TORONTO — Under the Rogers Centre’s darkened dome Thursday night, on a sprawling stage built above the pitching mound, with three massive screens erected behind them, and before a fanbase eager for insight into the team’s plans under new management, the Toronto Blue Jays’ brain trust met their public.
It was the annual state of the franchise event — renamed “The Leadoff” this off-season — and it brought team president Mark Shapiro, general manger Ross Atkins, and field manager John Gibbons into the spotlight before more than 2,000 season ticket holders with less than 60 days left until opening day. But before they could meet that public, they had to meet the media. Here’s some of what was said.
Chavez arbitration case begins
Perhaps the most interesting nugget to come out of Atkins’ discussion with reporters was a cryptic hint that the team’s arbitration case with right-hander Jesse Chavez is taking place this week.
“Ultimately, now the focus is on Josh Donaldson,” Atkins said. “There’s a case that’s occurring right now, as we speak, on another player. We are really focused on coming to terms with Josh and we’re going to do everything we can to make that work and try to avoid a hearing.”
The Blue Jays are going to arbitration with just two players — Chavez and Donaldson — which would seem to indicate that Atkins was referring to Chavez when he spoke of the case currently taking place. Blue Jays assistant general manager Andrew Tinnish has been spearheading the club’s arbitration efforts this off-season (he was able to avoid the process with seven of nine players eligible) and is likely representing the Blue Jays at Chavez’s hearing. Atkins says working with Tinnish throughout the lengthy, time-consuming process has been a valuable learning experience as he’s continued to grow accustomed with the Blue Jays franchise.
“I’ve learned a lot from Andrew and his process,” Atkins said. “Every organization does things a little bit differently and I learned a great deal from him. He did a great job.”
Many were surprised to learn Donaldson and the Blue Jays were remarkably close in their valuation of the reigning American League MVP, as the club filed for arbitration at $11.35 million while Donaldson’s camp filed at $11.8 million. It’s an unusually small gulf between the two sides, but when asked to shed some light on how negotiations transpired with Donaldson and his agent Dan Lozano, Atkins opted to play his cards close to his chest.
“Out of respect for him and respect for his representation, there’s only so much I can share,” Atkins said. “But there’s always two sides to a story. There’s always more to a picture than we can actually share. But in negotiations and arbitration there’s a process that is in place that you have to respect and it’s there for the integrity of the game and in hopes that you can do things as professionally as possible. So, respecting that process is all we were doing.”
It’s believed the Blue Jays are remaining a file-and-trial team under the management of Shapiro and Atkins, for this off-season at least, which means the only way the two sides can avoid an arbitration hearing for the second consecutive year is by coming to terms on a multi-year contract. Both Shapiro and Atkins (who told fans later in the evening that he wants Donaldson to be a Blue Jay “as long as humanly possible”) said that was their current focus.
“My discussions with Josh have been great. He’s an unbelievable talent, he’s an unbelievable player, he’s a great person, and we could not be happier that he’s here. We’re going to work towards a multi-year deal and hope that we get the best result there.”
The business of re-signing Bautista and Encarnacion
Once Shapiro, Atkins and the rest of the Blue Jays front office has finished the arbitration process and put their finishing touches on the team they’ll take to spring training, the group’s attention will turn to exploring extensions for sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.
“It’s a no-brainer that we want to keep them here,” Shapiro said. “The sentiment is there and we’ve expressed that to both guys. We’re not going to get into the specific negotiations until we get down to spring training, but those conversations will be had.
“A lot of things will factor in to whether or not we’re able to get it done, but we’re going to make an effort and it’ll happen during spring training.”
Bautista and Encarnacion have 14 full seasons and 440 home runs between them while playing for Toronto, which makes them both truly iconic players in this generation of Blue Jays history and two of the most feared right-handed power hitters in baseball. They will each command sizable contracts sometime in the next 365 days, whether they come from the Blue Jays or another team through free agency. Shapiro said he would consider all angles when it comes to determining the value the club places on each player.
