It's never a good sign when your general manager is forced to speak like an economist.
In fact, my guess is the Toronto Blue Jays fan base felt a collective shiver down its spine when it heard J.P. Ricciardi defend last night's salary dump of outfielder Alex Rios by noting "the game has changed economically" and adding that "cash is king."
Because know this: However team owner Rogers Communications Inc. is going to spin the fact that it gave away Rios to the Chicago White Sox for no compensation, it now seems as if the Blue Jays are back where they were in the bad old days of Interbrew's absentee ownership.
Ricciardi stressed last night that in handing Rios over to the White Sox, after they had claimed him on waivers last week, the Blue Jays were ensuring they had "more resources to address some needs going forward" - chiefly shortstop and catcher.
The baseball club already cleared a chunk of payroll for next year by trading third baseman Scott Rolen - first baseman Lyle Overbay comes off the books after the 2010 season - and only a blind optimist thinks the money will be used to get Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay signed to a contract extension. Getting rid of Rios for nothing saves the team another $58.7-million (U.S.) guaranteed over the length of his current deal - but to what end?
Free agents? Who is going to want to come to a team that can't keep a once-in-a-lifetime starter like Halladay?
The only free agents who will be interested in Toronto are dead-end guys such as aging Los Angles Angels outfielder Bobby Abreu. Good luck building a team out of that.
Even in a depressed free-agent market like this year's, the Blue Jays weren't able to make hay. And know what? It's not going to be depressed forever.
More telling than the need for flexibility was Ricciardi's comment before the game, when he was asked, theoretically, if he would be able to take whatever savings he could squeeze and roll it back into the payroll for 2010.
"I don't even want to comment on it," he said.
There are only two reasons to make a deal like the one that went down with Rios yesterday: either to put the savings back into payroll as part of a plan to contend during a window of opportunity or to get a team ready to sell.
And as long as Rogers continues to have a team run by an interim president/chief executive officer, with a GM who has another year left on his contract but who made the kind of move usually made by GMs about to lose their job, the uncertainty will linger.
Rios, of course, displayed the same blissfully unaware sense outside the clubhouse that he often reserved for those moments in the field when he'd lose track of how many outs there were.
"I heard the rumours, but I thought I'd stay here," said Rios, who will play centre field for the White Sox. "Stuff happens. You have to be mentally prepared for anything."
Getting rid of the 28-year-old, two-time all-star who is batting .264 with 14 home runs and 62 runs batted in this season and who is a career .285 hitter, might give the phone-in show participants among the fan base their pound of flesh (going to a team in a pennant race … yeah, that'll teach him for snapping at fans) but it doesn't make the Blue Jays any better.
They have some nice young pitching, but none of them are ready to be deemed the heir apparent to Halladay.
Outfielder Vernon Wells is still an offensive non-entity and - woo-hoo! - the Blue Jays have him for another gazillion years, on the hook for $107-million unless he's booed so mercilessly that he begins to think about exercising an out clause after 2011.
But Wells's sense of bliss matches that of Rios and he has an amazing threshold for fan abuse. (I wonder if he realizes he is in fact the reason Rios was dumped, because Rios gives a team value as a centre fielder, the position currently manned by Wells.)
Think back to what has happened since the week before the trade deadline.
The Blue Jays have gone from trying to trade Halladay to saying that maybe they'll keep him and try to contend in 2010. Then, they dispatched Rolen and Rios. And while Rolen brought two good young arms in return, the Jays decided it was more important to take the savings on Rios's contract than try to work out a deal involving Wells.
When Wells signed his extension in 2006, eyebrows were raised at its length, but after the messy divorce with first baseman Carlos Delgado, it was seen as an article of faith.
Rios's deal made sense, too, because he was an all-star and the Blue Jays were seen to be taking care of their own.
Ricciardi was right when he says the game's economics have changed. What is disconcerting is that with last December's death of Rogers CEO Ted Rogers, ownership's game has changed, too - and not for the better.
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