Talking Baseball

Your weekday baseball fix. Some days.

Posted by Dave on Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Ricciardi? Shrewder Than Morgan!

Every year, general managers enter the off-season with the design to improve their team; in the short-run, ideally, but also in the long-run as well. A bit too infrequently, however, teams undertake this endeavor with a misguided approach. There are many examples: What are the Mets thinking, circa the last 3 years, signing sluggers when Shea Stadium is built for pitching and defense? What are the Mariners doing when they already have an adequate and younger shortstop in Carlos Guillen only to trade him away for the more expensive, older, and ultimately worse option in Rich Aurilia? What're the Orioles doing tying up most of their payroll in a few great stars when what they really need is a pitching improvement?

Not always do GMs behave so rationally when dealing with the problems that exist with their respective teams. That's why it's so refreshing, to me, when people like JP Ricciardi succeed in the big-time. JP (believe me, I tried, but I could not, for the life of me, find what it was short for) Ricciardi was one of Billy Beane's right-hand men in Oakland and he came highly endorsed to the Blue Jays. Once he landed the job, he got right to business, doing what all GMs (short of those that own money trees (Theo Epstein, Dan Evans, and Brian Cashman (Does anyone else find his last name horrifically ironic?))) should do - pare off unrealized payroll. "Unrealized payroll" is payroll that is not being maximized because it's being paid to players that are not producing to the point where it legitimizes their payroll. Ideally, the name of the game is to own players that have a high wins-to-salary ratio - this means you have the cost-effective players and it generally will mean that you have a good team for not very much money (a must for the Torontoes (you say Torohnto, I say Torahnto) and Oaklands of the world). Thus, it is necessary for most teams in a rebuilding process to rid themselves of unrealized payroll so that they may pursue more cost-effective alternatives.

What did that mean for JP? It nearly meant trading Carlos Delgado. The runner-up for MVP is making in the neighborhood of 19 million/year, and, beyond that, is the franchise player for the Blue Jays. Believe it or not, Delgado, even with his performance last year, still probably isn't legitimizing his gargantuan contract - but at least he's close. JP could foresee that, not only was trading Delgado difficult due to his price-tag, he had a distinctly higher ceiling than two other largely unrealized contracts: Raul Mondesi and Shannon Stewart. These two corner outfielders were swept up in the boom of the economy and both signed above market-value contracts by today's standards. Toronto, like the rest of MLB, paid too much for players in an economy (American Economy and Baseball Economy) that was sure to decline. So, JP spun Mondesi off to the Yankees and spun Stewart off to the Twins (eventually). Those were nice moves, but pre-dating those moves was the purge of Billy Koch in favor of Eric Hinske. Hinske, though he struggled last year with injuries, won the Rookie Of The Year award in his first year of service - another calculated and extremely shrewd move by JP. They needed a third baseman and Eric Hinske (who was expendable to the A's because of a decent player, Eric Chavez) was the perfect match (for now, and the future).

But JP continued to build. Realizing the quality of players he had in Hinske and Vernon Wells (this is prior to last season) he signed them to long-term deals:
Vernon Wells - 5 years/$14.7M
2003: $0.35M (+$0.85M signing bonus)
2004: $0.7M
2005: $2.9M
2006: $4.3M
2007: $5.6M
Eric Hinske - 5 years/$14.75M
2003: $0.5M (+$0.5M signing bonus)
2004: $0.8M
2005: $3.0M
2006: $4.325M
2007: $5.625M
JP emulated the success of the early 90s Indians (With the core of Belle, Sandy Alomar, and Kenny Lofton) and the late 90s-now A's (The Big Three of Zito, Mulder, and Hudson) by avoiding arbitration in the future with his burgeoning stars and by insuring that they would stick around for at least another 5 good years of service. Though Hinske got hurt (only bad luck could deny JP glory) and contributed very little (he likely would have built on his success from his ROY campaign), Wells became an arguably more valuable player than Delgado last year by posting incredible numbers with his bat (see my last entry (January 9th) on him and more predominantly, Aubrey Huff, for more on that) and by patrolling center-field like a hawk - being only rivaled by Hunter, Edmonds, and Erstad for being best with the glove. In addition to Hinske and Wells, however, the rest of the Blue Jays (many of which found themselves in Toronto as a result of JP) briefly flirted with the likes of the Red Sox and Yankees for AL East Pennant contention. Unfortunately however (for them, not for me; it was one less team to lose sleep over, the Red Sox still had to beat out the Yanks, A's and Mariners) started to fizzle out a bit before the All-Star break, due to a lack of pitching.

