Bad GM or Worst GM Ever? Part 2

Part 1 here.

After looking at the trades made during GM J.P. Ricciardi's tenure with the Jays, I found that, at worst, he had done a decent job. Nothing as terrible as trading away Michael Young for Esteban Loaiza, but nothing that would really cause his trading partner to want to take a cold shower the next morning.

Now, obviously, trades are just a part of putting together a team. How a GM spends ownership's dollars when signing free agents (and re-signing his own players) also goes a long way towards how he's viewed among fans, the media, and anyone else who might care.

As mentioned in part 1, when Ricciardi took over, he was given the task of cutting payroll and shipped many high priced veterans out of town in a series of cost-cutting moves. So, as can be expected, high profile free agent signings weren't on the agenda. Ken Huckaby was probably the biggest name to come in, and that's now mostly due to his crushing of Derek Jeter's shoulder on opening day in 2003.

However, once the '02 season was over and most of the expensive talent now playing elsewhere, the purse strings flew open and the money flowed. Mostly in the direction of Greg Myers and Mike Bordick, and the veteran catcher and shortstop both had decent seasons while making a combined $17.23. Obviously, neither of these were designed to be earth shattering, but both players contributed nicely to a surprising 83 win team. Also signed was pitcher Tanyon Sturtze, coming off an 18 loss season in Tampa Bay. Acquired mostly to eat innings, Sturtze didn't really help out there and was moved to the bullpen early on.

The biggest signing of that off-season was Frank Catalanotto. Signed because of his ability to get on base, Cat didn't disappoint in his 4 seasons as a Jay, providing solid production from both corner outfield positions and occasionally as the DH.

After a very good 2003, which saw a ton of hitting but not much pitching (aside from Roy Halladay's Cy Young year), money was spent on the pitching staff. In addition to trading for Ted Lilly, Miguel Batista and Pat Hentgen were signed to complete the starting rotation. Both were signed to very reasonable salaries, however the team stunk and it was clear that Hentgen didn't have it anymore, compiling a 2-9 record and a 6.95 ERA in his second go 'round in Toronto before calling it a career in July. Batista was only slightly better as a starter, before being moved to the bullpen and becoming the closer for the last stretch of 2004 and the entire 2005 season and then being traded to Arizona in the trade that brought Troy Glaus to the Blue Jays. Nothing here for J.P. to hang his hat on, but nothing you can point at that hurt the franchise long term, either. Also brought on board early in the year was Gregg Zaun after being released by the Expos. Zaun would spend the next 4 seasons as (mostly) the starting catcher and was generally solid.

The abortion of the '04 season went into an off-season that saw franchise player Carlos Delgado leave as a free agent, freeing up a lot of cash that hadn't been available previously. Most of this cash wasn't spent on free agents that winter, although there were three noteworthy signings. The first being Corey Koskie. The third baseman was brought in to replace (in part, at least) some of the offense lost by Delgado leaving. Unfortunately, his injury prone history from Minnesota followed him to Toronto as he only appeared in 97 games in his only season as a Jay, while posting the worst OPS of his career (.735) before being shipped to Milwaukee after the Jays acquired Troy Glaus. He would play only one more season in his career, as his injury woes continued and his career was ended prematurely with concussion problems. Also signed that off-season was reliever Scott Schoeneweis, who had a solid first season in a Blue Jay uniform before falling off in his second season and being sent to the Reds before the trade deadline.

What ended up as the most important signing of that off-season, however, was barely a blip on the radar at the time. Scott Downs was let go by the Expos/Nationals and was scooped up by the Jays. His first 2 seasons in Toronto were unspectacular as he was shuffled between the bullpen at the starting rotation, but once he was moved full-time to the 'pen, he took off. Serving as a top notch lefty set-up man to BJ Ryan (and then Jeremy Accardo and then Ryan again) before moving into the closer role this season, Downs has established himself as one of the best left-handed relievers in all of baseball. A great scrapheap pick-up for Ricciardi, and maybe the best signing of his career.

The next off-season saw the money dump truck really back up. Starter AJ Burnett and closer BJ Ryan were both signed to big money contracts, some of the biggest of that off-season, and catcher Benjie Molina was inked to a one-year deal just before Spring Training started. Molina had a decent enough season, hitting 19 home runs and posted numbers basically in line with what he had done with the rest of his career.

