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Ricciardi Says His Successors Will Face Same Challenges He Has In AL East

The calls for J.P. Ricciardi’s dismissal as general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays have been coming fast and furious of late. In some corners there’s a belief that his firing is already a done deal.

That would placate many of the club’s disgruntled fans, who have long called for his head.

But the man with a bull’s-eye on his chest says the Jays face the same problems no matter who’s running the team.

“Let me make this clear: It doesn’t matter if J.P. Ricciardi is the GM, or Joe Blow is the GM. Two years from now, five years from now, seven years from now, the reality that we face in Toronto is the division is not going to change,” Ricciardi said in an interview this week. “The Red Sox and Yankees are not going away. If the Yankees want to, they can take their payroll to $300 million.

“The biggest thing that people forget is that when Toronto won the World Series, they had the highest payroll in baseball. There’s a direct equivalent to that. If we’re going to play in the big man’s division, and we’re not going to spend that money, it’s going to be really hard for us to compete with those teams.”

The standings tell that tale. At 69-83, the Jays were 27 1/2 games behind the Yankees and 21 1/2 behind the wild-card leading Red Sox going into play Thursday. The standings also say that only Baltimore, Cleveland and Kansas City have worse records than Toronto in the American League.

The losing this season was expected after injuries and the departure of A.J. Burnett decimated the starting rotation, and no money was spent to bring in reinforcements. A quick start raised expectations, even though they hadn’t played anyone of substance, and made the inevitable fall all the more painful.

It also turned up the annual rite of speculating about Ricciardi’s future, which has amplified in recent days. He insists he carries on regardless.

“I don’t wake up every day and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m holding on,”‘ said Ricciardi. “That’s working in fear and I’ve never done anything in fear. I’m proud of what we’ve done here and if it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough. There’s too many good things going on here that we made good decisions on to shake my confidence.

“I get this feeling that people are dying for me to lose my job, they think my world is going to come crashing down. I’m not built like that.”

The vast inequities in the American League East have been an ongoing issue throughout Ricciardi’s tumultuous eight-year tenure with the Blue Jays, as the economic might of the Yankees and Red Sox has grown exponentially and led to massive disparities in spending on players.

That has given them a virtual monopoly on the division and AL wild card – the Tampa Bay Rays needed a near perfect season last year to win the crown but have faded back to reality in 2009 – and essentially placed a seemingly permanent road block in the Blue Jays’ path to the post-season.

While the Blue Jays have a payroll of US$80 million this year, down from $98 million in 2008, the Yankees are over $200 million with the Red Sox in the $130 million range.

The difference in resources allows them to consistently get the best talent available, keep their best homegrown players, and cover up mistakes or off-years by adding in mid-season. They can also use their financial might in the draft and player development, making them potentially immune to the cyclical nature of sports.

“Let’s say the value of our franchise is $500 million (Forbes valued the Blue Jays at $353 million in April). The Yankees spent that on three players last off-season,” said Ricciardi. “So it doesn’t matter who sits in my role, the division is not going to change, that’s the reality.

“We’ve done the best job we can do under the circumstances in the situation we’ve been given. At the end of the day, if that’s not good enough, that’s not good enough. But until those two factors change, the next guy sitting in this role, whether that’s five years from now or 10 years from now, is going to be faced with the same problem: How do you get by the Red Sox and the Yankees?”

Ricciardi believes the best path to a solution is by developing a young core and then adding to it through free agency and trade. That’s the route he took in the winter of 2005 when he signed free agents Burnett, B.J. Ryan and Bengie Molina and traded for Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay, who were added to a core that included Roy Halladay, Vernon Wells, Alex Rios and Aaron Hill.

They won 87 games in 2006, 83 in 2007 and 86 last year but never got close to the playoffs.

This season they began stripping off parts from those teams and will likely finish with around 75 wins. What approach to take moving forward is an open question, both inside and outside the organization.

“We’re at a crossroads – which way do we want to go?” acknowledged Ricciardi. “You have to look at your strengths here. Your strengths are Hill, (Adam) Lind, Wells – even though he’s had a bad year, I think Vernon is going to bounce back and have a good year – I think (Travis) Snider is going to be a good player … we have a chance to have a good staff.

“But you’re not going to win this division with kids, so you have to cultivate it so the kids start playing better and then you can add from there. That’s the best way to attack the division.”

Do the Blue Jays have enough pieces to merit another buildup?

The answer to that depends on how much faith you have in the host of young pitchers they’ve thrown into the fire this year. Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil, Mark Rzepczysnki, David Purcey and Scott Richmond have each shown varying degrees of potential, but none are money in the bank for 2010.

And here’s some more food for thought: that group went a combined 4-14 versus the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays this season.

“I think that’s the challenge we’re facing right now,” said Ricciardi. “You’re seeing the inconsistencies (of young pitching). You hope next year they take this valuable experience, bounce back and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ But they’re kids, you’re not going to win this division with kids.”

So that means either loading up, or rebuilding, since staying in the middle ground is what kills franchises. Indecision does that too, and there’s plenty of that up and down the organization, starting with the seemingly endless search for a permanent president and CEO to the status of the GM, who has already taken both courses of action with the Blue Jays.