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Dangling Conversation, Debate Edition: Should JP Go?

Hugo and I thought it might be a good idea to have a debate. There were a couple of reasons for it, one, of course, was it seemed like a fun idea. The other is that we were a little bothered by how often in the comments section people seemed to be taking personal shots at each other instead of debating the issue at hand, so we thought maybe we could show how we would prefer it done. Then, of course, I made a lawyer crack, so much for not making it personal (that's ok, he knows he's a lawyer).

I guess it is worth pointing out that this is a debate, we picked sides of the issue pretty much at random. We don't necessarily agree with the side we are on, just one of us had to be on each side. It is often the same on the site, we'll take the opposite position of a commenter to get conversation going, even if we don't always agree with that position. We may add to it from time to time and feel free to add in your opinions in the comments.

Anyway to the debate:

Tom:  Should JP Ricciardi be let go as General Manager of the Toronto Blue Jays?

Tom: Yes he should. JP became GM after the 2001 season selling himself to ownership by promising the team could compete with a lower payroll than they had at the time. He dumped some veteran players, brought down the payroll and we didn't win. So he told management that the team couldn't compete with a low payroll and soon we were paying players $100 million and we still didn't win. We've had 4 different managers not be able to win with JP's players. Soon you gotta look at the guy putting the team together.

First the guy decides we can't afford to pay Carlos Delgado, likely the best bat ever to play for the team, and then he signs Vernon Wells to an even bigger contract than Delgado had. Then he signs AJ Burnett and BJ Ryan to big contracts. Has signing a free agent reliever to a large, long term contract ever worked out? Didn't Billy Beane teach him anything out there in Oakland? I think it's time to try someone else.

Hugo:  You know, a couple of years ago, I think I would've agreed with you.  Let's take the 2006-2007 off-season.  Yes, BJ Ryan had just had an excellent first season for the Jays, but a 5-year deal for a reliever not named Mariano Rivera is rarely a god idea.  A.J. Burnett had spent almost half the season on the DL, making just 21 starts, and, while he pitched well when he was healthy, he was hardly dominating (1.30 Whip, 3.98 ERA).  Worst of all, afraid of losing Vernon Wells to free agency (to which he would have been eligible following 2007), J.P. and the Jays inked Wells to a 7-year, $126 million deal.  While that deal was arguably market value for someone of Wells' calibre, one could also very easily argue that Wells had only had 2 really excellent seasons (2003 and 2006) and was just ok in between.  But worse for me was the fact that Alex Rios had had a breakout season, both offensively and defensively, marred only by a staph infection.  While Wells had been a great contributor to the Jays, it seemed pretty clear that Rios could handle centrefield for a fraction of the cost and the Jays could go elsewhere to get a corner outfielder, a position far easier and cheaper to fill than centre.   While I was happy, as a fan, to see Wells back, from the team's perspective it seemed like bad business and the type of contract a mid-market team like the Jays could ill afford should it go wrong.  In another move I thought was unnecessary, Ricciardi signed Lyle Overbay to a 4-year contract that off-season.  Overbay, like Wells, was coming off one of the best years of his career (125 OPS+) but was under team control for two more seasons and similar players to Lyle had historically not aged very well.   While Lyle was an above-average first-baseman on both sides of the ball in 2006, it hardly seemed necessary to sign him to a 4-year deal while he was still under team control for another two seasons. 

Troy Glaus had had a good first season for the Jays, but Orlando Hudson, for whom Glaus was traded, had broken out offensively for Arizona and Aaron Hill had not yet emerged.  And acquiring Glaus had created a logjam at third base when both Glaus nor Shea Hillenbrand objected to DHing, forcing the Jays to trade away the best fielder of the three, Corey Koskie, who the Jays had acquired expensively to play third just a season before and then were forced to give away at pennies on the dollar.  These moves seemed like a man without a plan, squandering away chances when ownership had finally agreed to increase payroll. 

Perhaps worst of all, JP's draft choices were looking dismal.  JP's first first-rounder, Russ Adams had spectacularly flamed out as a starting SS (and second baseman) with an OPS+ of 56 and horrid defense.  Aaron Hill, the subsequent first-round pick, looked like a capable regular but hardly a star (just 6 HRs and a .735 OPS in 2006).  David Purcey, the 2004 first-rounder, had an awful season in the minors (1.66 Whip) and didn't look close to making the majors.  And 2005 first-rounder Ricky Romero, who was picked because he was expected to move quickly through the minors, struggled at AA.  While a few other pieces, like Casey Janssen and Shaun Marcum, mid-round draft picks by JP, looked decent in their Jays debuts, only Adam Lind, who had enjoyed an excellent season in the minors and a promising callup, and Travis Snider, the 2006 pick who had just a few at-bats under his belt and was only a few months out of high school, looked like they could be above-average regulars someday.  My biggest criticism of Ricciardi at the time was that he lacked the imagination, spark, and creativity necessary for the Jays to contend with the monumental payrolls of the Yankees and Red Sox

But things have changed since then.  Sure, the B.J. Ryan deal tanked, as most multi-year deals to relievers are destined to.  The Vernon Wells deal isn't looking any better (though Wells was the Jays' best offensive weapon last season) and the Overbay deal, while at reasonable cost, has hurt the Jays' flexibility a bit.  But the market soon revealed the AJ Burnett deal to be the floor for extremely mediocre pitchers, making the Jays' deal with Burnett, a very good pitcher, about as much of a bargain as a long-term deal for a free-agent starter can be.  When Burnett left, the Jays didn't go over the top to try to retain him, letting the Yankees pony up the big bucks for the talented, if mercurial, pitcher.  The Jays locked up Alex Rios and Aaron Hill at very good deals for the team.  Ricciardi took a chance on Scott Rolen for Troy Glaus, but Rolen has the better upside because of his talent on both sides of the ball. 

