You got to know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
You never count your money
while you're sittin at the table
There'll be time enough for countin
when the dealin's done
-The Gambler by Kenny Rogers, 1978
Kenny Rogers' classic tale of The Gambler has a specific application to major league baseball in the summer of 2009 in the person Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi.
Ricciardi held in his hot little hand the ace of all aces, righthanded pitcher Roy Halladay, and he (correctly) recognized the value in trading a piece like 'Doc', seeking to use dealing the popular pitcher to restock his organization with players ready to help at the big league level in both the present and future.
As we all know by now, Halladay was never traded. So what happened? SI.com's Jon Heyman offers a laundry list of things that went wrong from the Blue Jays' point of view.
Let me just say this... J.P. Ricciardi botched the Halladay situation. Bad.
He held considerable leverage, but could not take advantage and was completely outmanuevered and out classed by Phillies GM Ruben Amaro.
In my mind, Philadelphia was the only place Halladay realistically could have been traded. They had a clear need for a top starter, money to take on payroll, prospects to give up, a desire to get things done, and Halladay almost broadcast that his preference would have been to relocate to the City of Brotherly Love. All the other suitors had a prohibitive factor (money, prospects, whatever) that excluded them from really making a push at Halladay.
With that, for almost two weeks Amaro and Ricciardi engaged in a high-stakes, very public poker game. Amaro's initial offer of prospects was clearly less than they were willing to deal, and Ricciardi doggedly demanded the Phillies top three prospects (RHP Kyle Drabek, LHP J.A. Happ and OF Dominic Brown). As the days went by, the sides appeared to get no closer, and Ricciardi did nothing to help the situation by issuing his own deadline of July 28th (total bull), saying Halladay could go to the Red Sox or Yankees (which never would've happened without a huge intra-division markup) and like nine other things that were stupid to say publicly.
I believe that Amaro knew Ricciardi had no other options, and that Ricciardi thought that Amaro had no other options and therefore needed to get a deal done with him.
As deadline week began and both men remained entrenched in their positions, a report surfaced that Philadelphia was talking to Cleveland about 2008 AL Cy Young winner Cliff Lee. Ricciardi probably assumed this to be a smoke screen, and why not, everything he himself was floating was untrue, so why would Amaro be any different?
Ahh, but it was. On Wednesday July 29th, two days before the deadline, word came out that the Phillies were close to trading four prospects to Cleveland for Lee and reserve outfielder Ben Francisco. I'm sure Ricciardi couldn't believe this, particularly since none of the four players headed to Cleveland were the top tier players he was holding out for in exchange for Halladay.
610 WIP radio host Anthony Gargano reported on-air that a source close to the negotiations said the Phillies expected to receive a final call from Toronto about Halladay before completing the deal for Lee.
No call came. Lee headed to the Phillies.
Ricciardi was screwed. Even if another team decided it could deal for Halladay, the price had dropped considerably because the Phillies, the strongest suitor, were out of the running after acquiring Lee.
Ricciardi immediately went into damage control mode, publicly stating that he never really wanted to trade Halladay, and that the righty would remain with the Jays through the rest of his contract.
False. Ricciardi dangled Hallady for about a month, clearly looking to hold out for maximum return. When the Phillies got Lee, that possibility went out the window.
SI's Tom Verducci writes that Ricciardi is now the subject of unfair criticism asking, How can a team be considered a loser at the deadline if they hang on to the best pitcher in baseball? I like Verducci, and his writings are among the best you'll find of the modern crop of baseball scribes. But he's flat-out wrong on this one.
Roy Halladay will not be with the Blue Jays long-term. Whether he's traded now, or after the 09 season or he walks in free agency after 2010, he's leaving. And the Jays aren't winning anything in 2009, and they're not winning anything in 2010 either. In this scenario, the prudent thing to do if you're the Blue Jays is to get something back for your prized player. And the time to do that was by July 31, 2009. It only makes senes... you get a higher return for a player with a year and a half left on his contract than one with half of a year left. Look at Mark Teixiera. The Rangers got four stud prospects (Neftali Feliz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Matt Harrison, Elvis Andrus) from Atlanta by moving Tex with a year and a half left before free agency, while the Braves, who moved him with only half a season left, got only Casey Kotchman from Anaheim.
Ricciardi held out for a package like the one Baltimore got for Erik Bedard, who stinks. Look J.P., just because Baltimore robbed Seattle on a bad deal two years ago, that doesn't mean another team will overpay now. After the Lee trade, there was a report that Toronto asked the Dodgers for six or seven prospects for Halladay. Why not just ask for Billingsley, Kershaw, Martin and Ramirez too?
Jon Heyman's article states that the Phils had offered J.A. Happ, Michael Taylor, Carlos Carrasco and Jason Donald for Halladay. I don't know what Ricciardi thought of that offer, but I do know this... it's better than anything he'll get for Halladay now. Happ continues to impress, throwing his second complete game shutout of the season against Colorado last night. Ironically, his first came in Toronto.
So now where do we stand? Philadelphia is happy, as they got Lee to be a front of the rotation starter, and held onto Happ, who looks poised to help the big club down the stretch. They also got to keep Drabek, Brown and Taylor. Meanwhile, Toronto got nothing but a disgruntled Halladay, who has refused to talk about the trade deadline since it passed. And they're about to get nothing for Halladay, while continuing to not win, buried in the AL East behind Boston, Tampa and the Yankees. When Halladay walks after 2010, they'll get two draft picks in 2011, meaning they won't see any actual benefit for losing Halladay until 2013 at the earliest.
J.P. Ricciardi had a great hand, no doubt, the type of hand that you should win a whole lot more than you lose. But, as Kenny Rogers reminds us, it's just as important to know when to fold as when to hold.
Even when you're holding an ace.