Blue Jays mail bag
The Jays are struggling seriously on this road trip after leaving home with a 10-10 record and because of that there seems to be a common thread of fan frustration running through this week's mailbag. Going into the season, it didn’t seem that the lame-duck status of manager John Gibbons would be that much of an issue, but after just one failed month, the fact that Gibby is not contracted beyond ’08 seems to make his dismissal inevitable. The question is when, where and if it happens, will, or should, the GM be far behind? On to your questions.
Q: Dear Richard,
Have you seen the clip of Reed Johnson's catch in Chicago this past Friday? Can you please remind me why we let this guy go for Shannon Stewart? As well, I see that Frank Thomas just knocked in a pair of RBIs in his first game back with (the A’s). What was the urgent circumstance that led to his alienation and dismissal? I look at how the Jays have treated Thomas/Johnson and I can't help but associate those moves with the marginalizing of John McDonald and the departures of Ted Lilly and Shea Hillenbrand. When is the other shoe going to drop on management? Will it fall in the clubhouse first? I'm watching this team and it looks as though they have completely tuned out Gibbons and by extension, J.P. Am I overreacting?
Mike Paris, Halifax
A: The Jays have made two major personnel decisions since the start of spring training, both based on salary rather than talent. Results never seem to turn out well when that happens. Johnson was making too much money because of an arbitration system that dictated where eligible guys slot in with years of service and performance. Thomas was making too much money because the Jays threw it at him.
The problem was compounded by the fact that the general manager has never been the most socially graceful and gracious when it comes to dealing with exes. Usually, before the door has hit the departing player in the ass, the Jays are bobbing and weaving in the attempt to control the team’s image. That never works either, because the remaining teammates can see what’s happening.
Reed Johnson could see the writing on the wall as soon as Shannon Stewart was signed. Frank Thomas may be well past his prime, but the Jays removed him from the lineup partly to make sure that he didn’t get the required at-bats to reach his vesting option of $10 million for ’09. As for John McDonald, he was praised to the skies when he signed his two-year deal, but is now buried at the end of the bench even though his skills could have been useful in an injury-plagued first three weeks. Shea Hillenbrand was just looking for a little love after becoming a father. Ted Lilly…well Ted Lilly was a bit of a strange cat and in the long run, having him sign elsewhere was a good thing for the Jays' rotation. The Jays are very heavy-handed as employers of young millionaires with issues.
Q: Ok Richard. How long is this misery going to continue? When, oh when is Riccardi going to get his just do and get tarred and feathered and run of town on a railroad? The Frank Thomas fiasco is just the latest in one bumbling move after another. Outrageous! Marco Scutaro can’t hit his weight but is the preferred guy over John MacDonald who got the shiv when Riccardi brought in Eckstein. No arm and .217 average Stewart over Reed Johnson who's hitting .346 for Chicago. This guy has no clue, no class and offers no hope. When does Paul Godfrey finally do something meaningful? Or are we in for another Leaf-like soap opera?
Darryl Weinberg, Toronto
A: Hmm, another reader looking to vent his frustrations. I sense a trend. In any case, ditto on the above answer re Johnson and Thomas. As for being another Leaf-like soap opera, that would only happen if a guy named Fletcher emerged as an interim GM and Darrin Fletcher is not interested. It's unbelievable that among major Toronto sports franchises, Ricciardi has the longest tenure among GMs and Gibbons has the longest tenure among managers or head coaches and it's also the only local sports franchise that has not been to the post-season this century. Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s harder to make the baseball playoffs. But the Marlins have won two World Series in the past 12 years.
Q: "John Gibbons. 2004-2008. R.I.P." The inscription flashed before my eyes after the April Blue Jays were swept by the lowly Rays. Here we go again. The Jays off to another mediocre, if not sub-par, start. I sense the engravers scrambling for their instruments, or am I only hearing things? How long before we hear a eulogy from Ricciardi?
Darrell Holtze, Guelph, Ont.
A: The "lowly" Rays? Not so fast. These guys have not even had their ace Scott Kazmir pitch in a game yet and they are above .500, in the heat of the AL East race, including consecutive sweeps over the Jays and Bosox. Imagine the Jays without an injured Halladay for the month of April. The Ontario whine would be flowing.
In four Aprils under Gibbons, the Jays are 49-52. Every spring there’s a pattern. They look at the schedule and stress the importance of a fast start. Every April, they are mediocre. Ricciardi fired Buck Martinez in May. He fired Carlos Tosca in August. He has never fired a manager in the off-season. Scapegoats aren't as useful to keep the fans on board when there are no games being played. In any case, it would not be R.I.P. for Gibby's career. J.P. insists that 5-6 other teams are waiting to hire Gibby as their manager. And O.J. is still looking for the real killer.
