Before we start too far down the road of defending J.P. Ricciardi and his eight years in Toronto, allow us to get this part out first: It was time for J.P. to go. He'd had his run, and he'd done his bit, but the team needs to go in a different direction and needs a new public face in the GM position.
So you can save all of your "you're an idiot for wanting to keep Ricciardi" comments. That's not what this is about.
But we find ourselves wanting to take up the cause for the now departed Ricciardi because the manner in which his tenure was described over the past four days and eight years just seems fundamentally wrong to us, and we'd at the very least like to inject a little bit of reason into the naked Dionysian orgy of elation at his firing.
There are significant elements of the Toronto and national sports media who have taken revisionist and reductionist view of Ricciardi's time in Toronto. Put simply, their knee jerk take is: "He failed, because he didn't get the job done, he didn't do what he said he'd do, and he made lots of mistakes."
It's odd to think that eight years of a man's work can be reduced and crushed into rubble in such an off-handed way. To us, it would seem to be a lot more nuanced than that, so we'd like to address those three notions.
J.P. made a lot of mistakes
There are plenty of examples that get trotted out here: Letting go of Carlos Delgado and stripping the team down, then making big money signings that didn't pan out, like B.J. Ryan and Frank Thomas. Giving way too much money to Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, and "bungling" the Roy Halladay trade bonanza.
The thing is that when you take a step back and look across the league for a bit of perspective, you see that there are plenty of teams that make "mistakes" in overpaying free agents, or letting guys go. But GMs in general and Ricciardi in particular don't have the benefit of hindsight to evaluate the relative merit of these deals before they go out with them. Inevitably, you're going to make mistakes because players are going to have career years or they are going to get old, or they are going to get hurt.
But even some of those signings that are treated as "mistakes" now are a little more difficult to criticize if you place them in their appropriate context and look at the performance over the contract.
Take B.J. Ryan, for instance. He was the marquee closer on the market, and the press and the fans were clamoring for something better than a closer committee led by Jason Frasor. At the time, it seemed as though the contract was a year too long for a closer with a funky delivery, but the Jays wouldn't have brought him in if that extra year wasn't included. It was a risk, and as we saw this year, it didn't pay off.
But let's not forget that nobody was questioning that signing in 2006, after Beej had saved 38 games and posted a 1.37 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP. And in 2008, after his Tommy John surgery, he posted a 2.95 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP with 32 saves. So while it didn't completely pan out in the end, he certainly brought value at the time.
And ask yourself this: What would the Jays have looked like over those two years without Ryan as their closer?
A similar signing was Frank Thomas, who was coming off a season where he was fourth in the MVP voting, and fit a need that the Jays had at the time: A masher in the middle.
Again, this was a signing that in the moment seemed like it might be for one year too many, but Thomas' performance in that first year (26 HR, 95 RBI, .857 OPS) was on par with expectations, and the aging slugger actually led the team in many of the relevant offensive categories (with the others being held down by fellow oldtimer, Matt Stairs.)
The point is that as a general manager, sometimes you need to trade off the long term financial implications in order to look after the here and now, and that is especially true in the AL East. The window to compete in the division opens briefly and slams shut suddenly, and you need to step up when you have the opportunity. You can't tear the team down and build it all back up gradually like you're in the NL West, because the two powerhouse teams above you are always going to have more money.
The biggest "mistake" of J.P.'s tenure was probably the Vernon Wells deal, and even if you set aside the fact that it might not have been Ricciardi's call to hand over that much money, he still needs to wear it because it was still his responsibility. But to understand exactly how a deal of that magnitude gets signed, you need to look at the other deals that were floating around at the time. The Gary Matthews Jr. deal, or the Carlos Lee deal, or Alfonso Soriano, or Carlos Beltran. In that moment, when no one was looking at a dramatic contraction in the economy in general and the money from the online components of the industry were flowing freely, there was a sense that a deal like Vernon's made sense in the context of the day.
Maybe Ricciardi wanted to bring Vernon back, and the Rogers brass or Godfrey felt as though they were prepared to hand over whatever it would take to keep him. Given the contracts being handed out to similar players, it stood to reason that someone would have made an offer in the range of $18 million per year or more to get Vernon, and letting him go at that time would have signaled to fans that the Jays weren't willing to compete to keep their own players.
It's easy to look back and pick this apart, but a man's gotta make decisions in the moment where he stands.
J.P. Didn't Do What He Said He'd Do
The Plan. That's what so much of the criticism of J.P. has come down to over the years. Did he have a "five-year plan" and did he stick to it? And if he didn't stick to, then what was the value of the plan in the first place?
Recognize this about some of the media types who took the most umbrage at the audacity of having a plan: Most of them don't have a plan beyond a week or the next series. They have editors in chief and managing editors or section editors or segment producers or executive producers to worry about the planning and and the long term view of keeping those who control the money happy, so the notion of some set of guiding principles and timelines and budgeting and a view towards where anything is headed is beyond their scope of interest. This leaves the reporter to react to the day-to-day events.
