hurricane Cito forced Beeston's hand here. it would have been impossible to exclude JP from the meetings and discussions (team meeting this afternoon followed by news conference) and it would have been useless to include a guy he knew he was going to can in a few days in those events.

I'll leave aside an analysis of Alex Anthpoulos for another day - it hasn't been that long since I commented anyway - except to say I approve.

The tact I want to take today is to provide perhaps a more balanced view of the eight-year reign of JP Ricciardi. Most of the reactions I've seen across the net today are quite simply overblown and mostly inaccurate. one poster called his tenure "abysmal" (which is nonsense) and pretty much all of them refer to the entirety of those eight years as one continuous unit (and thus one overall failure) which, I think, is simplistic.

Is this a defense of JP? I'm sure if you are one of those who've been lighting a candle for his firing for three years you will see it as such. For some of you, ANY positive directed his way is "apologist." I do not intend, though, to justify all his work. Some of it I disagree with strongly. But I do believe that the criticism is considerably too harsh. He failed to achieve the goal that most fans set for him (or any GM) - make the playoffs. If that is the benchmark for firing, then he deserves to be fired. But even if that's the bottom line, it's a superficial analysis.

What you are about to read, if you have the fortitude to stay with it, is NOT superficial.

JP was hired in the fall of 2001 and the reporting at the time was that he had told Paul Godfrey the Jays could win as many games as they had been winning for a lot less money. Over the years that has morphed in a "telephone game" sort of way into "I can win (the division) on a lot less money." The Jays had been a slightly over .500 team for three consecutive years preceding the firing of Gord Ash. this had been accomplished with a middle-of-the-pack payroll in the late 90's that had grown to over $76 million (good for 10th in the majors) in 2001. JP's first job was to clear away the deadwood and make the baseball payroll more inexpensive. It was expected and understood that in the early years, that job took precedent over wins and losses.

Furthermore, concerning payroll, one cannot competently review the Jays history over the last eight years without noting the seismic shift in the relative payrolls in the AL East since JP took over. Note my graph on that subject here. The competitive payroll situation in 2001 wasn't at all similar to the one in 2006 (for instance).

It's also oft-stated that JP was supposed to be a "Moneyball" guy and didn't turn out to be. That is perhaps a more complex thing than I want to divert into but just to be clear, Moneyball is about finding undervalued assets, not OBP in particular. Thus what was a good "Moneyball idea" in 2002 was not necessarily what was moneyball in 2006.

All that being said by way of prelude, let's dig in. I had intended to do this review in year-by-year fashion but that was just running too long, even for me. So rather than exhaust your patience in that manner, let's take a somewhat different approach. As much as it gets repeated that JP "has had eight years and failed to contend in any of them" the simple truth is, the Jays were not trying to contend in many of those years. In fact, as it turns out, the JP era divides rather nicely into two equal portions. For reference, I'll call these "Early JP" and "Late JP." Let's compare the two:

Early JP

In the first four years of his tenure here, the primary focus was on stripping away overpriced players and rebuilding a foundation that could support success going forward. it's true that the 2003 team inexplicably won 86 games and perhaps unfairly raised expectations (which were crushed like a grape by the 2004 team) but the simple fact is that 2002-2005 were budget teams. Trades were made to move cash as much as to bring talent. Signings were designed to plug holes, not to spring the team into the playoffs.

Departing the team during this period were such notable names as Billy Koch, Paul Quantrill, Alex Gonzalez, Brad Fulmer, Raul Mondesi, Chris Carpenter, Kelvim Escobar, Carlos Delgado, and Shannon Stewart. With only a couple of exceptions, those traded didn't bring back significant contributors and the departed free agents freed up money that was saved, not reinvested. This is not a circumstance in which you are trying to contend.

Further, in the first four drafts, the Jays focused on college talent that could arrive and contribute in the majors relatively quickly. If the goal was to have a "window of contention" on the horizon, these players should be in the majors or close by that time. for the most part, JP accomplished what he wanted in that regard. David Bush, Aaron Hill, Shaun Marcum, Adam Lind, Rickey Romero, and Jesse Listch are the result of that work and Casey Janssen and David Purcey may yet produce value.

