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Legacy of Ricciardi era leaves Blue Jays at crossroads

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The Canadian Press
10/3/2009 3:21:27 PM
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BALTIMORE -- J.P. Ricciardi's tenure with the Toronto Blue Jays began in the fall of 2001 with promises of a smarter, more cost-effective way to compete in baseball's onerous American League East.

Eight years later his reign comes to an end with players and manager Cito Gaston pointing fingers in an unseemly finale to a miserable 2009, and with the team's path forward more uncertain than when the young, brash general manager first burst onto the scene.

His firing Saturday comes with the Blue Jays at a crossroads after four winning seasons and four losing ones and a cumulative 642-651 mark under Ricciardi.

They have the best pitcher of the last decade in Roy Halladay, some established young stars like Aaron Hill and Adam Lind, plus emerging young arms such as Ricky Romero. But is that core of talent ready for bigger things with a few smart additions, or woefully short of what's needed to surpass the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox? And given this season's rapidly eroding attendance figures, is ownership at Rogers Communications Inc. committed to investing more into the team or dying to wash its hands of the club?

Those within the organization fear staying the course may drop the Blue Jays into baseball's dead zone, where clubs are neither good enough to contend nor bad enough to secure high draft picks.

Either way, interim CEO Paul Beeston decided Ricciardi isn't the right man to lead the team out of the morass, and promoted the bright, Montreal-born Alex Anthopoulos from his role as assistant GM. Anthopoulos will have to live with the good and the bad left behind by his predecessor, and there is no shortage of both.

"I'm proud of a lot of things," Ricciardi said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press. "I'm proud of watching Lind and Aaron emerge, I think (Travis) Snider is going to be a very good player, Doc's had another good year, Romero has emerged, (Brett) Cecil and (Marc) Rzepczynski, (David) Purcey's made some adjustments. "

"There's a nucleus here for a lot of good things."

The vast majority of a frustrated, shrinking fan base may not see it that way.

The bad left behind by Ricciardi springs to mind, starting with the US$126-million, seven-year deal handed to centre-fielder Vernon Wells that runs through 2014.

Wells is the only person in the organization that rivals Ricciardi as a focal point for fan discontent, and the size of his contract likely means he's here for the agreement's duration, which will eat up a large portion of the team's payroll in the coming years.

Thankfully, the Blue Jays were able to rid themselves of the $69-million, seven-year extension Ricciardi handed to Alex Rios when the Chicago White Sox claimed him off waivers in August.

There were other bad contracts, too, that weren't as easily undone. Ricciardi dished out over $30 million to either release players (B.J. Ryan, Frank Thomas) or have them play elsewhere (Corey Koskie, Eric Hinske), a figure far too high for a team with budget constraints.

There is also, according to baseball insiders, much fence-mending for the Blue Jays to do thanks to the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the Halladay trade talks in July.

Those in the know say Ricciardi alienated several teams with unreasonable demands during negotiations and his ceaseless public comments about the state of talks. At one point Beeston even told Ricciardi to stop discussing the matter. Halladay has never revealed his feelings over how things went down once the July 31 deadline passed.

Some of Ricciardi's best work, on the other hand, came in convincing Halladay to twice sign below market contract extensions, a key component in creating a competitive window that led to three good seasons from 2006 to 2008.

The cost-cutting measures he implemented upon his arrival were also nothing short of spectacular, as he managed to ease financial losses that were in excess of $70 million in 2001 in short order without fielding a 100-loss team.

And his drafts have produced Hill, Lind, Snider, Shaum Marcum, Jesse Litsch, Romero, Cecil, Rzepczynski and Purcey, which provides a good base for the team moving forward.

But his failure to find a way past the Yankees and Red Sox and into the post-season overshadowed that all.

To be fair, the financial disparities in the AL East nearly doubled over his eight-years. During that span, the Yankees spent $1.465 billion on player payrolls and Boston doled out $986 million. The Jays' total comes to $555 million, a little less than Baltimore ($560 million) and almost double what Tampa Bay has spent ($280 million).

The Yankees have had at least double the Blue Jays' payroll, twice had triple it, and once had four times their total. The Red Sox have always had at least a $30-million edge on the Blue Jays, with the gap ranging up to $80 million.

But Ricciardi arrived promising solutions to narrow the gap, and former president and CEO Paul Godfrey hired him to implement in Toronto the spendthrift success enjoyed by the Oakland Athletics, an approach glorified in the book "Moneyball."

Ricciardi, who was director of player personnel under Athletics GM Billy Beane, was actually the second choice. Paul DePodesta, an assistant to Beane, turned down the job for personal reasons, according to Godfrey. Other candidates for the job asked for an increase in payroll while Ricciardi said he could do better with less.

With the team needing to stop its crushing financial losses, he was handed the keys and shook up the place.

Veteran players were traded, longtime scouts were fired, other respected executives were pushed out or left as Ricciardi worked quickly to eradicate what was left of former GM Gord Ash's regime both in the front office and on the field. Some in the organization were irked by Ricciardi's penchant for speaking out about the track record of his predecessors.

"When you look at the Blue Jays over the last seven years, they have, in my opinion, spent a lot of money, and not spent it wisely," he said in the spring of 2002. "For all that payroll and signing of free agents and big contracts, their win-loss record averages out to 77-85 over the last seven years, and that's not good enough. "

"Fellas," he continued during his first spring training, "you wouldn't run your houses and your personal budgets like that, and we're no longer going to do it in Toronto."