The big 2 signings, obviously, were Burnett and Ryan. Burnett signed a 5-year/$55 million contract and was to form an awesome 1-2 punch in the rotation with Roy Halladay. In the first 2 seasons of the contract, he definitely showed flashes of brilliance, but had some injury problems and missed between 10-12 starts in both seasons. In the third season of the contract, he was finally healthy and had some dominant stretches, leading the AL in strikeouts. It was after this season, that he used the opt-out clause that he was given in the deal, and signed an even bigger contract with the Yankees. This signing is a hard one to judge, I think. Yeah, the opt-out clause in hindsight hurts it, but there's likely an argument to be made that the Blue Jays never sign Burnett in the first place without that clause. However, there's a counter-argument to be made that signing Burnett in the first place was a waste of money, as it never got them into the playoffs. I don't think you can really call it a good signing, but it wasn't a bad one, either. It's a push.

Second on the list of big signings that year was closer BJ Ryan. Coming off of 2 tremendous seasons in Baltimore, the Jays signed him to the biggest contract ever signed by a reliever to that point. The first season of the deal saw Ryan make the All-Star team and post a great 1.37 ERA (although his strikeout numbers dropped a bit). After one season, it looked like it would be, at least, a decent signing. Yeah, the money was a lot (5-years/$47 million), but he was a dominant closer on a team that was in need of one. Then, the wheels fell off. After not having a good Spring Training, he had a terrible first few weeks of the season before having the dreaded Tommy John surgery and missing the rest of the '07 season and the start of the '08 campaign. When he did return in '08, he was still a decent pitcher. Obviously, not the dominant one he was prior to the injury, but he was still striking out a batter an inning (although, that was still way down from his peak years of 2004-2006) and still had a sub-3.00 ERA. Not spectacular and in no way worth the value of his contract, but still a serviceable reliever. The wheels fell off again in '09, as Ryan never looked good and lost his closer spot in the early going. Things got so bad that he was usually the last choice out of the bullpen and was released, with the Jays still owing him upwards of $15 million dollars. In hindsight, obviously, this is an awful signing. And, while it didn't even look like it would be a good one before the ink dried, Ryan filled a need on a team that was hoping to contend and someone, somewhere, would have signed him to a big money contract, so it's hard to fault Ricciardi too much for being the one that did. But still, this is the worst free agent contract that the Jays have handed out during the Ricciardi era.

The biggest splash the Jays made in the '07 off-season was signing aging slugger Frank Thomas to be their DH. Coming off a renaissance season in Oakland, hitting 39 home runs for the A's, Thomas was close to reaching the 500 home run plateau. Although his numbers declined almost completely, the Big Hurt was still one of the best offensive players on the Jays that season. However, after a slow start to the 2008 year, he was sat, in order to keep his vesting options, which would have triggered an extension for 2009, from happening. This didn't sit too well with Thomas and he was soon released, with the Jays eating his salary for the rest of the year. Again, like the Ryan signing, this doesn't look good in hindsight. But, again, at the time, it filled a need on a team that was hoping to contend.

Another good scrapheap pick-up that season was Matt Stairs. Signed to a minor league deal, he posted a .917 OPS while filling in in the outfield and at first. He was re-signed to a 2-year deal after that season, but was then sent to the Phillies at the trade deadline, where he hit a big home run in the NLCS against the Dodgers and eventually won a World Series.

The biggest signing before the '08 season was of former World Series MVP, shortstop David Eckstein. Signed to a 1-year deal, Eckstein played only 76 games in Toronto before being sent to Arizona. Eckstein was probably over-payed ($4.5 million), but Ricciardi wasn't convinced that John McDonald could be an everyday shortstop and saw a low-risk option in Eckstein. I put this contract in the same basket as the Molina one. It didn't hurt the team, but it didn't help the team, and I can't blame a GM for trying to improve a position (even if it was only slightly).

Shannon Stewart was also picked up that off-season. Returning to his first team, and making $1.5 million, played only 52 games before getting hurt and, eventually, getting cut from the team. A lot of fans point to this as a bad signing, as it was followed by Reed Johnson leaving town, but the numbers at the time said that Stewart was a better hitter for the role the Jays were trying to fill.

Finally, Rod Barajas was brought in as the back-up catcher, behind Gregg Zaun. Barajas outperformed Zaun and worked well with the pitching staff and was promoted to starter. While not having great numbers, Barajas has shown to have a bit of pop in his bat and has done what the Jays have asked of him, making him a decent signing.

As has been well documented, the Jays were the only team in MLB not to sign a major league free agent before the '09 season. A small number of minor league contracts were handed out, most notably to Kevin Millar.

In all, looking at the big free agent moves that Ricciardi has made, I think he's in the red. The biggest signings (Burnett, Ryan, Thomas) have all come back to hurt him in the end. Now, granted, it's very hard to compare one GM's signings to another's, as you need to take into account payroll limits, needs, and other things, but I think he at least gets some points for trying.

Next up, I'll take a look at how he's spent ownership's money on re-signing his own players.

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