There were, of course, significant missteps. The dealing of Felipe Lopez for players who didn't pan out, for instance. the inordinate amount of money spent on poor relievers for another example. Drafting Russ Adams with his first #1 draft pick was a black mark as well.

One of the major complaints often noted here is the departure of Carlos Delgado but given the fact that Ted Rogers didn't announce his big financial investment until after the window had closed on the Jays to bring him back, that's not really one to hang around JP's neck. Likewise, complaints are raised about letting Chris Carpenter walk but given the unlikelihood of his recovery from a major shoulder injury, that was the logical move at the time. letting Kelvim Escobar go and blowing the savings on a couple of lesser pitchers was much less defensible.

In terms of in-house contracts, JP extended Vernon Wells and Eric Hinske early, following a model established to widespread praise by the Cleveland Indians of locking up young talent. He got tremendous value in Wells and Hinske regressed to the point that he was well over-paid.He also re-signed Roy Halladay to a significantly under-market contract.

The only really significant free agent signing in the early period was Corey Koskie, who came to the Jays in the fall of 2004 presumably to be part of the contending years. After Delgado's departure, Ted Roger's announced in February 2005 that he was committing to $210 million in payroll over the next three years - but too late to be worthwhile in improving the 2005 squad.

That 2005 team was crippled in mid-season when Kevin Mench drove a baseball into Roy Halladay's leg in the midst of his (Halladay's) best ever season and finished with 80 wins, just as Gord Ash's last team had. It was only after 2005 that the impact of Uncle Ted's largess was applied. The bottom line is that as 2005 draws to a close, there has not yet been a year in which the Jays made any pretense of being contenders.

Late JP

Beginning in December 2005, JP pulled out the stops. in quick succession he signed BJ Ryan and AJ Burnett, then dealt for Lyle Overbay. A couple of weeks later he got the chance to deal for Troy Glaus and seized it, even though that left him with an excess of corner infielders.

By mid-season the Jays were 12 games over .500 and flirting with the wild-card race. Strangely, after a couple of ordinary weeks, Shea Hillenbrand concluded "the ship was sinking" despite the fact that the Jays had lost very little ground. He was dealt and the team collapsed in early August.

Even after all that unnecessary drama, the 2006 team won 87 games and seemed on the cusp of being a power to be reckoned with. Even though it was a myth that JP ever claimed they would be contenders in five years, it turned out that after five years on the job, the Jays were looking towards 2007 with considerable optimism.

Frank Thomas was added on a questionable deal, and preformed well in his first year with the team but the overall offense fell by over 50 runs from their 2006 performance. Most of this was due to key crippling injuries to Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay and Troy Glaus. On the other hand, the pitching got much better as several of the young pitching prospects blossomed into contributing players. Ultimately, the team underperformed expectations by several games but that was viewed by most as an aberrational unlucky season.

Last year (2008) is still fresh enough in our memories that it needs little in the way of review. The most significant move, Troy Glaus for Scott Rolen, was understood by most as a sideways move and much more ink and bandwidth was dedicated to the ditching of Reed Johnson for Shannon Stewart (which in turn led to other lame attempts to fill the open hole in the lineup). That fiasco, combined with the collapse and release of Frank Thomas hamstrung the efforts of the 2008 squad and left them once again disappointing expectations. Manager John Gibbons paid the price and the team revived under Cito Gaston but the hole was already too deep.

Still, by the advanced metrics posted on Baseball Prospectus and other sources, the Jays were one of the very best teams in the majors in 2008 and over the 2006-2008 window. In terms of building a good team JP had, despite obvious imperfections and glaring errors, had done what he set out to do. but it wasn't good enough. And there were enough places where the need for improvement was so obvious that it was and is easier for fans to point out those failings than to appreciate the accomplishments.

This year, of course, due in some part to being handcuffed financially by upper management, the Jays have largely flown off the rails (even though they still are a better team, according to the advanced metrics, than their record indicates). On the surface level, judged simply on wins and losses within the context of this division, those who are impatient for a change are too short sighted to realize how very small a window three years (2006-2008) is to win.

But JP's story is about more than the surface level. There is, most notably, the aforementioned slowness to act in-season. Whether it's Kevin Millar this year, or Brad Wilkerson in 2008, the Jays consistently waste far too many at-bats on players who have no business on the roster. In similar fashion, with only three exceptions, the Jays have been painfully immobile at the trade deadline each July.