And Ricciardi showed a real skill for picking up undervalued talent on the cheap.  Scott Downs, originally picked up for nothing, turned into a dominant late-inning reliever.  This was a smart pickup for the Jays - they saw that Downs had had a very good season as a starter in the hitters paradise league of the PCL, and bet correctly that it would translate into major-league success.  Brian Tallet, for whom the Jays traded Bubbie Buzachero, turned into a quality reliever and now, it appears, a very effective starter.  Marco Scutaro was acquired for two minor prospects and it appears that Ricciardi was among major-league GMs in seeing Scutaro as a quality major-league starting shortstop.  And Scott Richmond was brought in from the Independent Northern League and has put together a very good half-season as a major-league starter.  While most teams scrap-heap pickups are the like of Sidney Ponson, Ricciardi has brought in quality players like Tallet, Downs, Scutaro, and Richmond. 

As for his draft picks, David Purcey, through fits and starts, has shown the potential to be a quality major-league starter.   Ricky Romero has shown excellent stuff and poise on the mound and looks now to be a significant part of the team's future.  Shaun Marcum emerged as a legitimate number 2 starter before Tommy John surgery put his career temporarily on hold, but all accounts are that he is recovering quite well.  Adam Lind looks for all the world like a quality major-league hitter. Aaron Hill has emerged as a legitimate star second baseman.  Travis Snider is one of the best-regarded prospects in all of baseball.  Casey Janssen and Jesse Litsch have already made positive contributions to the team.  And the 2007 draft class consists of Brett Cecil, one of the better left-handed starter prospects in baseball, and J.P. Arencibia, one of the top catching prospects in the game, as well as still-raw but full-of-potential young position players Kevin Ahrens, Justin Jackson, and John Tolisano.  Ricciardi and his team have revamped their approach of "no number of college kids too many" and have diversified their approach by looking at prep school kids and international talent like Moises Sierra and Johermyn Chavez.  The Jays farm system, ranked near the bottom at the 2006-2007 off-season, is now one of the better systems in the league. 

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that Ricciardi has kept one of, if not the best, pitcher in the majors with Toronto for far below his market value.  Doc has been nothing short of spectacular for the Jays and the young pitchers who have succeeded have often pointed to Halladay as mentor, example, and a significant contributor to their own success. 

You are correct, of course, to say that Ricciardi's Jays haven't made the playoffs, and I also agree with you that has to be the ultimate gauge in judging a GM's performance.  But I think Ricciardi has really improved and has learned from his mistakes (even when he hasn't admitted them, haha).  Bringing in another GM will just start that learning curve all over again.  Ricciardi isn't perfect but he has shown skill and perception and has put the Jays in position to contend in the near future without mortgaging their long-term prospects or putting us through a brutal rebuilding period.  While he hasn't gotten the team to the playoffs, I'm not sure he isn't the best person to get us there at this point. 

Tom: I should have known better than to debate a lawyer...they never know when to shut up. Where to start? Let's start with public relations; the man is a nightmare at it. From pissing off potential free agents (Adam Dunn) to ‘it's not a lie if we know the truth' to telling fans this summer that the team wouldn't compete, the man can't seem to open his mouth without saying something either stupid or insulting, but generally both. I guess the one that bothers me most at the moment is telling us the team wouldn't compete this year. Not only was he wrong, it was the wrong time to say it, in the middle of season ticket buying time. Why not sell folks on the excitement of watching young players and having a full season of Cito sitting on the bench. No instead it is ‘hey guys, we are going to be crappy this year but just wait until 2010'. Shouldn't trying to sell tickets be part of the job description for a GM or at least he shouldn't work against selling tickets.

His drafting? Well, I'd prefer not to decide he has improved at drafting until we get more than a month's worth of good major league play out of some of his picks. Yeah I'm glad he's off the ‘safe' college draft choice bandwagon, but let's see if any of these ‘full of potential' guys pan out before we say he's learned how to draft. If he is drafting so well, how come none of our minor league teams can win? Bill James used minor league records as one of several future performance indicators.  It doesn't bode well for us since only one of our top four minor league teams has a win percentage above .400 (why does baseball insist on 3 digit ‘percentages'). If we are drafting well, why can't any of our minor league teams win?

I'll give in that Halladay's contract is a good one and Scott Downs was an amazing pick up.  Hill's contract looks to be a good one. But then Wells, Rios, Ryan, Overbay seems that he is shooting 50/50 at best on big contracts. And really isn't that how you'd want to judge a GM, on the big money contracts. Because the big contracts are what limit what a team can do in the future.

I do kind of agree that JP seems to learn from his mistakes but then he seems to be constantly making new mistakes.  I guess my biggest complaint is, like you said, he doesn't seem to have a plan. Or at best, the plan changes by the season.  So let's try someone that can make a plan and stick to it.

Hugo:  Well, I'm tempted to say that it's typical for an engineer to resort to lawyer jokes when his arguments fail, but you make some excellent points so I won't.  I agree with you that J.P. Ricciardi's skill at public relations is, shall we say, limited.  I especially didn't like the way the Jays handled the offseason. 

As far as the drafting goes, unless the draftees name is Longoria, you can't expect more from the draft class of 2007 than what J.P. has done.  Brett Cecil looked darn good in the majors and J.P. Arencibia is one of the best catching prospects in the game.  And other players from that draft are looking good as well.  Sure, there are no sure things, but it's looking like a great class, and there's no doubt about how the Jays' farm system has pulled itself up to respectability in most experts' estimation.  That's very encouraging, and the more the team can rely on its farm system the less you will see it looking to fill its needs via the free agent market, which is always a good thing.