Posts Tagged ‘Toronto Blue Jays’

With The Jays collapsing this year, and the dangling of Roy Halladay on the trade block, it appears that JP Ricciardi’s days in Toronto could be numbered.  Hailed as one of Billy Beane’s golden boys, expectations were high in Toronto when he was hired following the 2001 campaign.  Since then, the Jays have had only once finished above third place in the American League East, and most fans consider his tenure a failure.  I am one of the few who disagree, but unfortunately did not really have any numbers to back myself up. 

I decided to undertake a small project to put some numbers behind my claim. As I was working through the data, I became unsure that I was going to be able to find a solution.  However, the end product gave me the results I wanted.  Given the financial resources relative to their division, the Toronto Blue Jays under JP Ricciardi were outperformed in terms of winning percentage compared to their division only by Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics and depending on your point of view, Terry Ryan’s Minnesota Twins.  These are arguably the top two GM’s in baseball over this time frame, so I would say JP is in pretty good company.  Now to the data.

Ricciardi was hired following the 2001 season, so I plugged the records of every team in the American League from 2002-2008 into Excel.  I then tabulated each team’s winning percentage over this time period, as well as the winning percentage of the other team’s in the division.  For example, the “Division Winning Percentage” box for the Tampa Bay Rays would include the records of the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles, but NOT the Rays.  I then calculated how much each team had spent on payroll (information from Cot’s MLB Contracts), and figured out what percentage of the division’s total payroll was spent by each team.  The results for the three AL divisions are as follows:

 AL East

 AL Central

AL West

 *Because the AL West only has four teams, I added a hypothetical fifth team that has a payroll that is the average of the other four teams.  This helps make the Percentage of Payroll constant across all divisions.

The numbers are not perfect, and could be refined further, but I think the general point I am trying to make is apparent.  Given his financial resources, JP Ricciardi did very well with the Jays.  He achieved a winning percentage only .010 lower than the rest of the division, while playing in the toughest division in baseball with the two best teams in the league.  You might be saying, well that is not very good, he was below average.  However, if you take a closer look, he did this while spending only 14.39% of his division’s total payroll.  The only other teams to spend similar or less were Baltimore (.087 lower winning % than division), Tampa Bay (.107 lower), Kansas City (.095 lower) and Oakland (.039 higher).  Among these teams, only Oakland was better.  With regards to Minnesota, they did spend 3.5% more than Toronto, but I would argue the .088 boost in winning percentage relative to the division is greater than the financial surplus.   

The two big failures were Detroit and Seattle.  Detroit spent 24.10% of their division’s payroll to be .058 below the rest of their division, while Seattle spent 23.18% to be .053 worse. 

So there you have it.  In my opinion, the JP Ricciardi era in Toronto has not been a failure, and he has actually done very well.  Other than a brutal 2004 season, the Jays have remained extremely competitive with the Red Sox and the Yankees despite financial limitations.  A lot of this depends on how you label success.  Some would argue that Tampa Bay has done a better job because they won a division title and a pennant with even smaller resources than Toronto.  To that I would say, “oh really, how did you enjoy the six 90+ loss seasons prior to 2008?”  I do not think success can be attributed to one good year, so overall, I think the top three general managers in the American League from 2002-2008 were Billy Beane, Terry Ryan and JP Ricciardi.


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Well, the defending world champions got their man.  No it is not Roy Halladay, but it is a second ace they can pair with Cole Hamels for a strong 1-2 punch.  The big win in this deal is that the Phillies kept their top two pitching prospects, Happ and Drabek, the former who is having a strong season with the big club.  If they had traded for Halladay, one or both of these guys would have been on their way north of the border.  The difference between Halladay and Lee is not big enough that it would warrant the Phillies giving up one of these two elite pitching prospects.  

Here is what the Phillies gave up (Baseball America Prospect Rank in parentheses):

Carlos Carrasco, RHP (2) – Carrasco topped the Phillies prospect rankings in 2007 and 2008, and has been in the top 10 since 2003.  He is still just 22 years old, but has not really put it together.  In 2007 and 2008, he put up ERA’s of 4.86 and 4.32 at AA Reading.  This year, he has a 5.18 ERA at AAA Lehigh Valley compared to 3.06 for Drabek, who has supplanted him as the organizations top pitching prospect.

Lou Marson, Catcher (3) – While Marson has a solid bat and excellent plate discipline for a catcher, his arm is not as strong as you would want, and he threw out 37% of base runners in 2008.  If his arm strength slips at all, he will no longer be able to play catcher, and his bat will no longer be nearly as impressive.

Jason Donald, Shortstop (4) – Another guy on the list who does not really have a position.  He has an excellent bat for a shortstop, but is below average defensively.  Scouts also say he barely has the skill to play second.  This leaves third base as his other option, but like Marson, his bat suddenly does not seem like such a weapon at a premiere power position.  Many scouts project him as a super utility player; valuable, but not a difference maker like Lee.   