Q: Dear Richard,
Are we going to have to wait until J.P gets his walking papers before we see the end of Gibbons? I realize it’s not fair to blame the Jays struggles on one man, but the Jays are experiencing the same problems as last year and continue to be less than the sum of its parts. Gibbons was the right man for the job when he was hired when the Jays were a bunch of rookies and career minor leaguers but now they're a team of veterans with egos who need a veteran strategist who commands their respect. Is Grady Little available?
Josh M., Toronto
A: I honestly believe that the fates of the two Jays men are tied together. As soon as Ricciardi decides to fire Gibbons and pay off the rest of his $650,000 for '08, heading the organization in another direction, then the countdown will begin on Ricciardi himself. I believe the GM is well aware of that.
Q: Watching the Jays get swept by the rebuilding Tampa Bay Rays, then blow a lead in KC, leads me to think that John Gibbons may not make it to May as the Skip for the Jays. Would you agree that it was a gross mismanagement of your bench to have John McDonald sit there, at the end of a close game, after your newly crowned saviour, Scott Rolen, appeared to win it for the team. Instead, Eckstein has a defensive gaffe that allows KC to retake the lead (second time in the game). How long do you think before the axe falls on this last place club? Will it be Gibbons? Or Gibbons and J.P.?
Chad N., Toronto
A: That Friday game in Kansas City was the worst two innings ever managed by Gibbons. With six outs to go, he had a surprising 4-2 lead, following a three-run rally in the top of the eighth. Burnett’s history is as a maximum 12-game winner; he's not much of a finisher then … so what did Gibbons do? He sent A.J. back out there instead of going to the bullpen.
As for McDonald, Gibbons had answered a direct question at spring training about whether he would use Johnny Mac as a late-inning defender with a lead. He said no, so he has been true to his word, but when David Eckstein dropped the perfect double-play feed from Scott Downs, it cost the Jays the win. Let's see, one loss over 25 games because McDonald was not out there with the lead. That works out to six losses over 162 games. The solution is simple. Use your resources to the max. Eckstein was only getting one more at-bat and you had a two-run bulge already.
The final gaffe in that game was pitching out twice to Tony Pena with first base open because they were scared of the squeeze, then walking a struggling, powerless .149 hitter intentionally to get to David DeJesus. The leadoff man squeezed a groundball through the infield vs. Downs for two more runs, raising his average to .414. That win in Rolen's return to the lineup would have been a huge boost for the Jays.
Q: First an apology - I ripped you ruthlessly when Riccardi came to town because I thought you misunderstood the sabermetric arguments about baseball. What I failed to take into account was that General Managers need to know more than stats to be successful. You were certainly right to be cautious of some of Riccardi’s characteristics.
I don’t think Riccardi really gets the valuable details of the sabermetric stuff; what Sabermetric believer would ever sign Shea Hillenbrand or trade an inexpensive rising star (Orlando Hudson) for a very expensive and injury prone Troy Glaus. But perhaps far more damning is his character. The most disturbing thing about Riccardi is his constant about face on his big signings usually prefaced with some character assassination. How soon until we hear griping about Wells, and Rolen. It's never his fault. I think the most telling transaction that tells anyone the man simply can't be a GM at this level: Beane pays Frank Thomas $2.6 mill or so for 1 year and 5 months of service. Riccardi pays 17 million for 1 year and 1 month of service.
Jim Maron, Richmond Hill
A: Back when SABR was starting up as a loose association of sober, serious baseball researchers, I was with a now relocated NL franchise in an undefined executive role (I am being vague about the actual team and job because I know how much some readers hate any mention of the Expos and me being a PR guy). In any case, I was an honourary, card-carrying member of SABR for all the support I offered. I love sabermetrics. But the word and the concept at some point were commandeered (like jihad and Jihad) and those who looked at baseball any other way than by the numbers were considered weak and uninformed.
The fact is there has always been room for both traditional and stat-based evaluation of players within the same organization and that is the reason why scouts and old-school GMs were upset with the unblinking stat geeks who sought to take over the game. Because while the old-school execs were sincerely in the process of bringing computer-generated data into their own old-school worlds, they were constantly being dissed and dismissed; taunted as dinosaurs of the game. It's become better now in terms of coexistence and understanding at the executive level now that many of Billy Beane’s protégés have been humbled and/or fired. Beane is still an original. J.P., a former protégé, is a wannabe and that explains the comparative uses of Thomas in terms of money spent for value as you have outlined above.
