April 1, 2004
Can Of Corn
Shifting the Paradigm
I've been a shrill and frequent critic of the Toronto Star's Richard Griffin, who falls all over himself to impugn the Blue Jays and J.P. Ricciardi's regime. Griffin is constantly bleating about how Ricciardi and his forward-thinking charges are working to undermine and displace traditional scouts and their hard-won wisdom. Heretofore, I've insisted that Griffin's grousing has been nothing more than a crotchety resistance to innovation and evolving business practices. Heretofore, I've defended the emergent organizational strategies found in front offices like Toronto's and others. Heretofore, the vicissitudes have been reasonable and devoid of undue hostility toward entrenched methods.
But a press release that buzzed off my fax machine yesterday changed all that. Griffin's neo-luddite misgivings have been spot-on, but the blind embrace of progress in corners like this one is ruefully complicit in what's now happening in Toronto.
In a paradigm shift that will drop jaws around the league, the Blue Jays have eliminated all amateur scouting positions within the organization. Instead, for the past few weeks, they've relied on prospective draftees to conduct scouting assessments of themselves.
Yes, you read that correctly. The Blue Jays, in their unquenchable search for the grail of minimized labor costs, will rely on the player to scout himself. Ricciardi, in the press release, provided a saccharine quotation (most likely penned by a media-relations intern) on the new approach to traditional scouting: "We like to believe the players we're targeting are very self-aware and capable of assessing their own strengths and limitations."
That's a boilerplate response--exactly what you get in press releases. Dissatisfied with this explanation, I phoned a highly placed exec within the Blue Jays organization and pressed him for a heartier rejoinder. "It's about dollars," he said. "We can have these players scout themselves, or we can continue to pony up for $35,000 salaries, expense accounts and refurbished '88 Crown Vics purchased from highway patrol auctions for every scout under our employ. Which sounds more cost-effective to you?"
And that's really the question. To better answer it, I asked to see one of the self-scouting reports that had been turned in to the organization. The one they submitted to me was written by Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew, who, by all accounts, will be a high pick in the June draft. Of course, Drew was evaluating Stephen Drew. Here's what he wrote:
Category Present Future Hitting Righteous! Pay this man! Power Bad Ass! Top pick! Speed Wow! Worth millions! Maybe billions? Throwing Yes! Very poor...on opposite day! LOL! Fielding Rock Music! Check yourself!
Comments: Handsome, powerful and destined for greatness. Don't be the fool that passes on this incredible talent. It wouldn't surprise me if your ass got fired for passing on Stephen Drew. Don't make a fool of yourself by offering him less than $15 million and a major league contract. Rumor has it that scouting directors who pass on Drew, who's a bad ass, will be declared illegal combatants and transported immediately to Gitmo. If you don't believe me, just ask me. Millions, I said.
As you can see from the above report, allowing players to scout themselves doesn't yield information that can be described as impartial or useful by even the most pliant of standards. But the executive insists that incentive plans are in place to ensure that players demonstrate a modicum of detachment when making these evaluations of themselves. The incentive plans, another source tells me, consists of gift bags that include a Labatt's koozie, Syracuse Sky Chiefs souvenir air freshener, Lorne Greene bobblehead, hand towel and Ricciardi-autographed pair of Oleg Cassini tassled loafers.
That's not all that's in the offing. R & D work is underway on a crosschecking robot that will follow up on the scouting legwork of the players. Called Slappy 9000, the robot is what one Jays exec describes as "sort of an unholy cross-pollination of Dallas Green, Max Headroom, a Cuisinart and Dean Acheson."
Sensing my skepticism, the exec continues: "Now I realize that one of those names seemingly has no place in a successful baseball organization, but you must remember that Dallas Green managed a team to a World Series victory."
Sounds reasonable, but what if it doesn't work? Will the Jays backpedal and reinstate their scouting staff should this new tack fail?
No, says a highly placed official with MLB. "We think this is a market correction," comments the official. "If it turns out that self-administration of scouting techniques and robotic scouting solutions like the Slappy 9000 don't work as planned, we won't recommend that teams regress to the days of bloated scouting staffs. In such an event, we'll recommend that they outsource those duties to our Bombay fulfillment center."
Even so, MLB surely sees the inherent inefficiencies in having players, who have undeniable monetary incentives (incentives that far outweigh the value of the Blue Jay gift bags) to lie about their own abilities, evaluate themselves?
"If everyone's lying," says the MLB official, "isn't everyone, in a sense, telling the truth?"
"But don't you-"
"Whatever you're about to ask," the MLB official admonished me, "I feel sure it will be reprehensible journalism."
Fair enough. But the cautions of Griffin, Tracy Ringolsby and others are no longer to be laughed off. Things are changing, and, for once, I feel certain it will be to the detriment of the game.