Jason Knapp, RHP (10) – Knapp is a power pitcher who can hit the high 90’s on the radar gone.  Like many young power pitchers, he also has trouble staying consistent.  His command is sub-par, and he is certainly a work in progress.  While the Phillies used him as a starter, it is projected that he will be a power bullpen arm.  Like Donald, valuable, but not irreplaceable. 

Overall, the Phillies did well in this trade.  They traded some solid prospects but no “can’t miss” guys, and got a reigning Cy Young winner.  Lee’s low HR/9 will play well in Citizens Bank Ballpark, and he will also benefit from a move to the weaker National League.  While I do not know if this move pushes the Phillies ahead of the Dodgers as favourites in the NL, it certainly moves them closer.  Considering that 4/5 of the current Phillies rotation is now left-handed, and the Dodgers feast on left-handed pitching (290/.375/.444), this could pose a matchup problem against the Dodgers..    

Almost unmentioned is the fact the Phillies are also adding OF Ben Francisco.  Current 4th OF Matt Stairs hits exclusively against right-handed pitchers.  This year, he has 66 AB’s and a .879 OPS against righties, and only 3 AB’s and a .250 OPS against lefties.  Francisco, on the other hand, owns a .845 OPS against lefties, over 100 points higher than against righties.  This addition will give the Phillies a potent platoon off the bench, capable of hitting left-handed and right-handed pitching. 

While the Phillies did well in this trade, so did the Indians.  They received four legitimate prospects for a pitcher with a limited track record of success in the major leagues.  I would say it is even more impressive than the haul they received last year for CC Sabathia, although he was only a half-season rental.  The Indians have done well to restock their farm system, and within a couple of years have an excellent core of young players to support star Grady Sizemore.

This trade was the definition of win-win, and was well played by both sides.  The real losers are the Toronto Blue Jays, who played hardball with the Phillies and may be left with nothing at the deadline.

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With the return of closer Scott Downs, former Blue Jays closer BJ Ryan found himself expendable today.  Ryan was part of a big off-season for the Blue Jays following the 2005 season, inking a five year, $47 million contract, giving the Jays the lockdown closer they had been missing.  Ryan was coming off a 36 save season as a the closer of the Orioles, and it was at the time, the largest contract ever given to a relief pitcher. 

Ryan rewarded the Jays in 2006 with an all-star appearance, 38 saves and a microscopic 1.37 ERA.  However, injuries derailed him the next season as he pitched only 4.1 innings, and his WHIP was almost double his previous seasons ERA.  He rebounded in 2008 with a 2.95 ERA and 32 saves, but was far from the Blue Jays most effective reliever.  This year, the lights-out Downs, a product of former AGM Bart Given, seized the closer role after Ryan struggled with more injuries and inconsistency.  Limited to mop-up duty and unhappy with his role, Ryan now finds himself without a job.

Ryan is only one of several failed big free-agent deals of the last couple of years.  Jeff Suppan, recently listed on Ebay for the bargain price of $0.01, signed a four year, $42 million deal with the Brewers following his 2006 World Series season with St. Louis.  He has rewarded the Crew with a 27-28 record over two and a half seasons, and has yet to post a better than league average ERA.  I could go on and on with the likes of Andruw Jones, Jason Schmidt, Jose Guillen, Matt Morris, and Barry Zito, but you get the picture.

These crippling contracts are a big reason for a dynamic shift in the way baseball teams are doing business.  Most teams are realizing that free agents should simply be compliments to a young, inexpensive core, not franchise saviours.  Teams are putting a vice grip on their top prospects as they understand that the bank for the buck they will get from these players is much greater than what they would find on the open market.  This really became seen by the public when both the Red Sox and Yankees refused to part with their top prospects in order to obtain Johan Santana prior to the 2008 season. 

It also has cooled the free agent market, as teams have realized that many Type A free agents are not worth the high draft picks that they would be giving up.  This led to solid players like Orlando Cabrera and Juan Cruz searching for jobs for the majority of this past off-season.  Five years ago, these guys would have been lavished with multi-year contracts. 

This topic is particularly interesting as Blue Jays GM JP Ricciardi has made it known that he will be listening to offers for Roy Halladay, who is signed through 2010 at a very reasonable $15.75 million.  It will be interesting to see what type of prospects the Blue Jays will be offered in return for the perennial Cy Young candidate.  It is my opinion that the Blue Jays will get an excellent package from a GM in win-now mode, but I do not think the offers will be as numerous or bountiful as in years past.

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A couple of weeks ago, Bart Given wrote an article for Sportsnet defending Blue Jays pitching coach Brad  Arnsberg and the number of arm injuries the Jays have incurred in recent years.  Going back to 2005, he found that the Blue Jays were in the middle of the pack when it came to DL placements and DL duration.  While I do not dispute his findings, I think people still have the right to be upset with the number of young pitchers have undergone serious procedures like Tommy John.

