Blue Jays Mediocrity Wasn’t Ricciardi’s Fault

by Gordon Watkin | Posted on Friday, June 24th, 2016
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Toronto Blue Jays fans adore Edwin Encarnacion’s “Edwing”, and undoubtedly will never let go of the  Bautista bat-flip heard around the world. Two players acquired an executive who is loathed so strongly, fans and journalists alike will not even accredit the acquisitions of the aforementioned players to the rightful owner. The decision maker was J.P. Ricciardi, and the purpose of this article is to provide insight into why he is not the inept, franchise doom-sayer Jay’s fans often depict. In fact, many cogs in the Blue Jays lineup today are there because of Ricciardi.

November 14, 2001 marks a significant day in Blue Jays history. It was on this day J.P Ricciardi, a young assistant GM to Billy Beane was handed the keys to Canada’s only Major League club; a position he kept until 2010. Public opinion is always predicated on some sort of bias – that is how sports stories come to be. However, it is our obligation as sport writers and consumers alike, to be self-informed and develop our own perceptions – outlooks that are not manifested for us by third party sources. The irony of Ricciardi’s tenure is the selective arguments used by Blue Jays fans to support their claims of him being the worst executive the club has ever employed, all done while overlooking the obvious evidence in front of them supporting that he did the club more favors than not.

This sentiment has surfaced because of contracts given to Vernon Wells, Troy Glaus, B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett in conjunction with missing opportunities to select future superstars in the entry draft. In addition to the ineptitude shown in the B.J. Ryan contract in particular, there was no bigger bust than Russ Adams, whom the Jays opted for ahead of players like Scott Kazmir, Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain. To add insult to injury, this was Ricciardi’s first draft, Russ Adams had an abysmal career and fans have never forgiven Ricciardi since. I look at a major draft miss as the Minnesota Timberwolves having two consecutive picks (5th and 6th overall), opting for Ricky Rubio and Johnny Flynn, all while passing on a kid from Davidson named Steph Curry. Retrospect is blissful, but in the grander scheme teams obviously do not miss on prospects intentionally. I understand that is a basketball reference, but when you select two consecutive prospects ahead of the NBA’s first unanimous MVP, it typically stands out. The reality is any entry-level draft has a political backdrop that makes the entire process a complete crap-shoot of favours, secret hand-shakes and empty promises. While it is only fair for argument’s sake to acknowledge the Adams draft bust, Ricciardi was also the at the helm when Aaron Hill, Ricky Romero (showed great promise before injuries and inconsistency derailed his career) and James Paxton were selected in the first round.

Criticized for resigning and overpaying Vernon Wells

Let’s talk about Vernon Wells, and the mega-deal that he received from Ricciardi. In 2006, the Toronto Blue Jays resigned Vernon Wells, who at the time was a premier all-around talent in Center, and along with Roy Halladay were faces of the organization. The terms of the deal were massive; 7 years and $126 Million. The deal also included a full no-movement clause, and incentives tallying over 1.5 million dollars annually should Wells have achieved specific statistical thresholds. At the time, the deal was the 6th largest in the sport (behind Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Todd Helton), and to that point was the largest in team history. Was this deal fair? Did Toronto overpay? Did JP’s “incompetence” rear its supposed ugly head? In both the short and long term, I believe the answer to be no. Wells was coming off a season which he hit .303 with 32 HRs and 106 RBI and comparatively speaking was rivaled by very few other players defensively at his position, or overall for that matter. Furthermore, the deal is wrongfully judged based on injuries that plagued Wells following the extension, subsequently sapping him of his productivity, and limited the Jays roster flexibility because of the extensive stake of the team’s payroll going to Wells. While V-Dub didn’t necessarily miss an abundance of games, nagging injuries to his right thumb, right knee and left shoulder all leeched his power, and productivity. The effects of such degeneration are felt, because Wells was the center-piece of a top-heavy, shallow lineup.
On the contrary, what would have happened if Wells had left? Would JP be the man who let a Blue Jay legend walk away? Rumours at that time had Wells returning home to Texas or jumping town to join rival New York. Had he played in another uniform, continued his career trajectory and helped another franchise win a World Series, would the attitude have changed? Most likely not – JP provided a face, a scapegoat for the prior, frugal ownership group to blame the organization’s inability to spend from its bottomless monetary resource pool and invest in talent development and recruitment.

