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August 31, 2004

Prospectus Q&A

J.P. Ricciardi, Part II

by Jonah Keri

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Continuing from Part I of the discussion...

Baseball Prospectus: With an established, elite player like Carlos Delgado, you come to expect a certain range of production. With the benefit of hindsight now, was there anything that suggested he might fall off as sharply and suddenly as he has? What can you do when something like that happens with a player like Delgado, and you can't do anything about it because of a no-trade clause?

J.P. Ricciardi: Well, obviously that contract was signed before I got here. When you're paying someone a lot a of money, a lot is expected of that player. Carlos last year had the season you're hoping to see every year when you're paying that kind of money. When he falls short of that, (the contract) becomes a bigger burden. When a player in that situation is not producing, it goes to show you how bad an investment like that can be. If you go back to what we talked about with (Eric) Hinske and (Vernon) Wells, there's a lot more affordability there, and we're not asking them to be Delgado.

BP: Given the difficulty you've had in dealing Delgado, but also some of the sticking points in the past with say, the A's not willing to budge on a no-trade clause for Jason Giambi a few years ago, what's your stance on giving out no-trade clauses in the future?

Ricciardi: It will be highly unlikely that we'll give a no-trade clause to a player going forward.

BP: Assuming Carlos Delgado does not return to Toronto, is Eric Crozier going to be the answer at first base?

Ricciardi: I don't want to get into a situation where we're playing so many kids, unless we're suddenly told we're going to have a $38 million payroll. We struck out way too much this year; we have to get guys in there who are going to solidify the lineup, put the ball in play more. This year we went the whole second half without Halladay, we had injuries, we had so many guys have off years. But we're encouraged. We feel like baseball has become a little like the NFL, where you can go 3-13, then make the playoffs the next year. Look at what Cleveland's done, what Texas has done. At the same time, there's no stairway to heaven, and we realize sometimes we have to take steps backward before we go forward.

BP: What are your off-season priorities? You mentioned possibly first base--what about shortstop, DH, starting pitcher? Do you plan on going after an ace reliever?

Ricciardi: We're open-minded, but we have to see what kind of budget we get from ownership before we move forward. Rios is going to be fine, Wells, (Orlando) Hudson, Hinske too. We have (Russ) Adams coming, so we can be a little flexible there, but an everyday shortstop would be good. My ideal wish list would have two, three more bats, a first baseman and a DH, depending on what happens with Delgado. We'd get another starter, and address the bullpen. It may end up that we get two guys for the pen, no starter, two but not three bats. You have to keep in mind that Halladay's contract kicks in, Wells and Hinske too. We'll have some money, but it's not like all of a sudden we'll have $20 million to work with.

BP: One of our pet projects at Baseball Prospectus is roster construction, trying to find ways to be more efficient in allocating talent. Do you see areas where the Blue Jays can look to go against traditional roles--whether it's a closer being used in different ways, or platooning, or moving away from situational left-handers--if it will help the ballclub?

Ricciardi: In our case, we have so many holes, we have to be as creative as possible. I'd like to get a pitcher who can go more than one inning late in the game. Keith Foulke is the perfect guy for that, he really gives you more bang for the buck. With situational left-handers, unless you can afford to have to have them, they can become something of a luxury item. It really depends on your club. If we were a playoff club, it'd be important to have situational left-hander. But in our situation, we're just looking to get more guys out. We're cost-driven, and that's how we have to run our business.

BP: There's been some anecdotal evidence--Barry Bonds, Luis Gonzalez--and plenty of discussion about players' peak ages skewing upward in recent years. Do you think the peak age range has shifted? If so, does this make six-year major league free-agent signings more attractive, especially if you're considering offering a long-term deal to a player who's over 30? Or do you worry you could end up with a situation like the Yankees now have with Giambi not being productive, and his big contract?

Ricciardi: I think Giambi will be fine, he'll bounce back and hit. A lot of the guys playing this game, they're playing well into their early-30s, even late-30s. In general, guys are playing longer. Look at the Red Sox. They have a bunch of guys who are 33, 34, 35--they don't look like they're slowing down at all.

