After two seasons as a minor league player, J.P. Ricciardi became a coach in the Yankees’ system at age 23. He joined the A’s organization, climbing the ranks from minor league instructor, through multiple scouting positions, to director of player personnel under Billy Beane. Hired by the Blue Jays to be the team’s new general manager in November 2001, he’s now in the midst of a five-year contract extension that takes him through the 2007 season, after being offered the Red Sox job before Theo Epstein took over. Now in his third season with the Jays, Ricciardi has encountered both success (86-76 in ’03) and disappointment (last in the division this year). Ricciardi recently chatted with Baseball Prospectus about expectations for young players, picking the right manager, and more.
Baseball Prospectus: Like Theo Epstein in Boston (and Kevin Towers in San Diego), you’re a general manager with a significant scouting background who’s also known as being statistically-oriented. What elements of your scouting background serve you best in your everyday operations as GM?
Ricciardi: The most important thing you can have as a GM is your ability to evaluate. Everyday you evaluate someone, whether it’s a coach, a manager or a player–the players are obviously the most important. I think that’s my strength. That doesn’t mean you’re right all the time. It means you have to feel confident as far as the decisions you have to make.
BP: You talk about evaluation–what’s happened to Eric Hinske this season? He really seems to have regressed.
Ricciardi: I guess I’m in the minority here. I think there have been expectations here that are a little out of whack. We see Eric as a guy who’s going to hit .270 to .280, 20 home runs, 70 or 80 RBI. You want to have cost effectiveness for players who’re going to be here four, five years, and we’ve got that with Eric. You look at some of the other facets of his game–his on-base percentage has gone down, which is disappointing. But his defense has improved. I don’t look at him and see a disappointment. Expectations after you win Rookie of the Year sometimes just skyrocket through the roof.
BP: Speaking of expectations, what happened to Josh Phelps?
Ricciardi: When pitchers make adjustments to hitters, hitters have to make adjustments back. The ones who do that, survive. The ones who don’t, don’t have careers as long as they should. That’s not just Josh Phelps–that’s every player. Vernon Wells, Hinske–they’re finding out how pitchers are getting them out now, and they’re making adjustments to get better. Albert Pujols hit the ground running, and he’s never stopped. But most players have to just try to hang in there long enough. After a while some of them will take off, and some of them just go the other way.
BP: There’s been some good buzz about John Gibbons’ impact on the team, especially on young players, since he took over as manager. What prompted you to give him the interim job, and what are his chances for being the manager beyond this season?
Ricciardi: He’s calmed the clubhouse down. It’s a lot more of a relaxed atmosphere now, and the players appreciate that. He’s a very good communicator. He’s not going to be an MIT/Harvard guy with these guys, but he will communicate to a player from a baseball standpoint in a way where he can connect. He has the respect of the players, and they’ve played hard. We’re not judging him by wins and losses, given the situation. A lot of things will be happening the last few weeks of the season, but right now John’s a front runner to keep the job.
BP: Why didn’t it work out with Carlos Tosca?
Ricciardi: Carlos was given an opportunity here; I wouldn’t say he did a bad job. But after the two, two-and-half years he’d managed here, I didn’t feel he’d be the guy who’d take us where we needed to go. The team really wasn’t doing that well under him. I addressed how important it was that we get off to good start this year. Two years ago we dug a hole for ourselves right out of the gate; we had an unbelievable May, but that just got back to ground zero. June, July, August, September we played above .500, but we couldn’t get out of that hole. Coming out of spring training this year we wanted to be at least .500 the first few weeks, to keep our heads above water. We didn’t do that, then in May we were decimated with injuries, and it got worse from there.
BP: You’ve talked in the past about this, and so has Billy Beane: Your view is that it’s the manager’s job to execute your plan, rather than for him to implement his own plan. What are some of the elements of your plan that you want to see carried out? Are we talking more about in-game strategy, or areas such as helping the players prepare to play?
Ricciardi: It encompasses a lot of those things. On a budget like we have, you have to build your team certain way. There are certain things you have and others you don’t have. You can’t ask a team to do things when you don’t have the personnel to do them. It’s the equivalent of you drawing up a plan for a house. You want the dining room here, the family room here, the windows looking out at the mountain. Then the builder comes in and says, ‘we’re not going to do any of that stuff.’ You have to say, ‘this is my house, this is how I want it.’ We have core principles of how we want to attack situations, and our personnel is indicative of the team we have, and want to have.