“There are a lot of variables entering into a contract,” Shapiro said. “Some of those things are statistics, whether it be age, medical history, track record. There’s also the people they are, the character that they represent, the teammates that they are, the professionals that they are. Those guys have been responsible for contributing greatly to this team’s success last year. They’re great teammates and they’re representative of the resurgence of championship baseball in Toronto. We recognize that.”
What to do with Sanchez?
The Blue Jays will enter spring training later this month with a fairly established roster and few positional battles, but one highly anticipated competition will be for the fifth spot in the starting rotation.
At 22, Sanchez is one of the best young arms in the Blue Jays organization, and the team wants to be careful with how they choose to deploy him. He presents an interesting conundrum for the club in 2016, as most of his experience is as a starter but he proved to be incredibly valuable to the team last season when pitching out of the bullpen during its playoff run. There’s also the matter the of doing what’s best for Sanchez’s development long-term.
For his part, Sanchez has said he wants to start and has been working out all winter to make himself leaner and more durable. Atkins says the team hasn’t made a decision on which path they’ll take, but he’s looking forward to sitting down with the man himself to discuss what’s best for Sanchez and the team.
“We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and talking about it, and we really need to include him in the process,” Atkins said. “I look forward to it. I want it to be in person, I want to be as prepared as I possibly can be, and I want to make him a big part of it.”
Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker have been in contact with Sanchez about their plans for the young right-hander this season. The Blue Jays manager says they’ll stretch Sanchez out as a starter during spring training, and then make a decision on where he pitches by the end of camp based on performance and need.
“I think everybody would love to see him [starting,]” Gibbons said. “We’ll decide what’s best for the team. That’s really what it comes down to. He’s really so valuable to us because he can pitch either role.”
Dirt and grass
The Blue Jays announced earlier this week that the club will be installing a dirt infield at Rogers Centre in time for opening day this April. The process will involve excavating the cement floor along the base paths and infield by 30 centimetres, and layering that excavation with gravel, sand and clay in order to ensure “proper moisture content and conditions suitable to a major-league playing surface.”
The excavation idea was a result of studying the challenges the Tampa Bay Rays experienced when they underwent a similar process.
“There’s only one team to learn from, right?" Shapiro said in reference to Tropicana Field, the only other artificial playing surface in Major League Baseball.
"We’ve tried to learn from their experience and I think even in the installation we’ve made some alterations and changes in the depth of sub-surface that we’ll have that will allow it to hold moisture longer, which has been an issue down there. But there will be learning along the way. I’m sure there will be some things that don’t go perfectly that we’ll get better at.”
The implementation of a dirt infield was a priority for Shapiro this off-season, and he indicated that once he got the go-ahead from stadium staff logistically and ownership financially, it was “an easy decision.” Regardless of any potential challenges that may arise for Blue Jays head groundskeeper Tom Farrell during its implementation Shapiro is looking forward to the infield’s impact on both injury-prevention and aesthetics.
“I think there’s benefits to both the players and the fans,” Shapiro said. “It certainly gets our infielders on the dirt for the defensive part of the game and I think it will create a better fan experience too for watching the game.”
As for whether Blue Jays fans can expect to see grass at the Rogers Centre anytime in the near future, it sounds like they shouldn’t hold their breath.
Former Blue Jays President Paul Beeston famously said he’d like to have grass installed under the dome by 2018 and commissioned a study through the University of Guelph to explore the feasibility of the project and any potential grass strain options. Shapiro has clearly familiarized himself with the study and some of the challenges its presented, including the fact that grass would likely be installed during March and the roof wouldn’t be able to be opened until May. It’s not clear if it would be possible to keep grass alive for those two months.
“It’s still something that we’re researching, Shapiro said. “The study is still going on at Guelph, but there’s some real challenges. We’ll have to figure all those things out, but we’ve got people far smarter than me that are studying that from an agriculture and an engineering perspective and once we get the report we’ll know.”