BP: Given some of the trouble the Jays have had scoring runs this year, could you envision going more toward a run-prevention style of play, where pitching and defense become the main points you emphasize? The A's seem to have gone that way, and it looks like it's working out for them...

Ricciardi: You're being kind with the offense (laughs). But the one thing you learn in this job is that you almost have to be a work in progress every year. I don't think you'd find anyone in baseball who'd have told you we'd hit like we've hit this year. Pitching in this game is gold--it's just so hard to get. When you don't have it, you try to build your team up as much as possible to get through. Last year we tried to hit our way through games, like Texas and Cleveland are doing this year. There are no guarantees on offense: Last year we were second or third in many categories. So we figured we'd maybe be sixth or seventh this year. We worked to improve our pitching, and we've been better there. We're second in the league in defense (fielding percentage). But we can't draw walks or get on base.

It's baffled us, because nothing would have led us to believe we'd do this. Pitching has enabled us to get through some of the rough times. But if you don't draw walks and hit balls in the seats, you're not going to win. Tampa led the league in stolen bases last year--look where it got them.

BP: As more teams start to catch on to simple ideas such as on-base percentage being a desired commodity among hitters, what are some other areas where you feel you'll be able to exploit the market and find value?

Ricciardi: We're still working on that, to be honest with you. We're still trying to find areas that are undervalued. It still comes down to evaluation. Some players may not play well at a certain place or at a certain position, so maybe you can bring that player into a different situation, and he'll be successful for you. We're always looking for opportunities like that.

BP: One area where it seems like you may have found an edge is going after some undervalued pitchers. A traditional club might look at raw stuff, a stats-oriented team might look at things like strikeout-to-walk ratio. But you've gone out and signed pitchers like Miguel Batista, guys who have low home run rates who can get a lot of groundballs. Is that one neglected area you feel can be exploited?

Ricciardi: We do look for pitchers who don't give up many home runs, sure, but in a lot of ways we can't be choosy. Sometimes we may have to go for a pitcher who may give up a few more homers. Our resource base is limited as far as which players we can get. Guys like Javy Vazquez--we're not going to get those guys. A player may have this one blemish, but we still want to go out and get him. When we looked at Batista, we said 'How do we replace (Kelvim) Escobar's innings? Can we find someone to be as good as Escobar, for a lower price?' We saw that Batista's numbers looked very comparable. Now for $2.5 million less, we feel like we replaced Escobar.

BP: Batista's a player that you did give a long-term contract to, when he was over 30. Do you see pitchers having a different development curve than hitters?

Ricciardi Pitchers are a lot like field goal kickers: They may kick around with a lot of teams, and then eventually they get it. At an early age, a lot of them might try to throw through a lot of their mistakes, use their natural attributes. They don't learn how to pitch until they get hurt, or fail. Very few guys come into this game and just take off. Pitchers who do get it, they may figure it out some time between 28 and 32. There are too many guys who keep popping up, who get better as they get older; it really has to lead you to believe that pitchers tend to get better as they get older.

BP: Obviously a pitcher's health plays a big role in all of that. What's the Jays' stance on the best way to keep pitchers healthy? Is it things like monitoring pitch counts, or more about using your eye?

Ricciardi: If a guy's in the seventh inning and he's at 140 pitches or the fifth inning with 120 pitches, there's definitely something's wrong. But if he's at 110 in the eighth inning, he might be OK to keep going. I don't think it's that you're monitoring pitch counts that way, where you hit a magic number and you have to take the guy out no matter what. You can just watch the game and tell if a guy's struggling or cruising. Then you make adjustments as the year goes on, maybe give a pitcher an extra day's rest here and there as the season gets deeper in. You have to use common sense.

Coming soon, Part III, where Ricciardi tackles the Derek Jeter debate, dealing with unfriendly media, and his future as a GM.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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