Criticism Surrounding the Re-Signing of Alex Rios

Then came Alex RiosRicciardi did not draft Rios in 1998, but he and many other baseball people were infatuated by his upside. Standing at 6 ft. 5 inches tall, a loose, strong throwing arm, and possessing line-drive power that was said to have elite home-run upside for a corner outfielder should some loft be added to the swing. What isn’t to love? That sounds like Jason Heyward to an informed baseball fan, and he just received 186 Million, new baseball economics or not. Now 35, Rios never reached the elite ceiling that scouts salivated over less than a decade prior, however he has evolved into an above-average major league Right Fielder. The arm stayed strong and his speed developed further than most had predicted, however the power never truly manifested itself for Rios. Marred by inconsistency, and not completely able to perfect the mechanical aspects of his swing, the results have been mixed to say the least. In 2008, the Blue Jays announced the re-signing of the Puerto Rican, with the pact being worth 6 years and $76 Million. The deal was on the heels of a home-run derby invitation, which Rios performed horribly in.

Many considered the deal to be reasonable, but a bit of a gamble given the inconsistencies shown by Rios to that point, but 24 homeruns, 85 RBI and a premier throwing arm are often difficult to overlook. Additionally, the fact Rios expressed extended interest in remaining within Toronto’s city limits, is also attractive to a team that in the past struggled to sell Free-Agents on increased taxes they’d have to pay to play in Canada. Context dictates that the deal in that moment was not horrible at all, in fact coming two years after Vernon Wells, many believed that both Rios and Wells were the future of the Toronto order. Less than two full seasons concluding the deal, Rios was waived and claimed by the Chicago White Sox, with a player to be named later being sent to the Jays. The departure seemingly taints the overall perception of the extension, and had the deal worked out Ricciardi’s next transaction would never have happened, and Toronto would be deprived of its heroic son.

Trades Robinson Diaz for Jose Bautista, and Scott Rolen for Edwin Encarnacion

August 21st, 2008 the Toronto Blue Jays added an all-time great to their lineup. The deal sent then right handed platoon player Jose Bautista, to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for a player to be named later. The player ended up being Robinson Diaz, a minor league catcher who has yet to crack a Major League roster. Bautista that season was abysmal, however he showed a flash of his raw power against the Jay’s in June earlier that year, hitting a pair of towering home runs against Toronto. The rest is history, as Bautista has slugged and thrown his way into the hearts of Jays fans young and old, entrenching Joey Bats amongst the greatest Blue Jay alumni.

Scott Rolen was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Troy Glaus (another Ricciardi signing, who had mixed results in Toronto due to injury). Rolen played exceptionally well for his age, but ultimately the attrition battle that is baseball, defeated Rolen. Age began to creep up, while his range, throwing arm and intangibly every hitting skill began to plummet. In exchange for his deteriorating asset, Ricciardi pulled the trigger on a trade sending Rolen to the Cincinnati Reds for a young free-swinging third base prospect named Edwin Encarnacion, who was playing with his brother at the time in Ohio. The risks were obvious, a vicious uppercut and a free-swinging mentality. Strikeout totals were high, on base percentages were low, but the power upside was abundantly clear. Edwin has developed a resume much like Bautista, one that doesn’t need further explanation to validate.

Hiring of Cito Gaston

Yeah, he brought Cito back. Not only was Gaston returned to his undeniable baseball roots but he is directly responsible for suggesting the high-leg kick in Bautista’s swing. The small tweak that unleashed a monster. Organizations thrive as much on culture and the compilation of mindsets and attitudes as they do the skill and talent. The foresight to make a minor alteration, that seemingly unlocked one of baseball’s best kept secrets at the time, is a stroke of genius. The lineage cannot be questioned:

  1. Ricciardi hires Gaston
  2. Ricciardi trades for Bautista.
  3. Bautista + Cito Gaston + Cito Gaston’s mechanical alterations = Bautista’s emergence as a MONSTER.

