All right, it seemed pretty clear that J.P. Ricciardi's time with the Toronto Blue Jays was drawing to a close, but announcing he was leaving the club less than 48 hours before the end of the season is a little odd. The team is on the road to close 2009 and maybe making the move today was a way to limit the media frenzy.
It has been an interesting couple of days for the team with rumblings on Friday of severe unrest among players over Cito Gaston's managerial style. FoxSports.com and The Canadian Press both filed reports that the players were close to mutiny in the clubhouse and were demanding Gaston not return next season. It was another example in a long line of negative stories involving the Jays this season.
Was this most recent media circus just the last straw for President Paul Beeston? Maybe. We might never know for sure, but it has become clear that as bad as things appear to be from the outside looking in at the team, it is in fact much worse than anyone ever expected.
So, what happens now?
For the time being, former assistant general manger Alex Anthopoulos becomes the fifth Canadian to hold the title of general manager for a Major League club. The other four Canadians to hold the position are as follows: George Selkirk (Washington, 1962-68), Murray Cook (New York Yankees, 1983-84, Montreal, 1984-87, Cincinnati Reds, 1988-89), Gord Ash (Toronto, 1994-2001) and Doug Melvin (Texas, 1996-2001, Milwaukee, 2002-present). Special thanks to TSN.ca's Will Hill and The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for the above information.
While it remains to be seen exactly how long Anthopoulos will hold the GM's post, the Jays have bigger questions to deal with.
The most pressing issue for the club remains the search for a president with a vision for the future of the organization.
A major house cleaning is expected this off-season and with Beeston still holding firm to the stance he is only the temporary president, the big man or woman still needs to be named. One would suspect that anyone coming in to take over the club would immediately look to form an entirely new management team starting with the general manager and moving down to field level.
With the rumblings of clubhouse friction between Gaston and the players, the manager's future is also cloudy. While he was able to dramatically improve the club's fortunes when he took over for John Gibbons in 2008 and that success carried over into a strong start to the 2009 season, things did not stay rosy.
When questioned about the reports on Friday afternoon, Vernon Wells admitted there were some problems but did not go into much detail.
"There are issues, obviously," Wells told The Canadian Press prior to the team's Friday loss in Baltimore. "We have to figure out how to do this in a family manner. We're not out to bash anyone in this situation. It's a touchy situation. It's something that obviously most of us, if not all of us in this clubhouse, have not gone through something like this."
Wells also told reporters some of the more prominent Blue Jays would be meeting with management this weekend over the clubhouse troubles.
Gaston has some very strong qualities as a manager; he is able to instill confidence and balance egos. He is at his best with a veteran crew that doesn't need to be pushed to perform. During the Jays' glory days of the early 1990s, he kept his many stars on an even footing, letting the players do what they were paid to do: play. When it comes to the Xs and Os of in-game battles, he is not at the Tony La Russa level and, to be fair, very few are. Some maintain managers do not actually win baseball games and to a great extent that is true, but a manager can lose a game based on bad moves or, as is the perception about Gaston's way of managing, a lack of moves altogether.
The Blue Jays are a decent team - not terrible and not great. In another division they might be challenging for the lead (Toronto is 23-15 against the AL Central and 19-15 against the AL West). Sadly, the reality is that they are in the American League East and must contend with one of the toughest schedules in baseball. If they are going to seriously compete over a long period of time, they will really need to rebuild for at least a season or more. That would mean developing the young pitching they have and trying to surround budding superstars Aaron Hill and Adam Lind with better talent. Gaston might not be the man for the job if that is the plan.
Of course the team could sweet talk ownership, then goe out and throw crazy money at the free agent class in the off-season, but that would be a temporary fix. The upcoming list of free agents has some interesting names (Matt Holliday among them), although not interesting enough to justify putting up mega millions just to spend.
In the end it is another wait-and-see. Essentially everything depends on the new president, his/her vision for the club, his/her ability to acquire funds from ownership and, maybe most importantly, his/her ability to find and retain good people. Pro teams play to win on the field, but their building to win starts in the front office.
Stay tuned Jays fans; this will arguably be the most important off-season in team history and it could be a wild road to Spring Training 2010.