Thursday, November 16, 2006

J.P. Ricciardi is no Billy Beane

Reports out of Toronto have the Blue Jays signing Frank Thomas to a two-year, $20 million contract to serve as the team's designated hitter. While the money's been flowing freely since the free agent period began, the difference between Oakland's offer last winter (1 year for $500,000 plus $2.6 million in incentives Thomas earned) and Toronto's (reported) offer today is so vast that if I didn't know that J.P. Ricciardi was Beane's top assistant a well-regarded scout in Oakland during the early Moneyball years, you couldn't convince me that they ever worked together.

When the White Sox let Thomas walk as a free agent, Beane saw a player who had been injured for most of the previous two years, but who continued to put up excellent OBP and SLG when he was available. Thomas's traditional 2005 line looked awful to the non-sabermetrically inclined. A .219 average, 12 HR, and 26 RBI would be a great Hacking Mass line if accomplished over 500 at-bats.

But looking a little deeper, those 12 HR were hit in only 124 plate appearances. Adding three doubles (and, no kidding, zero triples), Thomas slugged .590 in 2005. To compare, Albert Pujols slugged .609 that year. Thomas also continued to display the batting eye that's made him a Hall of Famer, walking in 13% of plate appearances. So Beane made sure Thomas was healthy and signed him to a no-risk deal. If Thomas hit, great for the A's. If he didn't hit, Beane loses barely more than the minimum veteran salary. We know what happened next. Big Frank hit .270/.381/.545 in 466 ABs. He was Oakland's entire offense for much of the season, leading the team to the brink of the World Series.

Ricciardi, the Blue Jays GM since 2001, is taking the Anti-Beane approach to signing a slugger. Thomas is coming off a monster year, is far past his prime (the proposed two-year deal will cover his age-39 and -40 seasons), and is clearly not undervalued by the market, even if the Blue Jays are the market. Gary Sheffield, who's one year younger than the Big Hurt, will get $14 million a year from the Tigers in 2008 and 2009. And those in the know are panning that deal too.

Last offseason, when Ricciardi signed two pitchers, A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan, to big-money five year contracts, J.P.'s apologists argued that the cost was justified if the Blue Jays were to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox and that the scarcity of top pitchers made the contracts worthwhile. This year, after finishing in second place in the AL East, they'll say that Thomas is replacing a bunch of crappy designated hitters who combined for only 16 home runs all year, so the payout is necessary.

I don't buy it. Will Carroll won't give Thomas better than a yellow light in next year's Team Health Report. Toronto should be happy if Thomas's counting stats over the next two years equal his output in 2006 alone. Spending $10 million a year on a guy who may himself not hit 16 home runs next year? Maybe J.P. needs to re-read that little book Billy wrote.

Thanks to Will at BP for correcting my memory of J.P.'s job in Oakland. Seems like I need to re-read Moneyball too.

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