Blue Jays mail bag
Richard Griffin answers your Blue Jays questions. Click here to submit a question.
Just about a week before the opener and all of a sudden the Jays season is beginning to look just as cursed from an injury standpoint as ever. Not enough time to field any Scott Rolen questions this week, but I'm expecting a mailbag full by next week's session. The big topic this week was Reed Johnson and from the consistent tone of the mail, it's clear that Reed was as important to fans as he was in the clubhouse. We'll miss you Reed and good luck with the Cubs because we know you're a major-leaguer. Now on to the mail bag.
Q: I am very upset with the decision to release Reed Johnson. They have chosen the defensively weaker Shannon Stewart over Johnson. Where is the loyalty? Is it strictly a cash thing? What kind of message are they sending to the other young Jays who give their hearts to the team? Here is a guy who every time out epitomizes what a typical Blue Jay should be. He hustles on every at bat and gives 100% every time on the field? He may be no Willie Mays but I would take him over Matt Stairs and Stewart any time. Is he not a better example for the young guys coming up than those two? He only has one year on his contract. I thought good defence wins over good offense every time.
Howard Rose, Toronto
A: Here is the likely scenario that led to Reed Johnson being released. Last November when free-agent season opened, GM J.P. Ricciardi made a competitive offer to Shannon Stewart’s business representatives. Misreading the market, Legacy Sports told the Jays no. If Stewart had signed for that November $2 million offer to platoon with Matt Stairs, the Jays in December would not have tendered Johnson a contract and he would have become a free-agent (a nicer way of saying “released”) back then. Instead, Ricciardi, even though he didn’t want him, was forced to offer a contract to Reed and negotiate a $3.275 million one-year deal to avoid arbitration.
When Stewart called again with his new agent in tow and said it was all a mistake and he was now interested in what the Jays had to offer, the Jays took a stab at a lesser one-year deal for $1.5 million, plus $250,000 in incentives for the lame-armed outfielder. When Stewart surprisingly agreed, Johnson’s eventual fate with the Jays was sealed. The only reason he stayed around as long as he did was that the Jays were hoping to make a trade for Reed and get something back in return. The fact that one-year deals for players under a club’s control are non-guaranteed and require just a 1/6th payoff, or one month worth of the season, made it cheaper to keep Shannon and release Reed than the original offer to Stewart. Johnson landed with the Cubs who, among other teams, figured correctly they could get him without having to give up a player and for a cheaper price if they simply waited the Jays out.
So, when there was a public gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands by Ricciardi and the Jays at having to make the painful decision to release Johnson that’s just so much crap. There is no loyalty in baseball. There is no loyalty in hockey. There is no loyalty in big business. There is no loyalty in kids hockey. It’s kind of discouraging for people that have never grown up.
Q: What's with dropping Reed Johnson? A saving of money? This decision will haunt the Jays. What do they do in the ninth inning when they look to protect a 3-2 lead? Pray that the ball is not hit out to left field? Baseball over a 162 game schedule will find a team's weakness. When it's time for the big catch in important situations it won't be made in left field. Releasing Reed Johnson was a horrible decision.
A: There were so many Reed Johnson questions sent to the mailbag this week, I honestly believe that the front office is not aware if how Johnson represented Jays baseball among the fans. When healthy, he has always been a terrific late-inning replacement for Frank Catalanotto, Adam Lind, Matt Stairs and others when a win needed to be protected. It’s not just over 162 games that baseball seems to find a team’s weakness. It usually happens when a team tries to get by with a player out of position for just one game or one inning.
Recall in 2003 when Ricciardi traded Shannon Stewart for Bobby Kielty how dismissive the Jays were of Stewart’s abilities back then. He couldn’t throw. He no longer ran as well as he once did. He wasn’t as patient as Kielty at the plate. Now, 56 months later, at the age of 34, Stewart is being considered as the answer in left for a team that is expected to pass the Yankees and compete for a wild-card. They have Buck Coats on the roster to play late-inning defence until Scott Rolen comes back. Then he will be gone. We will track the seventh-inning and beyond adventures in left field that cost the Jays a game. Even if it ends up being three games, is it worth dumping Johnson’s salary? At some point, dismissing Reed Johnson will haunt the Jays.
Q: The Level of Excellence is really lame and bush-league in my opinion. Retiring numbers is a much higher honour and adds a sense of prestige, tradition and dynasty to the entire organization. I think it would affect the whole aura around the team to really honour its greats and would help build the fan base and a tradition of winning. Why don't the Jays participate in this multi-sport tradition? I think it would be fitting to truly honour Alomar for his achievements with the Jays to hang up the number 12 for good in Toronto. Do you agree? If so, who do you think would be the other candidates for that honour?
Danny B., Ottawa
A: The Level of Excellence is fine. It gives an opportunity to recognize non-players like Tom Cheek and Pat Gillick. It gives an opportunity to recognize individual moments like Joe Carter’s “touch ‘em all” home run. But there certainly is room for a second, ultimate level of recognition in retiring a number for good. Most organizations retire a number when a player reaches the Hall-of-Fame at Cooperstown or if he passes away in his prime. The Jays, in 31 seasons, would be a stretch to retire any numbers at this point. The nominees would be Alomar, Dave Stieb, Cito Gaston and Tony Fernandez. The Level of Excellence is less of an immortal honour than retiring a number and the Jays have not been overcrowded with immortals. If Alomar reaches the Hall-of-Fame in 2010, or whenever it happens, and goes in wearing the Jays hat, then his should be the first number to be retired – along with Jackie Robinson’s 42 which is retired throughout baseball.