Q: I just saw Eric Hinske playing for the (Devil) Rays. He signed a minor league contract this season to join them. What happened to him? How did he go from R.O.T.Y and a cornerstone for the Jays to this? Was he a fluke and does this show that maybe J.P is banking on all the wrong players? I remember a long time ago he was talking about Josh Phelps, Aquilino Lopez, Josh Towers all being great but none of them are still here.
Matthew Madarang, Scarborough
A: A lot of guys looking for a job sign minor league deals just so that their new organization doesn't have to use a roster spot for them all winter. Hinske is a major-league player, just not at the level he showed in his rookie ’02 season. He was not a fluke, but the Jays overstated his talents. As much as any team, they like to sell their best young players in the winter in order to sell season tickets. They oversell their young guys and then when they sometimes fail, the player's inevitable fall back to earth seems much more dramatic.
There is no straight-line graph in major-league careers. What Ricciardi is quite often guilty of is lack of patience with players that were good, then bad. It's like critiquing a rollercoaster even before you crest the first drop. He gets rid of the players before they can go back up the slope and usually someone else is the beneficiary.
Q: Richard, I loved the Frank Thomas mailbag idea. Seriously though can you think of five moves Ricciardi made that would be considered really good. Also in your opinion what were his worst? The guy has spent millions of dollars and in reality none of the guys he brought in for big bucks are helping us at all. Meanwhile he continues to have that smug look on his face. There was a huge blow up with Hillenbrand. Gibbons and Lilly got in a fight and now this with Thomas. Is it not time for Ricciardi and Gibbons to be gone and end this gong show?
Greg Lawrie, Ottawa
A: Smug is in the eye of the beholder. Give Scott Rolen a chance. He has already done more than Troy Glaus would have accomplished. The Jays front office is certainly not the best at handling their players with kid gloves. But should they be? As for rating the GM, check out the “five worst free-agent signings” column I wrote after Thomas was let go.
As for the five best moves by the GM…hmm: there's signing Frank Catalanotto as a free agent; obtaining Hinske from the A's for Billy Koch; obtaining Lilly from the A's for Bobby Kielty; obtaining Cory Lidle from the A's for Mike Rouse and Chris Mowday; obtaining Marco Scutaro from the A's for Graham Godfrey and Kristian Bell; obtaining Frank Menechino from the A's for future considerations; obtaining John McDonald from the Tigers for himself; avoiding the white sauces and breakfast meats at Stuckey’s.
Q: I noticed that the Jays have quite recently promoted Travis Snider to AA already. Are they really trying to put him on the fast track and if all goes to plan should we expect to see him with the big team in September?
Travis M., Saskatoon
A: The talented young slugger still has plenty of holes in his powerful swing, but yes he is on a fast track. There really is no need to get him to the majors by this September, because he just turned 20 in February and does not need to be added to the Jays' 40-man roster until after the '09 season. However, if he seems ready to contribute by the end of this season, it will give the Jays flexibility in terms of the outfield and the DH positions, maybe freeing up Adam Lind to be traded in the winter. Matt Stairs has one more year here.
Q: If the Jays keep playing .500, do you expect Gibbons to be gone before the end of the season. Any chance Cito (Gaston) is coming back? The last game against the Royals, Ryan came in and pitched the eighth inning with Jesse Carlson finishing the ninth and getting the save. Is Ryan out of the closer role? Maybe Gibbon simply forgot he should only use Ryan for an inning. Yeah, this must be it.
Davy P., San Jose
A: That's an interesting question regarding Cito. If the Jays did fire Gibbons and then needed an interim manager to keep fans interested in the fortunes of the franchise, Cito would be a brilliant choice. However, Cito has said that he does not want to be used, either as the requisite minority interview for vacant major-league managerial jobs or, we assume, as a placebo for fans. They would have to offer Gaston the job for more than just the rest of the year, which would necessarily mean that Ricciardi would be on the way out too since the decision would fall to Ted Rogers and Paul Godfrey and J.P. would not be able to control Cito the way that he prefers. Actually, this roster is the kind of Jays team that Gaston would be good with because of the mix of veteran players, combined with solid pitching. When Gaston was fired by Toronto it was because he was given bad teams in the mid-'90s with young, developing players.
