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June 18, 2007

Prospectus Today

Seeing Red Instead of Blue About the Jays

by Joe Sheehan

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"We've made a lot of progress in player projection, but there aren't 20 players in all of organized baseball I can point to and say, 'they're going to be good for the next five years.' There certainly aren't five pitchers about whom I can make that claim. The Jays have made a $100-million bet that they've identified two, and given that this is an organization that has shown a persistent inability to identify its problems or acquire reasonable solutions, I have no reason to think that they know something about Ryan and Burnett that no one else does. The likelihood, the strong likelihood, is that the Jays are going to be paying these two guys $24 million or so in 2010 for something like 88 innings of 5.12 ball."
-- Joe Sheehan, December 6, 2005

I try to limit my self-checks to a couple a year. I get a lot of things wrong, and while I can generally go back and stand by my in-the-moment analysis, spending your days looking backwards instead of forward is a good way to end up going in that direction.

Today, however, is a good time to remember that the Jays' signing of the J's in Dallas 18 months ago was a bad idea at the time, and looks like a bad one today. A.J. Burnett looks like he's headed back to the Disabled List, which will be his third time there as a Blue Jay. He'll join B.J. Ryan, who is out for the year following Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow. The two pitchers will combine to make $17 million this year (the two contracts included a whopping $16 million in signing bonuses), and so far have the following line: 4.39 ERA in 94 1/3 innings, 1.9 WARP.

Last year, the two threw 208 good innings-Ryan was one of the two best relievers in the AL-and posted a 3.07 ERA and 11.9 WARP, while earning just $7 million in the first year of their back-loaded deals. This wasn't entirely a surprise; the problems with the signings had nothing to do with what the pitchers could be expected to do in 2006, but with their risk profiles for the balance of their contracts. After this year, the two will combine to make $22 million a year in each season from 2008 through 2010, and it's anyone's guess if they will be able to even be as productive as they were in 2006 ever again. Burnett is in his ninth major league season, and it's likely that it will be his eighth without making 30 starts, and his seventh without throwing 200 innings. Even at his dominant best, Ryan was a one-pitch pitcher whose delivery all but screamed, "surgery ahead!"

None of this is 20-20 hindsight. This was all in play on December 1, 2005, before J.P. Ricciardi committed $102 million of Rogers Communications money to two pitchers who were bad risks. It's not the first time Ricciardi has made big contract commitments that didn't produce much value. In the spring of 2003, he signed reigning Rookie of the Year Eric Hinske and center fielder Vernon Wells to five-year contracts that covered their arbitration seasons. Both moves were hailed as proactive, the kind of aggressive commitment to in-house talent that is a hallmark of good organizations. I praised the deals, and I'd do so again. As it turned out, though, Hinske immediately went into the tank, beating his rookie SLG once since, and his OBP not at all. Wells had two MVP-range seasons wrapped around two in which his glove carried his bat. The Jays may have saved some money with the commitments, but it's hard to argue that the signings made much difference on the field. The Blue Jays weren't serious contenders once in the period covered by those contracts.

The disconnect between the on-field results and what was happening off the field is jarring. Ricciardi lowered payroll in his first few years in Toronto, and coupled with greater revenue sharing, helped the Jays into the black. He was rewarded for this with a contract extension that runs through 2010, matching the Burnett and Ryan terms. On the field, though, the Jays are in disarray, with few Ricciardi-era homegrown players making contributions, scores of millions wasted on free agents, and 2007 shaping up as yet another lost season.

The Jays haven't been relevant past Labor Day since Cito Gaston was in the dugout, and a peek at the 25-man roster shows just Aaron Hill, Casey Janssen, and Shawn Marcum as farm products acquired since 2002 having a positive impact in big league ballgames. Ricciardi famously complained about the payrolls of the Yankees and Red Sox in 2006, but both of those teams have produced more talent internally in the last few years than the Jays have. Until you can point to more than Aaron Hill and Shawn Marcum, complaining about payroll differences is just whining.

The line of demarcation appears to be 2004. The Jays came into that season expecting to contend for the Wild Card, and posssibly even the AL East crown. An endless series of injuries destroyed those plans and led to a 67-94 finish. The problem wasn't with the underlying plan, which was solid-the 2004 Blue Jays were simply snakebit, losing most of the lineup for 20 or more games, ace Roy Halladay for 10 weeks, and seeing their bullpen implode at midseason. It was an off year, not an indictment of the plan.

Ricciardi got off track that winter, and has never recovered. The signing of over-the-hill third baseman Corey Koskie cost the team its 2005 first-round pick (Ed. Note: this is wrong; signing Koskie cost the Jays their second-round pick.--JSS), made an already crowded infield situation worse, and did absolutely nothing to change the team's chances of making the postseason. The Koskie signing cost just $15 million, but it marked a change in Ricciardi's approach, and eventually would lead to the ill-conceived Orlando Hudson deal and, by extension, the $102-million folly.

Near the end of the 2004 season, J.P. Ricciardi was the target of a lot of ill-conceived criticism for the results on the field. In his first three seasons as the Jays' GM, he had made a lot of good decisions and put the team on a track that should have led to success, but a spate of injuries and some bullpen issues made the Jays look a lot worse than they were.

Now, in mid-2007, the results on the field haven't changed, but the process is indefensible. Ricciardi is no longer a young GM inheriting a tough situation, he's a six-year veteran who doesn't make good decisions and doesn't produce results in spite of himself. The Blue Jays are a 76-win team with 84-win talent, an inflated payroll, an aging roster, and a poor farm system. They don't do anything well, and the franchise cornerstones, Wells and Halladay, are exiting their primes without ever having played in a postseason game. Ricciardi's job security is incongruous-hey, Ted, not only is the emperor naked, but the body ain't much to look at.

I had to do a lot of editing to realize that I shouldn't be doing that job. There's no shame in recognizing the limits of your skills, and focusing on the things you do well. J.P. Ricciardi may be one hell of a scout, able to spot talent and evaluate the relative merits of baseball players with his eyes. What he may not be able to do is run a baseball team from the GM's office. The accumlation of evidence that we have-his decisions, his processes, the results-over nearly six years is convincing.

As A.J. Burnett heads to the DL for the third time in 18 months with the Blue Jays, and B.J. Ryan slides over to make room for his highly-paid teammate, it's time to at least ask the question-what is it that Ted Rogers is paying for through the end of 2010?

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

Related Content:  A.J. Burnett,  The Who,  J.P. Ricciardi

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