Off the field, JP did a good thing in providing unprecedented media access to his thinking...then promptly turned that into a bad thing by constantly making verbal blunders that served to build a very unfavorable impression of the sort of man he is. To this day, there is a huge disparity between what those closely associated with JP think of him personally and what those outside that circle of acquaintances think.

Even here at the last, the suspicion is growing that JP tipped off Ken Rosenthal to the discord in the Jays' clubhouse. While it might be impossible to know for sure, if that impression takes hold as the "conventional wisdom" it will brand him as one of the most reprehensible baseball executives in memory. This off-field drama over the last few years is enough, by itself, to account for his dismissal in the absence of playoff appearances.

There are several aspects to being a good GM. If I were grading JP out on them I'd do it like this:

Bringing in big-name talent via trade or free agency:
pluses - Glaus, Rolen, Overbay, Burnett, Lilly
minuses - Thomas, Ryan (both good players brought in under unwise deals)

The good outweighs the bad here, I'll give it a B

Contract management internally, including identifying which talent to extend and retain and which to let go:

pluses - kept Roy Halladay out of free agency twice; extended Wells at a great value; Aaron Hill's deal; dumping Rios.
minuses - Vernon's current deal (which wasn't really up to him but the popular perception lays it as his feet); Hinske's deal; Rios's extension; Letting Escobar walk; running Reed Johnson out of town.

Has saved about as much as he wasted, if you don't count Wells against him (which I don't). Call it a C

Getting good value to fill out the roster, via trades and signings (of a non-big-name variety

pluses - the Rolen deal looks good so far; Accardo for Hillenbrand; Hilenbrand for Peterson; Speir for Hendrickson; Lidle and later Tallet for minor league nobodies; Scutaro, Bautista, Inglett in little noticed trades; signings including Downs, Carlson, Richmond, Stairs, Zaun, Myers, Bordick, and Catalanotto.

minuses - Felipe Lopez deal was a bad one; paying the Brewers to take Koskie (especially when it would have been far better to dump Hillenbrand); a multitude of bad fliers don't count, in my opinion, because they didn't stick (and taking fliers on guys who don't stick is part and parcel of running a major league team) but that still leaves several relievers that never should have gotten so many bad innings and particularly sticking with guys like Wilkerson and Millar who clearly had lost whatever they once had.

As before, these tend to balance out. Chad Gaudin being stolen and then given away is a perfect example. Still, I think there's considerably more good than bad here. we did not lose as much, in terms of between-the-lines value, playing Wilkerson as we gained from a guy like Catalanotto alone.


Drafting and prospect acquisition:

pluses - despite repeated slags against the Jays drafting under JP, the fact remains that by any analysis, the Jays have gotten as much production in the majors out of the draft since 2002 as almost any team in baseball.

minuses - when the Jays shifted in the later years to higher-upside high school picks, they got players who have been slow to develop. Also, until recently the production out of Latin America was sorely lacking. Also, while it's uncertain who is to blame, the failure to sign all the high draftees will be mentioned for years as a mark against JP.

As before, the good and the bad tend to balance. I'll call it a C here as well.

Being the "face of the franchise":

pluses - availability, at least in the initial going (in later years he tended to eschew most of the local media in favor of national and particularly East Coast media).

minuses - too many to list.

Grade: Overall, the bad far outweighs the good...gotta grade this as F.

Overall, he's a solid "C" from where I sit. Perfectly competent, probably good enough to have considerable success in a place like San Diego or Pittsburgh. But not good enough here.

Make no mistake, I think it was time to fire him and I think that, despite the things where he's judged, in my opinion, far too harshly - there is a solid case for firing h im even without the context of the 2009 collapse.

However, I'm a stickler for accurate commentary, and I continue to resist the tide of sloppy analysis. JP undoubtedly made many mistake and clearly failed to reach the level of success all of us including him expected. But let's also be accurate. JP tried and failed to contend for THREE years, not eight.

If he hadn't been such a public relations liability, if he hadn't been so slow to adjust in season, there would have been every reason to continue his employment because that's not really that big an opportunity to succeed - particularly in this division.

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