As for Ryan, I believe the logic of him pitching the eighth in K.C. was that Gibbons wanted him to get his work, but if they had blown the lead with someone else out there in the eighth, then there would have been no bottom of the ninth for Ryan to get his work in. If that is indeed the reason, then Gibbons showed very little faith in his other bullpen guys. That sort of defeatist attitude can be contagious.
Q: Hi Richard,
I have had this question on the back burner waiting for a "sense of urgency" amongst the Jays' fans. I think that time may have arrived. When Ernie Whitt was moved from bench coach to first and Brian Butterfield was "promoted" to that position, "web chatter" suggested that move was to facilitate the change of managers when the eventual demise of Gibby took place. The word was that when Brian took over the club his personality and way of playing ball which we hear is somewhat opposite to John Gibbons would be the spark that the Jays would need to turn the corner and then contend if they still were not too far behind the others. The unspoken comment seems to be that Ernie and John are too similar in coaching styles. Your comments/observations as an insider would be appreciated. Cheers!
Paul Bertils, North Bay, Ont.
A: Web chatter is sometimes wrong ands it is this time. In fact, if the idea was to have Butterfield ready for when it came time to fire Gibby, why would they put him in the dugout helping to make the very same game decisions that would lead to Gibby's firing? Shrapnel. Besides, Butter could have easily gone from the third-base coaching box into the manager's hot seat.
The reason for the coaching change was that Gibbons and Whitt were not close enough in terms of a personal relationship to make the manager/bench coach relationship effective. There's a need for trust and immediacy. As for Butterfield taking over, there are some guys that are great coaches, but don't work out when they get promoted to manager. Pressures change. Personalities change. Butter loves his current job and certainly would not turn down a chance to manage but is not angling for it. As for Whitt, I think when they moved him from the dugout to first base, they were thinking that he would choose to look elsewhere for another job. He stayed.
Q: Hi Richard. Two questions for you:
Now that Rolen & Lind are back in the fold, I've got hopes (not high ones, but hopes nonetheless) that the Jays will get back on a winning track. How are you feeling? Hopeful? Doubtful? Certain one way or another? Why?
Secondly, I need your help understanding the Eckstein versus McDonald argument. Sure Eckstein can hit, but how many runs is he worth a game? One at most, either scoring or producing? But his defence is atrocious; he’s so cringe-worthy my heart starts going anytime he’s involved in a play. He looks like me out there (and I can't catch or throw); seriously. So let's say he costs the Jays half a run every game (I'm being generous) due to his lack of range, catching & throwing ability. On the other hand, McDonald is a wash on offence (won't score many runs but will hit .240 or .250 maybe so won’t cost them many runs). And on defence, he's got to save at least .5 runs a game but probably one due to his great range, catching, and throwing. By my calculation the two are almost equal, with McDonald giving the Jays a slight edge. Am I wrong? Do we wait until the end of the season on this one? Thanks for helping me out.
Troy Kolar, Toronto
A: Now that Rolen and Lind are back in the fold and the fact that the starting pitching continues to be solid, it gives me great confidence that this Jays team can still reach a wins total in the mid to high 80s.
As for Eckstein vs. McDonald, they are both great guys, but burying McDonald at the end of the bench does not seem like the most judicious use of your resources. I believe Johnny Mac could be used defensively at the end of games in which the Jays have a lead and could start when Halladay pitches, since Doc doesn't need a lot of runs to be competitive. Besides, it's not like Doc has benefited from '27 Yankees-type support.
Q: Hi Richard,
Hoping you can field an easy one for me - my question is about batting order. I recently heard you on TV discussing the departure of Frank Thomas and you noted "you can't bat him 8th." Why not? While the role of the leadoff, clean-up and number 9 hitter seem clearly defined, the other slots theoretically seem relatively interchangeable (save for the need for speed at the top and power in the middle of the order). Is there some universal theory as to who bats 6, 7 or 8? Thanks.
Jeff Roberts, Ottawa
A: Any thought about the Big Hurt not being an eighth place hitter is not based on an outline or criteria of what makes a good eighth place hitter. But you just know he would not have been happy to bat eighth. Add to that the fact that with the Jays catcher batting ninth followed by Eckstein in leadoff, why would anyone throw Thomas a hittable strike with runners in scoring position. Then, when he reached base, it would become station-to-station baseball. The DH is not supposed to just be seen as a chance to reach base and wheel through the top of the order again. The actual theory of a batting order rests with the one through five spots. The rest of the starters just trickle into the six through nine spots with RBI guys followed by a decent on-base guy at the bottom.
Every Wednesday , Richard Griffin answers your Blue Jays questions, only at thestar.com. Click here to submit a question.