Q: What is with J.P. Riccardi’s love for having a platoon at multiple positions? We have Gregg Zaun and Rod Barajas (who was previously signed to be the starter) at catcher, David Eckstein and Johnny Mac at SS, and the platoon out in left. Players need consistent playing time to develop. The bottom line is that money could be better spent on a fifth starter to replace the inconsistent Jesse Litsch or better player development. For youngsters to get better, they need to be given a chance to play. Just look at players like Jacoby Ellsbury, Robinson Cano, and Melky Cabrera. Having to push a rookie into action can sometimes pay off. And one last question. With Travis Snider being slated for the OF next year, does Lind ever make the big league club?
Wayne Lam, Richmond Hill
A: I believe that the Jays’ love of the platoon position has always been due to budget considerations rather than personal preference of the GM. Neither Zaun or Barajas have showed they can catch 130+ games by themselves. Matt Stairs needs to be in a platoon because he hasn’t played 140 games in a season since 2000. Eckstein is not in a platoon with McDonald since they both bat right-handed. McDonald may end up playing in Roy Halladay starts as he did last year, but Eckstein will draw the majority of healthy starts.
As for the guys that you mention, if Ellsbury had spent all of last season in the majors, he would have been in a platoon situation, but he went to the minors and got his at-bats so that when he came up late in the season and for the playoffs, he was ready to play every day. Cano is just an exceptional hitter, while Cabrera was a switch-hitting, occasional, fourth outfielder until injuries and free-agency created an everyday role for him. A perfect example with the Jays of a young player that started out in a platoon and became a starry major-leaguer is Jesse Barfield. He was eased into the role and allowed to succeed instead of being forced into the role and being allowed to fail. It’s a mental thing.
Q: Hi Richard, Love the column. Was watching Phillies-Jays on Sunday and saw Cito Gaston being interviewed. Couldn't help but notice Gaston has been around a lot this spring. If the Jays get off to a slow start in April what do you think the chances are of Gibbons being canned and replaced by Gaston? Could this be a JP Ricciardi safety net for fan backlash?
Dan Lucifora, Whitby, Ont.
A: That is a very interesting observation. Cito has been around a lot, but I think that it’s because he is finally more comfortable with this ownership and GM and the roster of players than he has been in the past. He is still listed in the press guide as “Club Ambassador and Special Assistant to the President and CEO”. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that should this season go into the crapper, with the possibility at the end of the year of a new GM, that Gaston would be a good interim. This is a more veteran roster than the versions late in Cito’s managerial career that frustrated him in the post-World Series rebuilding years, costing him his health and his job. He looks great and seems 15 years younger than when he was let go in 1997. Come to think of it, why would he want the gig? Actually, he still has the will to manage, but it’s got to be the right job.
Q: Richard, what has happened to Bernie Williams? I know he was unceremoniously released by the Yankees after 2006, but why hasn't any team even tried to pick him up? I realize his days as a full-time player might be over but wouldn't he be good for a team that needs a fourth outfielder with rings who could provide amazing veteran leadership?
Also, why haven't the Yankees retired his number 51 yet, and when will they?
Simon Sharkey-Gotlieb, Toronto
A: The Yankees did not dump him unceremoniously. Manager Joe Torre loved the guy and they brought him back for an extra year, even though his skills had deteriorated as an outfielder and a hitter. I remember sitting in Torre’s office as he talked about the conversations with Williams coming back. It didn’t work out, but it seemed as if it was the Yankees or nothing for Bernie. The club will likely wait until Williams is Hall eligible then watch closely the voting results. If he goes in they will retire his number at the same time. If he doesn’t, they will wait a few years and then bring him back and retire his number at a later date. The Yankees have a tradition with centre fielders and Bernie will join Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle someday in the new Monument Park. But as a player for right now, he is done.
Q: Hi Richard,
I look forward to Wednesdays for your candid mailbag answers. Here's one that's more personal. Not that I've really tried, but have thought about trying to get into baseball in some way. (Not as a player, I definitely do not have the age  or skill [virtually none]. My concern is that since I enjoy baseball now as recreationally, I might start to not enjoy it since it’s now “a job.” My question is this: has your enjoyment of baseball decreased since you started covering it as a profession? Do you ever long to get out and work for a large, monolithic heartless company (to paraphrase a recent New Yorker cartoon)?
Nik Jones, Port St. Lucie, FL
A: You might want to try organizing a fan chat site or blog site for your favourite team (I assume the Jays). There are already many excellent fan sites out there but there is always room for more. After a year of running the site with your friends, which I imagine would almost be a full-time job, if you haven’t lost your enthusiasm for the game, then you know that you can handle working in baseball. But I’ve seen that loss of enthusiasm and reasonable perspective happen to oh so many of the bloggers that they no longer seem to enjoy the game and lose perspective.
On a personal basis, I’ve been working in baseball since I was 19 and I find that my enjoyment of the game has not decreased, but my knowledge has increased because if you are paying attention at all, you must learn something new every day. I enjoy the company of baseball players, executives, scouts, fellow media and fans, whether they agree with me or not, as long as they love the game. I enjoy watching other pro sports and covering them on an occasional basis. As for working for a large, monolithic, heartless company, I don’t believe that Rogers has any room for me on their payroll.
Click here to send Richard a question, and he'll answer a selection in his mailbag Wednesdays in this space.