A conversation about MLB, on the field, off the field.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

BLUE JAY PLAYER (NON) DEVELOPMENT

On November 14, 2001 Paul Godfrey, President of the Blue Jays, named J.P. Ricciardi as his GM.

Mr.Godfrey presented Ricciardi to Toronto baseball fans as the man with a plan. The man who knew how to compete in baseball's most competitive division on a then limited budget, because he was from the new school, the Billy Beane so called "Moneyball" school. Mr. Godfrey had the zeal of the newly converted and told us to wait 5 years and the Jays would be the AL East version of the A's, playoff teams on a regular basis.

We all know the Moneyball player development tenents, more emphasis on statistical analysis as opposed to "tools evaluation", college players over high school players - more "projectable", less risk, earlier returns on drafts.

So Ricciardi went to work, he fired approximately 30 scouts who weren't compatible with his approach, hired and promoted younger guys who were compatible. ( I do give him full marks for providing Canadians with opportunities in player development, Andrew Tinnish, Kevin Briand, Jon Lalonde ) and hired Keith Law. Keith Law was to Ricciardi as Paul DePodesta was to Billy Beane. Ricciardi hired Mr. Law, a 28 year old Harvard graduate and contributor to the statistical analysis web site Baseball Prospectus as his Special Assistant.

This quote is from Baseball America 01/14/04 "The Blue Jays now stress college players in the draft and rely heavily on statistical analysis as a way of measuring a player’s performance. They also have replaced many veteran scouts and minor league coaches with younger ones who follow their new philosophical approach."

This quote is from Jon Lalonde, Director Scouting Blue Jays, in a June 05 interview with The Baseball Analyst. "I think that when J.P. came into the organization, one of the first conclusions he reached was that pitching was an area of need through each of our minor league levels right into our Major League team. Therefore, in his first couple of drafts, he really wanted to emphasize pitching. Specifically, more mature college pitchers that could be pushed quickly through the system."

So we fast forward to the present and of the Jays projected starting 9 this year, Vernon Wells, Reed Johnson, Aaron Hill and Alex Rios are products of the system. The pitching staff is more homegrown, Roy Halladay, Gustavo Chacin, Brandon League and probably/maybe Casey Janssen, Dustin McGowan, Francisco Rosario & Shaun Marcum are products of the system. In fairness the Jays dealt away 2 homegrown major leaguers Gabe Gross & David Bush, in the Lyle Overbay deal.

Of the above players only Halladay & Wells are stars. Hill will be an everyday big league second baseman for the next 10 years. Rios, League & McGowan have high ceilings but plenty of question marks, the others should be servicable. What is most troubling is that Hill and Bush are the only players drafted during Ricciardi's tenure that are certain to be regulars this year. Wells, Rios and Johnson were drafted during the Gord Ash era and as for the pitchers I refer to this quote from Baseball America "The system is stocked primarily with control pitchers, with most of the electric arms (led by 2006 rookie righthanders Brandon League, Dustin McGowan and Francisco Rosario) signed on former GM Gord Ash's watch.

Is it too early to conclude that Ricciardi's drafts have been a bust?

Perhaps Ricciardi is becoming less dogmatic in his approach. The Jays 2006 First Round pick was a high school hitter, Travis Snider. As well he parted ways during the 06 season with his statistical analysis hire Keith Law. To the best of my knowledge he has not replaced Mr. Law but often teams keep the stat guys away from the public eye, because of criticism from the media & fans ( see "The Numbers Game" by Alan Schwarz ).

In the mood for more pessimism? This is a response from Jim Callis @ BA to my questions about the Blue Jays spending in the June 06 draft. "They came in at 26th among the 30 teams despite giving out more late six-figure bonuses than most clubs. In the past, they haven't spent exorbitantly on anyone, and my guess is they'd rank below average on an annual basis." Ok, they had no picks in the 2nd or 3rd round this year ( free agent signings compensation ) but the point is they are consistently cheap buggers in the draft. It's tough to be frugal and productive in the draft because draft is a misnomer. It's actually an auction ( Steve Boras being the most skilful auctioneer ). Are Ricciardi's hands tied on this? Certainly he can't be in favor of skimping on the draft.

We all know there is more to player to Player Development than the draft. The percentage of players in affiliated ball coming from outside the US is steadily and quickly increasing. ( Good for us Canucks, record # of 23 in the bigs last year! ). International player development is increasingly important. How are the Blue Jays efforts scouting outside North America?
Maybe it's the emphasis on College players, it's probably a lot to do with the rapidly declining number of African American players in affiliated ball, but there were widespread accusations in 2003 - namely in The Toronto Star by Geoff Baker & Richard Griffin - that under Ricciardi the Blue Jays were becoming shall we say, less ethnically diverse. Mr. Baker actually referred to them in print as the "White Jays". Ricciardi went so far as to appear on a Blue JaysTV broadcast to refute the charges. I never put much stock in the allegations because the newspaper is ultra Liberal and ultra politically correct, but....last season, after he left The Jays, Mr. Law started blogging for ESPN.com. On August 18 06 he posted these comments, which to this day I find very curious. "Vernon Wells has told Blue Jays'management that he has no intention of signing a contract extension to stay in Toronto; he and his family would like to move closer to his home in Texas, and he has become increasingly disenchanted in Toronto as he has faced public criticism from general manager J.P. Ricciardi. It hasn't helped matters that the Blue Jays' clubhouse has become one of the least diverse in baseball, with Wells currently the only African-American player on Toronto's 25-man roster." Ricciardi went on to comment that Law is "officially an idiot". Yes, Wells signed for 126 million and Thomas for 20 million, but on the whole is there merit to these allegations?

Mr. Ricciardi is not the Jays savior that he was purported to be, and that is not his fault. Teams sell hope to fans, and Mr. Godfrey ( very media savvy by the way ) peddled J.P. as the man to lead the flock back to the Promised Land. Hey, it was better than selling the nostalgia of the glory years associated with the hiring of Buck Martinez as manager. The Jays have potentially a very good team, but it has everything to do with their increased payroll the last few seasons, nothing to do with J.P. outwitting his peers. I suspect that Ricciardi's predecessor Gord Ash ( another fine Canadian ) could have done just as well with the same $90 million payroll.

Anyway, good luck to Mr. Ricciardi this year, health for all the pitchers and Thomas.

If nothing else I love the New England accent.

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