So the notion that a guy would come in with a "Plan" that he intended to execute would become laughable to some of those guys, and all the much more so when they were able to use it as a laugh line: "We're in year seven of the five-year plan! Hey-o!"
Moreover, there was an assumption that because J.P. came from Oakland that his entire worldview was predetermined and preprogrammed to be that of Billy Beane and his fancypants Moneyball tomfoolery. And so of course J.P. was going to institute a Moneyball regime in Toronto, because he was a Moneyball guy. Isn't that what he said?
What's missed in this assessment is that J.P.'s background was as a scout. He was not a number cruncher and he was not a sabermetrician. He was one of those guys who went out on the road for months at a time looking at kids and assessing them, and then cross-checking the assessments of others. If J.P. came from an organization where Moneyball practices (whatever the hell that means) were in place, he wasn't the driving force behind it.
(And for those of you who want a bit of an eye-opener, take a look at the handful of pages where J.P. appears in Michael Lewis' book. J.P.'s never the guy pushing stats. He's a scout.)
(Also, as the media bends over backwards to praise Alex Antholpoulos in the coming weeks, none of them are going to assume that he's an absolute disciple of J.P.'s...because he's a good Canadian boy and he deserves the benefit of the doubt.)
What J.P. had in mind for the franchise is up for debate, but it does seem as though he figured that Toronto could compete on the field without having to compete in terms of payroll. That meant cutting ties with Carlos Delgado and finding more economical alternatives.
But what J.P. might not have seen coming, and what none of us saw coming to the extent that it did, was the massive inflation of the payrolls of the Red Sox and Yankees in the next few years. The heart-breaking losses that both of the behemoths suffered in the early part of the decade led them to engage in an all-out price war for players.
When Ricciardi took the post in 2002, the Yanks spent $133 million in salaries. By the end of 2003, that number jumped to $180 million. (Using Biz of Baseball as the source.) The Jays' scaled back $66 million payroll was enough to keep them in the middle of the pack (13th overall) in 2002, and by 2008, their $98 million payroll was enough to keep them in exactly the same spot.
The payroll bumps that Ricciardi was permitted over the past few years in order to go after high-priced free agents wasn't so much a change of philosophy as it was a recognition of the change in the market. If there hadn't been immense inflation in terms of player salaries, the Jays may have been able to sign some of the same free agent targets without having to offer them more money than the Yanks or Red Sox.
Now that the economy has contracted and the payrolls have shrunk for every team other than the Yanks and Sox, there is a chance that some second tier free agents to fall to a mid-payroll team at a reasonable price. But one need only look at the monstrous signing season the Yankees had last off season to recognize that a gap is increasing between those two teams and the rest of the league, and the Jays don't have the luxury of getting by on 85 win seasons.
We're not sure what the plan was for Ricciardi, but if he chose to adapt and adjust it to the realities of the day, we can't say that we'd pillory him for a lack of consistency. Foolish consistency in a rapidly evolving world might make for a clearer narrative to follow, but it won't make for wiser business decisions.
J.P. Didn't Get the Job Done
Ultimately, this is true. If your notion is that his job was to fashion the team into a playoff team at some point in his tenure, then you're right, he didn't get it done.
But again, we come back to the context in which the Jays find themselves. They play in the division with the two most aggressive teams in the league, and there are no cheap playoff berths to be had. Moreover, they face those two teams 19 times each over the season while competing for a Wild Card entry with teams whose strength of schedules are vastly inferior.
The reality of assembling a "competitive" team in Toronto is that even good or very good teams can end up looking "mediocre". (Those two words are favorites of the sports punditocracy, and we've heard them endlessly to describe 86 and 82 and 87 win teams.) The teams that J.P. assembled in Toronto were far more competitive than he was ever given credit for, and would that their destiny not be tied to their geography, they might have made the jump into the playoffs.
Now that J.P. is gone, and a new regime is allegedly going to be in place at some point, their challenge will be the same. But given the unbridled, voracious appetite for winning baseball titles that their competition in the AL East possess, the New Boss is going to have to assemble teams that can compete each and every year, not just at the end of a prescribed cycle. And on the off chance that misfortune befalls either the Yanks or Sox, those competitive teams can pounce and take advantage and maybe slip into the postseason.
But even if the team is prepared to pony up and increase the payroll and look at making big moves to compete for a playoff spot, they won't return to the days of being a perpetual contender unless they are willing to establish themselves amongst the leaders in spending, as they were in the back to back championship days. Even with a bigger payroll and some good fortune, it is entirely likely that this franchise will continue to find itself in the position of winning 84 to 90 games per season and sitting in third place in the division.
Which is pretty much what J.P. did for most of his tenure.