Jays go north with younger bullpen
Ricciardi likes Ligtenberg, but reliever not the right fit
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Some day, the Blue Jays will look back at their bullpen without seeing all the sunk costs. For now, the red ink is smeared all over their relief staff.
Toronto cut ties with Kerry Ligtenberg on Thursday, but the official paperwork won't be done until the weekend. The Jays will be responsible for his $2.5 million salary -- the second significant contract they've digested this spring. Billy Koch was dismissed two weeks ago, bringing the total to $3.4 million in released relievers.
"We were going to break with the best possible team we had. We weren't going to let money get in the way of any decisions," said J.P. Ricciardi, Toronto's general manager. "We're trying to build a bullpen that's going to be here for a while -- with [Jason] Frasor, [Brandon] League and [Vinnie] Chulk.
"Ligtenberg's a great guy and a pro's pro. He works his [butt] off. He's the kind of guy you want representing you, but he just wasn't going to be one of the better guys to go north with."
Ricciardi said the Jays are still under budget, even with the money owed to Koch and Ligtenberg. The team is currently penciled in at $50 million -- $3 million under the original estimate. Toronto has more financial flexibility now, thanks to an offseason pledge by team owner Ted Rogers.
That wasn't the deciding factor, though. Ricciardi said the twin decisions ultimately boiled down to building the best team. He also said his young relievers earned the benefit of the doubt by pitching well througout Spring Training.
"It's hard to look at Vinnie Chulk with that stuff and say, 'We're sending you to Triple-A.' If you and I were choosing up sides and it came down to those two guys, you'd probably take Vinnie Chulk," Ricciardi said. "That's not a slam on Kerry. Vinnie Chulk's stuff is a little bit better right now.
"We tried to trade him. We tried to be as honest with everybody and up front with everybody. We would've eaten a lot of money trying to get him a job so it wouldn't come to this. ... We exhausted every possible way of trying to make a trade and it just never worked out. That's why we waited this long."
The actual method of release is still in question. Ligtenberg said he expected to be designated for assignment sometime this weekend, but Ricciardi said the Jays might release him outright as early as Friday. The rationale for that latter strategy is clear -- to allow Ligtenberg more time to hook on with another team.
"I've basically known, more or less, for the last two weeks. It's not really a surprise," Ligtenberg said. "I can't blame them. They have some good arms in the bullpen. It wasn't a shock to me, because they have some guys that can take care of business.
"I think J.P. might've had his mind made up. I can't say for sure, but I definitely think I got a fair shake as far as being out there and getting opportunities to pitch. I'm not going to complain and say I didn't."
Ligtenberg said he'd take a few days to spend time with his family and consider his options. He also said that he's already told his agent that he'd accept a minor league deal -- provided that it comes from a team with a chance of competing for the playoffs.
The reliever has an arthritic hip condition that limited him for most of last season, but he said that he's finally figured out how to pitch without pain. Ricciardi acknowleged the health issue and said that he still thinks Ligtenberg can pitch in the big leagues. The numbers agree, to a point: The right-hander never had an ERA over 4.00 until last season, when it rose all the way to 6.38.
"I don't think last year was a fair assessment of his ability, in the sense that he was hurt. All we can do is make the decision based on the talent right now," said Ricciardi. "When we signed him, we signed him for the right reasons. You look at his three-year numbers up to that period -- they were always good."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.