May 8, 2008
On April 20, before their game with the Detroit Tigers, the Toronto Blue Jays released veteran designated hitter Frank Thomas. Just two days prior, Jays manager John Gibbons had announced that Thomas' playing time would be reduced, which inspired a petulant reaction by Thomas. All this occurred against a backdrop of Thomas needing about 300 additional plate appearances to vest a 2009 contract option. Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi was insistent that the decision was about Thomas' performance and the team's expectation that he would not improve upon it, rather than the potential commitment, a case that was hard to take seriously when Rod Barajas and Robinzon Diaz occupied the Jays' DH slot over the next few days.
How has it all worked out? Well, let's look at some numbers. Through April 19, the Blue Jays were 9-9 and had scored 89 runs; since then, they've gone 8-9 while scoring 55, nearly two runs per game less. The Jays have gotten some amazing pitching and defense in their last 17 games, allowing just 51 runs in that span, including a seven-game stretch in which they allowed no more than three runs in any game. The problem is that they went 4-3 in those games, because they couldn't score.
Do they miss Thomas? His at-bats have gone to a mix of players, including the aforementioned Barajas and Diaz, but largely to Shannon Stewart and Adam Lind. While Matt Stairs has gotten most of the starts at DH, it is my contention that Stairs could have played even had Thomas not been released, taking Stewart's time in left field. The argument that Stewart should play for his glove is unacceptable-he has the one of the worst arms in the game and can't outrun his misreads any longer.
Here is what the three primary replacements for Thomas have done since April 20:
Now, Adam Lind needs to play and play often, but the Jays haven't done that. He played four straight games after his call-up, went 1-for-13, and played just twice in the seven games that followed, being sent down Wednesday in a roster crunch. It's yet another example of the team obsessing and then panicking over short-term performance as they flit wildly from one idea to the next. Shannon Stewart is playing terribly, but the Jays continue to run him out there rather than play the more talented Lind.
The Jays cut Frank Thomas because they thought, based on his last 40 plate appearances, that he was done. The A's snapped him up quickly and plugged him into their lineup, and in 55 PA for them he's hit .267/.400/.356. I'll skip over the obvious-Thomas has outplayed his replacements in Toronto-and hit the more important point: deciding Thomas was unable to contribute based on his last 10 games was a ridiculous thing to do. The Jays, averaging a shade over three runs per game in Thomas' absence, could have used his .400 OBP, even if it comes packaged in a station-to-station baserunner. They didn't get that benefit, which was as likely as any other outcome, because they overreacted to a slump.
Even had they been right-and Thomas' .356 SLG with the A's is evidence that they had a case-it was a questionable decision. It's not enough to decide that a player is done. You have to have a replacement on hand who is better than him, and the Jays didn't have that, they had the desiccated remnants of Shannon Stewart.
We're actually seeing a spate of these moves in MLB, the kind of thing where teams have almost internalized the concept of sunk costs, but not in a way that's helping them. See, one of the biggest mistakes teams can make-and this was almost always how things played out 15 years ago-is to play a player whose performance is hurting them because he has a guaranteed contract. Teams were loath to bench or release a player and pay him for not playing, even as his performance hurt their chance of success.
As an industry, baseball is better about this than it used to be. Set aside the Thomas move-where the vesting option messes with the equation-and look at the Matt Morris and Jacque Jones decisions. Look at the yelping in New York that the Yankees and Mets should both jettison their high-paid, underperforming first basemen. The idea that a team would cut loose a bad player and pay off the contract if it would improve the team on the field is no longer foreign. In the recent cases, however, that's not really in play, and in fact, the decision to release a player wastes an asset for no good reason.
The Jays released Thomas, committed to pay him the $7 million or so owed to him for the rest of the season, and left themselves with a hole in left field that could have been filled by the player who got the DH at-bats in his stead. They've been worse for the decision. The Pirates released Matt Morris, who was getting battered from pillar to post, but to what end? Morris' performances were coming for a team with no postseason chance, he wasn't replaced by a stud prospect (Phil Dumatrait took his rotation spot), and no money was saved. The Pirates could have elected to bury Morris in long relief for a few weeks in hope that he would rouse himself, make his way back and pitch well enough to yield something-anything-back at the trade deadline. Even a deal for a nonprospect might have saved the team $3 million. Releasing him didn't make the Pirates appreciably better, but it did cut off a path to salvaging something from the investment.
The same is true for the Tigers' decision to let Jones go. No, he wasn't playing well, but his range makes him an asset defensively, he could eventually provide lefty balance in a righty-heavy lineup, and if nothing else, he can be a defensive replacement for Gary Sheffield. The Tigers replaced him with Matt Joyce, a 23-year-old who didn't hit for two years and still found himself in Triple-A, where he had had a good month, but while striking out in 30 percent of his at-bats. Jones may not have been worth a lineup spot, but he certainly deserved a roster spot. Cutting him was shortsighted.
I was asked last night, on ESPN Radio here in New York, about Jason Giambi and Carlos Delgado, neither of whom is playing well so far this season. Both are in the final season of high-dollar contracts, so again, you have a sunk cost for one year. While releasing the players would sate the bloodlust that has become so much a part of baseball in Gotham, neither team has an acceptable substitute on hand. The Mets simply have no first-base options, while the Yankees have fan favorite Shelley Duncan, who's kind of Richie Sexson without the good years. You can't swing an ax wildly with no plan to stanch the blood flow after you hit something. "Platoon Marlon Anderson and Damion Easley" is not a plan.
It's not enough to identify a problem. It's not enough to grasp the concept of sunk costs. It's not enough to take an underperforming player out of the equation. You have to have a plan for what comes next, one that is better than the current situation. The Blue Jays didn't, and for their trouble, they've wasted one of the best run-prevention stretches any team will have all year by going 8-9, leaving them treading water in the AL East. Perhaps Frank Thomas wasn't the solution, but it has to be clear by now that he damn sure wasn't the problem.