Fans underwhelmed by Ash's tenure embraced the new approach early on and a surprisingly strong 2003 season -- 86 wins earned largely on the back of monster years from Carlos Delgado, Wells and AL Cy Young Award-winner Halladay -- made them believe even more.

Then came 2004, in which injuries rocked the roster to the point fielding a decent team was difficult and the squad finished two games under .500. Delgado departed via free agency after that season, freeing up some money, and Rogers gave Ricciardi an increased payroll commitment of $210 million for the following three seasons.

It is with that boost in payroll where some feel Ricciardi's reign turned.

After the 2005 season, Ricciardi set out to bolster the team with a dramatic series of moves. Closer Ryan was signed to a $47-million, five-year deal; starter A.J. Burnett got $55 million over five years, but had an opt-out clause after three years; first baseman Lyle Overbay was acquired in a trade from Milwaukee; third baseman Troy Glaus came over in a deal that sent fan favourite Orlando Hudson to Arizona.

In an instant, the Blue Jays were remade.

There were raised eyebrows about the size of the contracts -- plus one unexpected consequence. In outbidding his rivals for Ryan and Burnett, agents came to realize that Ricciardi's trademark aggressiveness in pursuing a player became something to exploit from across the negotiating table.

"I think he managed better with less money than more money," said Godfrey, who left the team a year ago. "When you suddenly have more money in your pant pocket, it starts to burn a hole there. As the payroll increased, the mistakes became much larger and much more obvious."

In 2006, Wells was given the $126-million extension and aging DH Frank Thomas was signed to an $18-million, two-year deal. And then before the 2008 season, Ricciardi gave Rios his big deal.

Most of the signings offered short-term gains and long-term pains.

Burnett invoked his opt-out clause at the worst possible time -- when injuries had decimated the rest of the starting rotation -- and joined the Yankees this year. Ryan gave the Blue Jays two good seasons, but never found his form after elbow surgery and was released last July a cost of $15 million. Thomas had a solid '07 season, but was released early in the 2008 to avoid the team picking up an expensive option for the next season.

While Ricciardi has been pilloried this year for the extensions given to the underperforming Wells and Rios, at the time they were signed the deals received wide praise and sent out an important message that homegrown stars could spend their entire careers with the Blue Jays.

But there are questions over his judgment in handing out those deals.

One source with knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity described Rios as a "a loafer who didn't love the game, and everyone knew that." Yet the right-fielder grew into an all-star in 2006 and '07 and seemed well on the way to better things -- so much so that the San Francisco Giants nearly traded away ace Tim Lincecum to get him.

After wrestling with the offer for a week after the '07 winter meetings the Giants opted to keep Lincecum, so Ricciardi decided to lock up Rios. The extension was announced on opening day '08, along with one for second baseman Aaron Hill -- a $12-million, four-year deal that looks like a great signing now.

Hill and left-fielder Lind are the first two impact players to be produced by a Ricciardi draft, and they both only broke out this season. That it took so long is another major knock the critics have on the GM, especially considering he arrived promising to revolutionize the team's drafting.

Ricciardi's focus on college draft picks who could make it to the majors faster than high schoolers became less effective over time. That trend was gaining traction around the game -- good ideas get mimicked quickly -- and suddenly finding value in college players was becoming tougher and tougher. And cutting themselves off from high-schoolers meant the Jays were choosing from a smaller pool of players than everyone else.

"I looked at the board (during the '04 draft) and thought, this got real thin, real fast," says Keith Law, an ESPN analyst who was a former assistant to Ricciardi before an acrimonious split in 2005. "Our approach isn't working any more, too many other teams are going all college, so all these guys who would have been there in the fifth, sixth, seventh round in previous years were gone after the fourth. "

"That's the point you've got to make the change, but the franchise didn't change until the '06 draft."

That was the year Snider, a high school outfielder, was taken with the 14th overall pick and he is being projected as the next franchise cornerstone.

Those who worked with Ricciardi say his reluctance to change tack on the draft is an indicative of his refusal to accept input. His foes have long contended that he surrounds himself with yes men and those outside his inner circle who disagree with him are usually shouted down.

As a result, one big-league scout says, the Blue Jays now have the worst farm system in the division, behind Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Boston and New York. Another talent evaluator puts the system in the bottom half of the majors.

The need to cut costs also meant the Jays went with a bare-bones scouting staff, something that changed when Beeston replaced Godfrey a year ago and began pumping more money into baseball operations.

That's of little solace to fans sick of so many years without a trip to the playoffs. And as if watching all the losing this year wasn't bad enough, some say Ricciardi destroyed any remaining goodwill and much of his credibility within the game with his public auctioning of Halladay in July. While dealing the ace may be the right move for the franchise, the angst created by a month of frenzied speculation that went for naught was for many the final straw.

That Halladay wasn't dealt suggests the team's ownership didn't think Ricciardi was up to the task of moving him. He made 42 trades, none really good, none really bad. Much like his time in charge of the Blue Jays.

"J.P. is right about one thing, it is a significant competitive disadvantage to work in that division," says Law. "They're going to have to out-GM and outsmart the other teams in the division, some of whom are very good run by good GMs with very good scouting departments. You've got to be one of the best drafting teams, one of the best scouting teams. "His tenure wasn't a failure, people who try to depict it as a failure I think are doing him a disservice. They had some very good years in a very tough division. They did do some things well ... (but) it's clear he's not going to build the 95-win team that's going to go the playoffs in the AL East. He's not the right guy for that."

J.P. Ricciardi (Photo: Rich Pilling/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Rich Pilling/Getty Images)
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