10/03/09 8:00 PM EST
Ricciardi was up against it in AL East
Rays showing they can win couldn't have helped Toronto GM
J.P. Ricciardi was dismissed as Toronto's GM on Saturday after eight years on the job. He was nothing like baseball's worst general manager. But he had one of the most difficult situations facing any Major League general manager.
In the American League East, you're up against it before the first pitch is thrown. You have to compete with the Yankees, who perennially have baseball's largest player payroll. And you have to compete with the Red Sox, who are also annually among the biggest spenders; fourth this year in payroll.
That competition is indisputably difficult. To win against those two clubs without limitless revenue, you would need an absolutely top-notch player-development system, in which your scouts need to have near-perfect player-evaluation skills, and your Minor League managers, coaches and instructors have to be among the best teachers in the game.
And then, with the relatively small amount of discretionary funds on hand, you have to make flawless decisions on which players you retain with long, expensive contracts, and which free agents will be both inexpensive and helpful.
That's a lot of ask of any general manager -- or any organization, for that matter. But in 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays accomplished all of it. With a payroll that ranked 29th out of 30, much less than that of the Blue Jays, the Rays won the AL East, won the AL pennant and went to the World Series.
At that point, a difficult task became even more difficult for Ricciardi. It turned out that a franchise with a truly small revenue base could beat the Yankees and the Red Sox, if it did all the right things.
The Rays' performance had to make Ricciardi's superiors in the Toronto organization think: "If Tampa Bay can do it, why can't we?"
That may have been the beginning of the end. The actual end was this season, in which matters went south for the Blue Jays in more ways than one.
The club on the field finished with a losing record for the first time since 2005. Attendance decreased for the first time since 2003. As the season came down to its final days, the news came that a number of Blue Jays players were discontent with manager Cito Gaston.
All in all, this did not seem to be an organization headed in the appropriate direction. In that sort of situation, the general manager is a very convenient fall guy.
It is not impossible for the Blue Jays to compete. It is not impossible for the Blue Jays to win. It was not all that long ago that this club won consecutive World Series titles and was widely regarded as a role-model franchise. Toronto deserves better than a distant third place, or now, a distant fourth place.
After an upbeat finish to the 2008 season, with the development of some impressive young pitching talent, it looked like a breakthrough was possible for the Jays. What happened instead was a regression. There were injuries -- there always are -- but the problems were deeper than that.
Ricciardi's record was uneven, but at some point, that could be said of almost every general manager. Some of his draft choices have developed into top-shelf performers, including Aaron Hill and Adam Lind. Ricciardi twice signed ace Roy Halladay to contract extensions that, given the wildly escalating cost of front-line pitching, turned out to be bargains.
Some of the more expensive contracts to which Ricciardi committed this club backfired. The five-year, $47 million deal with former closer B.J. Ryan was one of those. Ryan was released this year, while still owed $10 million for next year. Outfielder Alex Rios got an expensive deal, but he was sufficiently disappointing that the Blue Jays let him go to the White Sox on a waiver claim. The Jays received nothing in return, other than the fact that they were out from under the remaining $60 million on Rios' seven-year, $69 million contract.
Frank Thomas's two-year, $18 million deal did not yield sufficient returns. A.J. Burnett's five-year, $55 million contract wasn't a complete winner, either. Of three seasons in Toronto, only in the third, 2008, was Burnett fully effective -- and fully healthy. After '08, Burnett used an opt-out clause to get an even bigger windfall from the Yankees.
That sort of thing can be damaging to a GM's career, but in the specific case of Ricciardi's career, what was at least equally damaging was the Rays' demonstration that an operation with very little money could beat the big guys. Tampa Bay is now at a place where it can finish third in the AL East and consider it a bad season.
So the Yankees and the Red Sox were beatable, at least on occasion, and when the Blue Jays slipped even further away from the powerhouse franchises this season, the combination of events led to Ricciardi's dismissal.
Assistant general manager Alex Anthopoulos will now take over as GM. You wish him good fortune, because you believe at least some of that will be necessary in this job, in this division, in these circumstances.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.