The first culprit is Dustin McGowan, a former first-round pick who underwent Tommy John in 2004 at age 23.  The next two years following the surgery, McGowan threw 101 and 111 innings respectively between the minors and majors.  In 2007, his workload jumped to 191 innings.  Unsurprisingly, he was shutdown in early July in 2008, and has not pitched since.  Both GM JP Ricciardi and AGM Alex Anthopolous are on record as saying they are not sure if he will ever pitch again.  Obviously McGowan suffered from arm troubles from an early age, but the Jays were asking for trouble when they nearly doubled his workload in 2007.

Next up is Gustavo Chacin, a personal favourite during his short-time in Toronto.  In 2004, Chacin enjoyed great success in the minors, going 18-2, and pitching 153.2 innings, a career high.  The next year he was promoted to the Majors and enjoyed a strong rookie campaign, with a 3.72 ERA.  He also threw 203 innings, which placed him in the top 50 in the league.  Since then, he has only thrown 114.2 innings in the major leagues.  Here are the other two players on that list who experienced huge jumps in their workloads that year:

Chris Capuano – 101.2 to 219, has not pitched since 2007

Josh Towers – 152 to 208.2, has not pitched in the majors since 2007

The Jays were two for three that year.

More recently, the Jays have two more Tommy John victims: Shaun Marcum and Jesse Litsch.  I am not sure the Blue Jays have learned their lesson.  They brought Marcum along slowly, limiting him to roughly a 25 IP per year increase from 2005-07.  Tough to blame them for that one.  However, Litsch was pretty much abused.  After throwing 75.2 innings in 2005 between rookie and short season A, he was increased to 158 and 187.2 the next two years.  Once again, unsurprisingly, he managed only one more full season before going under the knife.

While you cannot always predict the future, and even guys that are brought along slowly can experience problems, the Blue Jays are not without blame.  It is well documented that guys who experience huge jumps in workloads either see their performance decrease or experience serious injury.  Justin Verlander, Noah Lowry, Fausto Carmona, Zach Duke (who has rebounded nicely this year), Ian Snell, etc..  The only team that I could spot with a history of straining young arms more than the Jays is the Pittsburgh Pirates, and we can all see how successful that franchise has been.

While the Jays have an incredible talent for finding a surplus of skilled young arms, they are also burning through them at an astounding rate.  Here is to hoping that the Blue Jays do not repeat same mistake with their young arms like Brett Cecil and Ricky Romero.

As a final note, I remember reading somewhere, but do not quote me on this, that the only pitcher in recent years to throw over 200 innings in his rookie season and go on to have an even semi-successful career is Freddy Garcia.

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During yesterday’s game between the Jays and Phillies, Jays manager Cito Gaston made what in my opinion are a couple of questionable decisions.

The first I will just mention in passing.  The Jays were down 5-4 in the bottom of the eighth with two outs and the bases loaded.  Cito elected to remove OF Jose Bautista (.754 OPS) in favour of pinch hitter Russ Adams (.619 OPS).  Anyone who has followed the Jays over the last few years knows that he has one of the worst sticks in the league.  After predictably popping out to third base, he was also forced to enter the game in left field, where he has a grand total of 13 innings played in the majors.  Mind-boggling decision by Cito.

The point I want to focus on occurred in the bottom of the ninth, and is at the heart of the small ball debate.  I will preface this by saying that I am not a small ball fan, and would build my team with a couple of on-base machines and a couple of sluggers to drive them in.  I would always play for the big inning and would not give away precious outs with bunts or stolen bases.  However, like every game plan, there is an exception, and this is it.  The Jays got their first two batters on to begin the ninth inning (score is still 5-4 Phillies) against closer Brad Lidge, bringing Aaron Hill to the dish.  This situation begs for a bunt.  A successful bunt not only gives you two chances to win the game with a base hit, but also tie it with a sacrifice fly while keeping you out of the double play.

Instead, Hill swings away.  I know Hill leads the AL in total bases this year and already had two home runs that afternoon, but they were against soft-tossing lefty Jamie Moyer, not power closer Lidge.  The rest of the inning played out like this.  Hill pops out.  John MacDonald gets picked off at second and Vernon Wells grounds out.  The rally is dead and the game is over just like that.  Normally in a baseball game you never play for a run or two, but always play the numbers and go for the big inning.  However, in this situation the Jays only needed two runs to win the game.  Had Hill laid down a sacrifice bunt, the Phillies most likely would have walked Wells (who is terrible) and pitched to base-hit machine Scott Rolen (.333 batting average).  Even if he did not get the job done, they would still have an opportunity to win it with Adam Lind, who is third in the AL in total bases.           

I have a ton of respect for Cito as a manager, and his free-swinging ways really helped turn around the Jays after he replaced micro-manager John Gibbons.  However, there are certain situations where you have to break the mould and play according to the situation.  I hope I did not sound too much like Harold Reynolds there.

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