Beyond that, the manager has to be someone who’s bright enough to stay within that general context, but also smart enough to say ‘we can get away from the usual strategy sometimes.’ I’m not a big fan of the bunt, because if you play for one run, you’re going to get one run. But in the 9th inning, you might be able to go for it, because all you need is one run. Or you may have a pitcher that you normally take out after the 6th inning. But if it’s the 6th and he’s cruisin’, leave him in.
BP: Does wanting a manager who’ll implement your plan mean you can’t or won’t hire a manager who may have been successful in the past with his own strategies, who brings a value-add? Someone like a Davey Johnson?
Ricciardi: I think Davey Johnson’s one of the best managers that I’ve ever seen. But I don’t know how many managers would want to come over here now, to go through a building process. Davey didn’t have to do much of that–how patient would that kind of manager be? Lou Piniella seems to vent that he’s a little frustrated at times in Tampa, and I think he’s a good manager. At that point in a manager’s life, with the ups and downs of a situation like ours, or Pittsburgh’s, or Cleveland’s a year or two ago–is a veteran guy going to be willing to go through all that?
BP: Cleveland’s been an interesting situation. Mark Shapiro talked about how Eric Wedge would come in in the mornings and sit in on meetings, be part of the process. Do you see that as the kind of idea that could help a team like the Jays, maybe getting the front office interacting more with Gibbons or whoever the manager is in the future?
Ricciardi: That’s letting the manager know what the thought process is behind certain decisions. We’ll ask John for his opinion on certain things, but we don’t sit there every time a decision comes up and wait to hear what the manager thinks. We don’t necessarily leave him out, but we also don’t want to tie up his time like that. Sometimes we just sit around like we’re on a street corner, throwing ideas around. And sometimes things happen fast, and we don’t have enough time to go through much of a process. One thing about both Eric Wedge, and John, is that both had been around the minors for a long time before they got managing jobs in the majors. I think that can be an advantage, in that they might understand the system and what we may be trying to do with some young players a little bit better.
BP: When Hinske and Wells both started their careers with strong seasons, you didn’t waste any time in giving them long-term contracts that bought out their arbitration years, and even some time before arbitration. What’s the value to the Jays in making this kind of deal without, for instance, also buying out some free agent seasons? What does a player need to demonstrate to earn that kind of contract?
Ricciardi: The number one thing for us is cost certainty. We’ll try and do this with players we like, at numbers that are going to fit for us. The arbitration process starts rewarding people quickly, and it sometimes rewards more for time in the big leagues than for ability. Then you add in what Wells and Hinske did to start their careers and the numbers would add up quickly.
Ultimately we like these players, and felt they’d be here, and we’d want them here, for those four, five years. These are manageable contracts, and they’re movable contracts too. If these guys go out and have career years, that becomes a steal for us. If they have years they’ve had this year, we’re still saving money–we believe they’re going to be able to produce. My contract’s only through 2007, and I just wanted to keep them as long as I’m here.
BP: That brings up a tricky point as a GM. General managers–and managers–never know how long their job is going to last, so you’ve only got so long to get players to produce. Does that put extra pressure on you to draft college players, and players who are generally going to be ready to contribute faster at the big league level, vs. high school players or international signings who may be projects that could take years to pan out?
Ricciardi: We’re very happy with a lot of the players we’ve brought in the last couple years. (Alexis) Rios and (Gabe) Gross have done a good job. (Russ) Adams, (Brandon) League even though he’s been hurt we’re happy with. (Aaron) Hill. Hill’s in Double-A, Adams is in Triple-A, (David) Bush made the big leagues in two years. With a high school kid it takes longer…
BP: …Well, what about the possibility of taking the high school player as the best talent available and using him as a trade chip in two, three years?
Ricciardi: It’s really rare that you’re going to see a high school player that good that he’ll be a good trade chip in two years–maybe an Upton or Kazmir, but not much beyond that. No offense to Gord Ash, but he drafted Rios, and he doesn’t get to enjoy Rios. If I get things things ready for someone else, I want to at least make sure my guys get up and I get to enjoy them a little bit.
I don’t think any GM has a lifetime contract. I want to do the best job I can do in the fastest amount of time of possible. You’re balancing development with getting players to the majors as fast as possible. Once our system becomes stocked and self-sufficient, then we can draft more high school kids who don’t have to be here inside of three years.
Coming soon, Part II of BP’s Q&A with J.P. Ricciardi, including the challenges of working with a limited payroll, the personal sacrifices that come with the GM job, and the one player Ricciardi would want in a key defensive situation. Hint: Rhymes with Shmerek Shmeter.