White Flag?

There are rumblings that the Toronto Blue Jays may simply punt on 2009. With the injuries to Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum and the likely departure of A.J. Burnett it may be that absent a significant infusion of cash, there is no way the Jays feel they can compete with the still rising (and current AL champion) Tampa Bay Rays, the wealthy and organizationally solid Boston Red Sox and the major reloading of the New York Yankees.

On top of the yawing gap in the middle of the starting rotation there is no bona fide DH to speak of (too early to know if Travis Snider is ready to be a full time masher); the middle infield is uncertain while Aaron Hill continues to recover and the shortstop position still undecided; the infield corners could be excellent defensively and competent offensively or they could fall off a cliff; and while Rod Barajas occasionally wields a hot stick, nobody would consider Toronto catching to be upper-echelon.

Factor in the weak Canadian dollar and an uncertain economy it may be that the Jays decide to take a mulligan on 2009 and looking to 2010 and beyond to make a run. Indeed, while J.P. Ricciardi occasionally involves himself in the verbal version of the Calgary Stampede with his male bovine heaving exploits, his recent comments in the Toronto Star may be an indication that the Blue Jays are getting a head start on “wait ’til next year” proclamations.

Regarding the Jays futile attempts at retaining A.J. Burnett, Ricciardi opined: “If it doesn’t work out, we’re going to have to step back and see which direction we’re going to go.” Let’s consider the implications of this; there is (if the ol‘ torero is to be bull-ieved) that there is no back up or fall back position: make a run at Burnett and if that fails it’s time to rethink the strategy for 2009 since, “No, I don’t think there’s anything out there that we can get involved in at this point that makes any sense for us.”

When one considers the following: A.J. is often injured and only pitches 200 innings if he’s pitching for a contract and he is the sole pitching target when there are three spots open in the starting rotation (two if David Purcey is given a job there).

Why?

We’ve got growing concerns about what’s happening in the world … It would be foolish of us to stick our heads in the sand and say, `We’re not affected by any of this.’ Our payroll hasn’t been adjusted, but everyone is aware of what’s going on.”

While every team in the AL has to deal with this I guess only the Jays are going to let it decide their chances next season.

I find it odd that they might be willing to pay $15 million a year for Burnett but not take a cheaper flier on Jon Garland. Some may turn up their nose at that option feeling he’d get shelled pitching against the beasts of the AL East regularly, but over the last three seasons Garland has a 4.40 ERA against the Red Sox, Rays and Yankees (slightly lower than league average amount of runs scored).

He was about the AL median in 2006 against the Jays’ rivals, was roughed up a bit in 2007 but pitched superbly (3.18 ERA) against them last season. Garland has thrown at least 190 innings in each of the last seven seasons so he’s durable, he’s coming off a sub-par year so he’d be cheap(er) and require less compensation plus he gives up a lot of ground balls (better than Shaun Marcum and Jesse Litsch in that regard) and few walks (a BB/9 of 2.29 since 2006) which means the Jays infield defense gives him a huge boost and not insignificantly they’d never have to face him. Garland has only been beaten by Toronto twice in 11 career starts—he faced them three times last season and posted a 3.15 ERA in 20 innings.

The fact that Ricciardi has declared Burnett was the only option means that the front office has decided (if J.P. is being truthful) that if A.J. doesn’t re-sign then they’re punting on aught-nine.

I suppose after 15 years of falling short, one more won’t hurt. After all, the Pittsburgh Pirates are working on year 17 and it hasn’t triggered the apocalypse.

However, this much is certain: 2009 should be Ricciardi’s final year as GM of the team.

Since he was hired in November, 2001 contraction candidates Minnesota Twins and Oakland A’s have combined for seven 90-win seasons and an equal number of postseason appearances; the Houston Astros, Colorado Rockies, the Tampa Bay Rays and [insert name] Angels have won their inaugural pennants (Angels won it all in 2002); another contraction candidate (the Florida Marlins) won a World Series; a team that arrived in the league in 1998—the Arizona Diamondbacks—copped a pair of division titles; and even one of the most moribund franchises in major league history (Philadelphia Phillies) have won back-to-back division titles and their second World Series in over a century-and-a-quarter.

Also of note, the Boston Red Sox won two world titles after an eight decade-plus drought and the Chicago White Sox ended a similar run of futility. The Detroit Tigers finally put it all together after a 20-year postseason hiatus, the Brewers just ended a quarter-century-plus absence and getting back to the Angels; there was a time when they were considered among the most inept teams in the sport (when Disney does a movie where divine intervention is required to win … well, that’s pretty bad) have only missed the postseason twice during the Ricciardi era.

The point is, a lot of these teams looked hopeless at various points, some so much so that they were targeted for extinction, yet all of them managed to put together a team that made it to October despite significant obstacles. Some of the teams had poor leases and stadiums, others were considered small (or poor) markets, still others rose from the unique challenges of expansion. Yet those obstacles were overcome and success achieved.

It is not that Ricciardi is incompetent; after all, he assembled the best pitching staff seen in the sport in two decades and a very solid defensive unit. He certainly has his strengths, yet those weaknesses negate them. At some point, a good GM has to recognize that the time is now yet Ricciardi is perpetually locked in “future” mode as in “he won’t mortgage/jeopardize the future.” At some point, a team looking to contend has to be able to discern a window of opportunity has opened and that there is enough talent on hand that it’s time to go for the gold.

2008 was the Jays window but Ricciardi was concerned about the future. Think about it: is there anyone that thought if A.J. Burnett had a good year that he wouldn’t opt out of his current contract? Burnett was red hot after the arrival of Gaston, Roy Halladay was having one of his best seasons and overall, as mentioned, the team had the best pitching seen in 20 years. What kind of damage could a one-two punch of Halladay and Burnett done in the postseason? Dustin McGowan was gone, Shaun Marcum not yet injured and the bullpen, while occasionally nerve-wracking was the best in both leagues and the defense was superb—all that was required was a bat or two.

However, the future had to be protected, Marcum becomes injured, Burnett opts out, the Canadian dollar drops, the economy is knocked off its moorings and the future is so bright that the club is talking about simply punting a season or two and possibly rebuilding.

When it’s time to pull the trigger, will Ricciardi be able to do it? Can he be trusted to discern that the iron is hot and it is time to strike? Arizona was vulnerable and the Dodgers made a move, the NL wild card was up for grabs and the Brewers took a shot, the Yankees were scuffling, the Rays inexperienced and the Red Sox in turmoil plus having an injured David Ortiz and Ricciardi worries about the state of the team in 2011.

He’s like Buck Showalter: he can get a team only so far but someone else needs to be put in place to get to the next level.

Ricciardi has done some good work for the Jays but his utility to the club has peaked. In a sense he was a lot like the lineup early last season—he couldn’t recognize that the first pitch of the at bat (the present) was the time to take his big cut instead preferring to work the count in hopes that sometime in the indefinite future the perfect pitch (perfect circumstance) would materialize.

It’ll be depressing if the Jays pass on 2009 but after last season, I hope Ricciardi will not be the man making the big decisions in 2010-11 otherwise that window will close while he worries about the Jays in 2016.

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