Ricciardi making slow progress with Blue Jays

With J.P. Ricciardi running the show, the Blue Jays have a clear plan on how to improve their team for the future.

Originally Published: July 24, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

It's early evening in the Bronx, and the Bombers are taking BP.

Thwack

Line drive to right field.

J.P. Ricciardi
J.P. Ricciardi, left, is in his second year as the Blue Jays' GM.

Thwack

Line drive to center.

Thwack

Liner to left.

Derek Jeter might not have the greatest first step, but he can roll out of bed in January and hit line drives wherever he likes.

This column isn't about Derek Jeter (though the Good Lord knows the world could use another column about Derek Jeter). This column is about the guy who's standing at the foot of the interlocking NY. He's the only man on the field wearing sunglasses, and he looks like he just might be the happiest man in the world. In the back of his mind, he's plotting the overthrow of tonight's home team.

His name is J.P. Ricciardi, and he's the best character who got (mostly) left out of the book Moneyball.

Ricciardi's now one season and four months into his tenure as Blue Jays general manager, which makes this as good a time as any to ask him about the state of the franchise.

"I think we're going in the right direction. It's easy to forget that we've got nine guys on the roster with less than two years of major-league service. But it's hard to complain about 51 wins at this point in the season."

Indeed, on June 23 the Jays were 44-32, in second place and just one game behind the Yankees, leading the wild-eyed among us to wonder if the Blue Jays might vault into contention way ahead of schedule.

Didn't happen, though. A month later, the Blue Jays are 11 games behind the Yankees and eight-and-a-half games behind the Red Sox, and it's time to start thinking about next year. Next year will be Ricciardi's third year at the helm ... and in Billy Beane's third year as the GM in Oakland, the A's won a division title.

So when are the Blue Jays going to contend for something better than third place?

"I don't think we're that far away," Ricciardi answers, "but it's going to come down to our pitching. And it might not be until '06 or '07 that our young pitching is ready."

Those are the words of a realist. Generally managers often assume that all of those Class A phenoms are going to be Cy Young candidates in two or three years. But as so many teams have discovered over the years -- including the Giants this year -- it just doesn't work that way very often. Realistically, if you can develop just one good young pitcher every couple of seasons, you're way ahead of almost everybody else.

Vernon Wells
Vernon Wells and the Blue Jays suffered through a miserable first month of the season.

The A's, of course, have done better than that, which of course is the real key to their success. And it's the A's who serve as Ricciardi's model; after all, he might be Beane's best friend, he made his reputation as Oakland's director of player personnel, and he got the job in Toronto because he convinced the Blue Jays' owner that he could duplicate the Athletics' success.

So is there anything that separates Ricciardi's philosophy from Beane's?

"Not really," he admits. "We're cut from the same cloth, but maybe the difference is that we have to play in a division with the Yankees and the Red Sox. So many times, the reality of our division is sobering."

And yes, it looks like the Blue Jays might finish third again, for the sixth straight season. And while the Jays have obviously made a lot of progress since Ricciardi was hired, it's also true that most of their best players were signed and developed before he arrived. Ricciardi's job, then, is to build a farm system, and that takes time. As Ricciardi says, "We're two years away from having the system where we're self-sustaining."

When you talk to a general manager in July, you have to ask if he's got any trades in the works. Ricciardi didn't miss a beat: "Keith Law for Paul DePodesta." (That's an inside joke, for the benefit of both me and Law, who was within earshot.)

Finally, I asked Ricciardi a question, variations of which I've been asking a lot of people in recent weeks ... "With more and more teams following -- or trying to follow -- the Oakland A's model, where will you find your edge in five or six years?"

Ricciardi smiled. "In five or six years I'll be gone, coaching high school basketball somewhere, so I won't give a s---."

Maybe. Or maybe he'll be running a team in a division that doesn't include the two richest baseball teams in the world. Either way, there's one thing for sure: J.P. Ricciardi will be having fun. It's like Tommy Lasorda used to say ... "I figure wherever I am, that's the place to be."

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site. Rob will be in Boston this weekend and will hold a book signing on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET at the WordsWorth in Cambridge.

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