This brings us (with many minor and a few major omissions, I'm sure) squarely to the present - or the near past, anyways. Following the 2003 regular season, the Blue Jays had one glaring weakness: Pitching. They were scoring the 2nd most runs in baseball, but, god help them if it meant holding down a lead. I'm not just referring to their starting pitching, either - they really like a completely bipolar team up in Toronto, it seems. Both their bullpen and rotation may as well have been trash heap - save Roy Halladay and possibly Alquilino Lopez. But credit JP, he knew his glaring weakness, and he ventured to fill it. Although the Blue Jays would prefer to improve their team via internal methods (their farm system), they're strong in the wrong half of baseball (positional players) for filling their pitching needs. So JP hit the market, and was forced to scavenge for some bargains this off-season. First, he signed Hentgen for the paltry price of 2.2 million. Why is this price paltry? Surely last year's stats for Hentgen were mostly aberrant. This may be so, but he sure pitched well. 4.09 ERA in the most difficult division in MLB and he had a 2-to-1 K to BB ratio. Pretty solid. He even had a save!. Who can deny a potential closer like Pat Hentgen a lucrative offer sheet? Joking aside, this is a respectable gamble for a former *cough* Cy Young *vomit* Winner.

Mother of God, I'm tired. It's nearly three here, and I have class in 6.5 hours. I still have to sleep. I'm not a huge fan of Ted Lilly; anyone can look good in The Coliseum (even Barry Zito, last year (ouch)) if they pitch decently, but he can soft-toss his way to a decent ERA if he keeps the walks down, which is quite possible. In dealing away Kielty, they traded away a player who is rapidly losing the lusterous tag of "prospect" and gaining a player that is realizing some of his promise in Lilly. JP, you're the man.

But the move that got me most excited was their signing of Miguel Batista. This guy is so underrated, it's ridiculous. Arizona has misused him for years, doubting his ability as a starting pitcher. One wonders why when viewing his stats over the past three seasons:
2001 3.36 60 90 139.1
2002 4.29 70 112 184.2
2003 3.54 60 142 193.1
Batista was undervalued, however, because his record over the course of those three seasons was a combined 29-26, hardly the hallmark of a great pitcher. His ERA exhibits that he was effective, however. And it seems as though he is improving with a decrease in BB/9 and an increase in K/9 in each of the past two seasons. Though Batista is rapidly exiting his prime, his shelf-life will, at the very least, justify that three-year contract.

So, JP has drastically improved his starting pitching. What about the bullpen?! Aside from Ligtenberg, there hasn't been a significant move. That's okay though. If the Blue Jay Offense is setting off firecrackers again and if their pitching is capable of not allowing just firecrackers but also the occasional nuclear bomb, they could be in contention again this coming season. If that happens, I fully expect JP to deal for some relief pitching. Lopez and Ligtenberg won't cut it. Although this could happen, it probably won't. The Red Sox and Yankees have improved so dramatically that it seems inconceivable that the Blue Jays would even threaten. But, both teams are in financial dire straits following this season. The Blue Jays, with their solid base and JP at the helm, could maneuver for a future playoff run. Any playoff team can win it all - look no further than Florida to infer that fact. If JP only had the payroll of the Mets or Dodgers, I could guarantee a World Series Ring in his future. But, alas, he is relegated to forging small miracles instead with his dramatically smaller payroll - his miracles may even surpass his predecessor's, Beane, someday.

I may add, also, that I've changed the banner at the top of the website. Ben, our resident Yankee fan, is rightfully angry about the former banner of "Three Red Sox Fans Share Their Wisdom. One Yankee Fan Shares His, uh, Wisdom." I did this mostly as a joke, but it's not respectful. His previous entry highlights a bright future for this blog and his vision will help guide us down the road. Talking baseballs (like, images of them) are soon to come up top.

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