Sunday, July 26, 2009

Jays need a 'Halladay' from Ricciardi

Several years ago, I was a Cub Scout leader at the local group (or “Pack” as we called them, because the organization we commonly call “Cub Scouts” are officially known as “Wolf Cubs”). We would hold several camps and at these camps there would obviously be a campfire and skits. One of these skits involved three or four people, with one of the actors playing a “used brain” salesman. One by one, the other actors would go to the salesman to buy a used brain (which were the brains of people in the group, and if the kids were the actors, the used brains were those of the leaders). The first few used brains would go for small prices, usually $10 or $20, but the final one would be much more expensive. The cost of that brain would be $1 million, to which the buyer would inquire why that person’s used brain is that expensive. Then the salesman would utter the punchline- “because it’s never been used”.

Sometimes I wonder if Toronto Blue Jays General Manager J.P. Ricciardi’s brain is one of those million-dollar brains.

During the Canada Day/Independence Day weekend, Ricciardi shocked the baseball world by saying that he would “listen” to offers made to acquire the Jays’ legendary ace Roy Halladay in a trade. Previously it was thought that Halladay would have been untouchable, being the “one-of-a-kind” generational talent that one could never expect to fully replace in a trade. Yet without actually outright declaring he would be dealt, Ricciardi opened the door for a trade, even if it is open just a crack.

The merits of such a trade have been a matter of debate since Ricciardi decided to open his mouth. On one side, Halladay is one of- if not the- best pitcher in the majors and likely a sure-fire Hall of Famer; so one wonders if the Jays can actually adequately replace him. On the other hand, the Jays have posted an abysmal 20-37 mark since an oft-mentioned 27-14 start, a .350 winning percentage. Extrapolated over the entire season, the Jays’ mark would only be better than the Washington Nationals, definitely not company Toronto had envisioned when the season began.

Thus Ricciardi probably believes the season is a wash and believes that Toronto is firmly a seller in 2009, putting Halladay at the top of the display case. Furthermore, Halladay’s contract ends in 2010, so the thinking may go that with the ship sinking and the market for a rental typical lower than a player with time left on his contract, “now” may be the best time to make a trade. However, Ricciardi also knows he can’t actively sell his franchise player, as such a move would receive the scorn of fans and lower Halladay’s trade value, since teams know they wouldn’t need much enticing to pry a Halladay they *know* is available. So in insinuating that Halladay is available, Ricciardi saves face by not appearing to actively shop his best player (making only the most gullible of Jays fans believe that Halladay is actually sticking around) and forcing teams to make quality offers for the Jays’ star pitcher, since Halladay isn’t “officially” on the market. Of course, it also means that if Ricciardi accepts a lowball offer he would receive more blame than he would if he was forced to trade Halladay, since it appeared he would only accept a “quality” offer for the player.

I need not now discuss the market for Halladay, since it’s already being hotly debated around the baseball world and, of course, there are no shortage of suitors for the Toronto ace. Instead, this is about declaring the ordeal- regardless of whether or not Halladay is actually moved- as undoubtedly Ricciardi’s lowest moment as GM, which says a lot for a GM whose reign spans almost the entirety of Halladay’s major league career. Presumably, Halladay is the kind of player teams are built around and the admission that the team wants to trade him (however slight) is the admission that, all along, the team failed to adequately support Halladay’s talents. No longer can Ricciardi argue that his moves are part of “a plan”- when you’re so much as hinting at trading away the man you’re supposed to be building around, you’re making a new plan, no matter how you swing at it.

What, then, *was* Ricciardi’s original plan, the one that did not work so well? It’s very hard to figure out, since it seemed almost on a yearly basis the team was turning over talent, rarely doing as much as keeping the core intact year to year. What is known is that since Ricciardi took over, he hasn’t groomed a single player through the Jays’ minor league ranks to an elite-level talent. The Jays’ top players- except for Alex Rios and perhaps Aaron Hill (neither being elite talents, and Hill will need more time for evaluation lest 2009 be a “flukey” year)- are all either trade or free agent acquisitions (Scott Rolen, Lyle Overbay, Marco Scutaro, Rod Barajas) or present from before Ricciardi’s tenure with the Jays (Halladay and Vernon Wells). Ricciardi’s continuing answer to all of Toronto’s problems is apparently by making a big free agent signing or trade instead of growing the player from within, a policy that makes the team look great on paper but has led to more disappointments than successes (e.g. David Eckstein, Frank Thomas). From one year to the next Toronto’s playing style differs dramatically, as the Jays’ coaching staff is continually asked to adjust to a carousel of player changes every season, which is small wonder why they ultimately fail. Ricciardi does not appear to grasp the fundamentals of team building- he needs to decide what kind of team Toronto is and acquire players that fit that mould, not constantly change the feathers because a big name is available. The success of the Rays hinges on the fact that they understand the “team” concept- the players they have are all fast and aggressive, either on the mound or offensively, and any player they acquire fit into that mould. Tampa Bay is also not afraid to develop players just so they can ensure players rising through their system are brought up learning “the Tampa Bay way of doing things”. It may have taken them a long time to accomplish that task but at least the team is patient enough to see that process through. Ricciardi, on the other hand, panics when he sees a hole in the ship, deciding a wooden plank is sufficient when he’s steering it right into the iceberg.

Thus, this is another call for the Blue Jays to make the right decision and send Ricciardi on his way. One could hope a Halladay deal could signal a change in the course of Blue Jay thinking and get Toronto to start properly developing players but with Ricciardi’s extensively poor track record, there’s hardly a reason to believe the next few years are going to play out any differently. The Jays need a GM who knows what kind of team he wants to build and is unafraid to build that kind of team, even if it means passing up on a big name acquisition. Only then will all the “hope” Ricciardi has been promising be delivered, because then there’d actually be something one could plant a realistic hope for.