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Jays got it right hiring Ricciardi

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Give Blue Jays owner Paul Godfrey credit, because he got it right. It's all about talent, how to evaluate it, how to assemble it in the structure of a team under the umbrella of a budget.

Talent -- and the bosses' ability to judge it -- is the reason the Oakland Athletics had the second-best team in baseball in 2001 on a $30 million-plus budget. Talent -- Kevin Towers, et al -- is the reason the San Diego Padres will likely win at least 85 games next season, with a talented team in the field, solidified by the imminent announcement that Phil Nevin has signed a four-year, $34M contract extension -- and young pitching that by August may be 2002's version of the Houston Astros' rotation. The ability to evaluate and judge talent is the reason that the Giants and Astros compete annually on lower-middle class payrolls.

Godfrey looked and talked around, and he got it right. He hired the man who just might be the single best evlaluator of talent in the major leagues today, J.P. Ricciardi, to be his new general manager. And anyone and everyone who knows Ricciardi knows why he got the job. "Put it this way," said one National League executive. "With the talent they have and their scouting acumen (thanks to Tim Wilken and Chris Buckley), they will be a giant competitor for the Yankees. Letting J.P. put things together will be fascinating, because they can be really, really good."

As A's GM Billy Beane's field assistant, Ricciardi has been the guy who could tell Beane that Terrence Long could play, and that Jason Isringhausen could close, or that if he got Cory Lidle thrown in a trade he could win 10-to-12 games as a 4-5 starter, that Jim Mecir was the middle-relief guy to get. Or, when Beane was bucking the scouting department and was fascinated by Mark Mulder in 1997 and Barry Zito in 1998, it was Ricciardi who could go out, see them, come back and push for them.

If Dave Stewart had done for Gord Ash what Ricciardi did for Beane, Stewart would get a GM job, but being a GM is not based on an onfield won-lost record. If it were, Steve Carlton would be a GM.

At the GM meetings last November, Larry Bowa asked Ricciardi for his evalutation of Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Anderson. What Bowa got for a reply is precisely what he got when the season ended.

An AL GM on Tuesday suggested that Ricciardi be kept away from Montreal or Minnesota, fearing he'd package several of Toronto's prospects for Javier Vazquez or Jose Vidro. "Don't worry," another GM said, "there's a kind of freeze out there. A couple of teams have called Larry Beinfest in Montreal trying to get Orlando Cabrera and Vazquez before a dispersal draft, but he told them he can't do anything until he knows what's happening." (That hasn't stopped the Expos from banning minor league managers and coaches from talking to other teams, and in a conference call Tuesday called for employees to "remain loyal." Hahahahahaha).

Working out of his home in Auburn, Mass., where in the winters he coached Holy Names High School in hoops, sending 7-foot-7 Neil Fingleton to North Carolina -- Ricciardi has seen a lot of the Blue Jays and their Triple-A Syracuse team. Anyone who knows him well knows that he's believed that Toronto has as much young talent as any of the East Coast clubs.

"We'll sit down and evaluate a lot of things," Ricciardi says. The Jays have to decide if Vernon Wells is ready to play center, and if they have to move a couple of their DHs in Brad Fullmer, Shannon Stewart, or Carlos Delgado. He will have to decide whether or not to make Kelvim Escobar the closer and deal Billy Koch, where best to use Felipe Lopez and Orlando Hudson, how close Josh Phelps is to catching in the big leagues and what the timetable is for hitting phenom Gabe Gross. He has to find some office help, but that can be done, and he knows he has an owner who wants to win, likes baseball and just wants to know what's going on. For those prospective GMs who interviewed, Paul Godfrey became a major attraction.

Some in Toronto have made it sound as if Ricciardi were about the fifth pick to replace Ash. But Pat Gillick didn't want to move, now. John Hart wanted $2 million in salary and $90M in payroll, which wasn't going to happen.

Gillick would have been great, but Ricciardi is the right man at the right time.

Interestingly, when word spread Wednesday morning that Ricciardi had the job, one potential owner of a team on the market tried to reach J.P. to talk him out of taking it.

Sorry, J.P. Ricciardi has driven too many miles, ridden too many American Eagle connections, slept in too many Days' Inns and watched too many games to sit and wait. If you're a GM, Toronto can be a very good place with a chance to win right away, and few people in the game better understand what it takes to make a baseball team win.

Congratulations to Paul Godfrey. He got the right man.

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