Tuesday, February 01, 2005


You'd think I'd have a soft spot in my heart for the GM whose team drafted Roy Halladay and Vernon Wells under his watch. You'd be wrong.

There were many reasons to be dissatisfied with Gord Ash's reign of terror as Blue Jays GM, but just because Ash repeatedly did the wrong thing doesn't mean the Jays would be much further ahead today if he didn't.

Let me explain.

By at the end of 1998, two years after signing a three-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays, Roger Clemens decided he'd had his fill of all the complementary maple syrup he could eat and let it be known that he'd now prefer if Koby, Kory, Kacy, and Kody grew up Yankees fans.

Back in 1996, the conventional wisdom was that the Red Sox ace was washed up—or at least would be very soon. But a mediocre 10-13 win-loss record that year obscured a 3.63 ERA and he was still striking out over a batter per inning. Despite a career that easily put him as one of the five best Red Sox players of all time, GM Dan Duquette gambled that a 33 year-old pitcher was no longer worth the risk, and Roger was cut loose to find his fortune elsewhere. (Red Sox fans, take note: Pedro Martinez just turned 33 in October.)

This is where Gord Ash enters the picture, who improbably convinced the free agent Clemens to become the highest paid pitcher ever and join the struggling Toronto Blue Jays.

Clemens responded with his best year ever, and maybe the single greatest pitching performance since Ruth changed the way the game was played:

264.0 IP, 2.08 ERA, 2.22 RA, 204 H, 9 HR, 68 BB, 292 K.

If you're of a sabermetric bent, you might be interested to know that Baseball Prospectus translates that into a whopping 14.9 Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP3), ahead of Koufax in '66, Gibson in '68, Seaver in '71, Gooden in '85, and Maddux in '94 and '95. (Give 'em a handshake and a canned ham all, but this point I'm really only still considering arguments from the Pedro Martinez's 14.0 WARP3 over 50 fewer innings back in '00.)

His second year with the Jays was also a good one:

234.7 IP, 2.65 ERA, 2.99 RA, 169 H, 11 HR, 88 BB, 271 K, 11.5 WARP3

Now with back-to-back Cy Young awards, the 35 year-old had reestablished himself as the best pitcher in the game. (Well, maybe except for that upstart from Montreal traded early in the year to Boston.) Unfortunately, the rest of Ash's roster construction left much to be desired, and Jays continued to struggle.

And so mistaking his job as Jays GM is to improve the Yankees, Ash traded the disgruntled Clemens to New York for Homer Bush, Graeme Lloyd, and the return of David Wells in early '99.

I said it then, and I'll say it now: that was one crap-ass deal.

Like Raul Mondesi (28 yrs old, .815 OPS) for Shawn Green (26 yrs old, .972 OPS) the following year, it was a signature Ash deal: Save a little money in exchange for an inferior collection of talent that had already proven itself as inferior at the major league level. What the hell is the point? It's not a win-now deal (because nobody could possibly believe that any combination of Boomer, Loogy Lloyd, and slaptastic Bush could be more valuable than Clemens), and it's not a win-later deal (the youngest player sent to Toronto was 26). It's not even a salary dump (the Jays merely freed up the 2 1/4 million dollars they needed to keep overpaying Alex Gonzalez).

Lets look at this rationally. For a retooling club, what's fair value in exchange for an ace starter?:

Jeremy Reed, Miguel Olivo, Michael Morse for Freddy Garcia (and Ben Davis)

Dan Meyer, Juan Cruz, Charles Taylor for Tim Hudson

Kiko Calero, Dan Haren, Daric Barton for Mark Mulder

Considering Mulder still has two years left on his contract, it might be overly naive to suggest Clemens could have netted Ash two prime "A" prospects from the Yankees. But in today's market it seems straightforward: one prospect, one young major-leaguer with unfulfilled potential, and one guy who seems destined to be a back-up player.

So let's try to retroactively negotiate a deal for Ash. I'll try not to be too outrageous. After all, it's not like the Yanks were going to trade Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera. But they did have some good cheap talent, and the Jays were offering the best available starter in baseball.

We'll keep Homer Bush, who, despite being a starter for the hapless Jays, pretty much fills the back-up bill. What can I say? The Jays needed a 2B.