Loyalty to John Gibbons

John Gibbons looks the perfect part of an MLB manager; he’s short and stout in stature, has a southern drawl, occasionally chews tobacco, and literally requires a commercial break’s time to reach the mound from the dugout. He is loved by his players, and has been known as an excellent facilitator of team chemistry. However, Gibbons is an “old school” guy, who goes about his lineups and business in a much similar sense. Veterans will always get priority, and while Gibbons enjoys passion and flare from his players, he has shown moments of being annoyed with antics by Blue Jay and opposing players alike. Gibbons was hired by Ricciardi, and the late GM always marvelled about the skip’s ability to manage a bullpen, at times dubbing him as an elite bullpen manager who can leverage match-ups well. This was the Oakland way, this was JP’s way. This was supposed to be the methodology that allowed a then “budget team” like Toronto to use undervalued talent to compete in the insanely competitive AL East.

As the team trekked annually in mediocrity, JP stood by his colleague and friend but was eventually obligated to fire John Gibbons on the 20th of June 2008. Ricciardi to this day describes this as being one of the toughest management decisions he has ever made, and ironically the club reconciled with the manager. Ironic is the choice word, as for years fans ridiculed both Gibbons and Ricciardi, often calling for both their heads to roll. There was no bigger skeptic of Ricciardi than Bob McCown, who frequently alluded to the GM as inept, incompetent, and incapable of bringing big change to Toronto. How wrong you were Bob.

Not only is JP Ricciardi the reason Gibbons ever managed the Jays, he is also the reason why he inadvertently returned to manage the team to the ALCS this past season. Ricciardi hired a young, aspiring Alex Anthopoulos to oversee scouting; a role that has since been passed to Andrew Tinnish. Anthopoulos of course eventually succeeded Ricciardi, and re-hired Gibbons after manager John Farrell left for Boston. The reasoning for the re-hiring was the same as the initial; Struggling bullpen, struggling pitching to be fixed by an ex-catcher who is good with managing egos. Does this re-signing validate the initial hiring of Gibbons? Does the re-hiring justify the initial hiring made by Ricciardi? I think so. Recent successes of the Jays, with Gibbons at the helm shows the significance he can have on a lineup, and supports a claim that JP made a good hiring initially, but didn’t necessarily have the right compliment of players for Gibbons to allocate.

There are many decisions made over a decade-long tenure in charge of a MLB club. Amidst so many decisions, probability dictates that over an extensive term and a huge volume of transactions, mistakes are inevitable. Was BJ Ryan’s 47 Million contract horrible? Yes, and Frank Thomas’ deal? Also bad. However, signing one of the game’s greatest pitchers (Roy Halladay) to two extensions below market value to play in a market the does not garner nearly the media attention a larger market would, is a stroke of genius. The duration of Ricciardi’s career is marred by the selective perception of Jay’s fans that needed someone to blame.

Unfortunately, any sport person will tell you the General Manager is at the mercy of the ownership group and the team’s President. Not only have the Rogers been subpar investors, but have shown a complete disinterest in protecting the integrity of a good employee. JP Ricciardi is not to blame for the mediocrity the Jays experienced in the early 2000s, the very wealthy, but very frugal ownership group is. I beg of Jays fans everywhere to understand that while Ricciardi certainly made his mistakes, albeit some much more expensive than others, it was the lack of support and opportunity to avenge his errors that will forever tarnish his legacy as the General Manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. Had Ricciardi been given more resources, I am confident the mistakes made in the past would have been overshadowed by something more impressive.

The club Blue Jays fans enjoy today is not only in large part thanks to Ricciardi, the nucleus IS because of Ricciardi. To conclude, should JP Ricciardi never have been hired by the Blue Jays, there would be no Edwin Encarnacion, no Jose Bautista, no Alex Anthopolous (meaning no Tulowitzki, Martin, Sanchez or Stroman) and way less memories of Roy Halladay.

It is time to move on Toronto and look at the facts as they lay in front of you, it wasn’t JP’s fault.

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Gordon Watkin
About the Author

Gordon is a Sport Management graduate from Brock University. He has a background playing professional soccer, but is an avid sports fan particularly of the Cleveland Indians. Follow Gordon on Twitter @GordonWatkin.

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