I think Ramiro Mendoza would have been a good choice for the "unfulfilled" potential guy. After a lot of hype, he finally had a good year in '98, tossing 130 innings with an ERA around 3.50, but he was still splitting duties in both the rotation and the 'pen. Given his age and minor league track record there was evidence to suggest he had the makings of a solid starter for a team that was willing to show some patience. Think Miguel Batista… or at least Miguel Batista before he came to Toronto.

For our prospect, remember when I said the Jays needed a new 2B? Well, after suffering through another year of Ed Sprague at the hot corner, they really, really needed a new 3B. The most obvious candidate to complete the deal would be 3B prospect Mike Lowell, but that would have required Ash to be quicker on the draw: the Yankees had already traded him to the Marlins two weeks before they completed the Clemens deal. Still, it's hard not to get sucked in by the tought: imagine waking up today, Blue Jay fans, knowing Lowell was only just hitting free agency and the past two seasons of Eric Hinske were all just some horrible nightmare.

Of course back in '99, assuming you were really set on getting an MLB-ready prospect, you probably wouldn't lose too much sleep over losing Lowell if it meant nabbing Ricky Ledee instead. Both 24 at the time, Ledee's minor league numbers were even more impressive than Lowell's. But whether because his subsequent development was stunted by having shared time with Chad Curtis (unlikely) or merely another case point in the limits of prospect forecasting (more likely), seven years later Ledee has yet to fulfill his considerable potential. Luckily, with Shannon Stewart, Jose Cruz, and Green, the Jays' outfield situation looked solid going into 1999. Instead, maybe they would have dug a little deeper in the Yankees system.

Daric Barton has been compared to Albert Pujols and Carlos Delgado, and if the Yankees had a Barton back in '99, it was a 20-year-old 1B down in single-A named Nick Johnson. Here's how the two performed as 19-year-olds in low-A:

Johnson .273/.448./.441 (.312 GPA), 33.9 XBH%, 1:1.3 BB/K
Barton .313/.445/.511 (.328 GPA), 36.7 XBH%, 1:0.6 BB/K

(Note: My OBP figures for Johnson are estimates based on BB alone, since I couldn't find HBP and Sac numbers.)

While I don't have any information about how the Midwest League in '04 compares to the Sally League in '97 (the former was definitely a tough place for hitters), I'll concede Barton a considerable advantage. But Johnson is still looking pretty damn good.

And next year he took a really big step forward next year in the Florida State League:

Johnson .317/.541/.538 (.366 GPA), 33.3 XBH%, 1:1.1 BB/K

That's not a typo. While the tale of Jeremy Giambi is certainly caution against getting too excited a players' ability to sustain a superhuman OBP unless they also slug like Barry Bonds, there's no doubt Johnson was a fine young hitter. Baseball America agreed and would name him the Yanks' top prospect going into '99.

So, imagine:

The Jays trade Roger Clemens for Homer Bush, Ramiro Mendoza, and Nick Johnson. Bush has a decent year as the Jays #9 hitter, Mendoza gets an extended tryout in the rotation, and Johnson joins Vernon Wells in AA Knoxville.

And with Johnson ready to join the big club as a regular by 2001, Ash might not have been tempted to re-sign Carlos Delgado to that massive 4-year $68M contract.

By 2003, Wells and Johnson would be among the best 3-4 hitters in the AL, and that greater financial flexibility might have been enough to push what was an 86-76 Jays squad past the Red Sox for the AL Wild Card. (Roy Halladay and, say, Bartolo Colon would have made a nice 1-2 punch, with enough extra money to nab Ugueth Urbina.)

It's all wishful thinking, of course. Even if Ash had been smart enough to make the right trade back in '99, would the past five years really have been that much brighter for the Blue Jays? Sure, Mendoza might have blossomed with a new club, but remember over that same span the Jays were unsuccessfully struggling to figure out how to realise Kelvim Escobar's potential. It's just as likely that Mendoza would have been another headache. And Johnson's inability to stay healthy, abetted by his uncanny Ernie Pantuso act (12 HBP in just 446 PA in 2002!), has deteriorated so badly that I'm open to the possibility that his destiny might be on the DL.

It's just something to keep in mind, Oakland fans.

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