Blue Jays’ Shapiro still dealing with rocky first impression

Are the Blue Jays' chances of signing Josh Donaldson to a multi-year contract better with Mark Shapiro in the president’s chair? Jeff Blair joins Hazel Mae to discuss.

Mark Shapiro says it’s John Gibbons’ choice who leads off for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2016. But Thursday night at the Rogers Centre, it will be Shapiro himself in ‘The Leadoff’ spot — he’ll be front and centre at the organization’s annual gathering with season-ticket holders.


WATCH LIVE: Blue Jays to host fans in ‘The Leadoff’ on sportsnet.ca Thursday


Until now, the city has known him through appearances on television in news conferences or words and thoughts distilled through the press. And talking to Shapiro in his office at the Rogers Centre, it’s clear that he very much understands that his messaging has been met with mixed reviews. In fact, he and general manager Ross Atkins discussed the matter over dinner earlier this week. It has to get tiresome, you know? I mean, Major League Baseball puts out new Spring Training hats that drop the red from the Blue Jays logo and people see a Cleveland conspiracy.

Shapiro still returns to Cleveland on the weekend to see his family; his wife and kids will move up to Toronto once school is finished. He flies out Friday, returns Sunday or Monday. He can’t wait for them to all be together in Toronto and — hey, who knows? — at some point, he might be able to stop being asked to compare the Cleveland Indians.

Ah, but not just yet ...

Terry Pluto, a terrific sports reporter with the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, wrote a book on the Indians in the John Hart/Shapiro era called ‘Dealing’ -- a fair and balanced look at Shapiro’s work with the Indians en route to getting the team back to the playoffs. By ‘fair’ I mean that Pluto details the successes and the flops. And if you are a GM long enough, you record your share of failures along the way.

Shapiro smiles when it is suggested that one of the subtexts to the book is how the Indians made tough decisions to let go of free-agent players who were fan favourites and considered keys to the franchise -- players such as Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel. So he knows where the Blue Jays are going at a time when Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are entering their walk seasons, and Encarnacion’s agent has effectively said his client won’t talk about a new contract once the season starts. It’s a safe bet that regardless of how controlled the environment is at The Leadoff event, answering questions about Bautista and Encarnacion is going to get as old as questions that begin with, “So, when you were in Cleveland …”

“I wouldn’t look to that area,” Shapiro said. “Cleveland is a very different situation with a different level of risk that was tolerated. I’ve said this: I would be a different team president and Ross would be a different GM in New York than Toronto. And in Cleveland, Oakland or Tampa, I’d be different than in Toronto. You have to operate within the parameters provided. I mean, yeah, there are certain types of people I’d be happy to bet on wherever I was. But from a standpoint of risk … what I experienced in Cleveland isn’t important now that I’m here.”

Shapiro was genuinely surprised when asked if he had room for more risk in Toronto. “Of course,” he said. Asked why, he shrugged and responded: “Payroll.”

What Shapiro can’t say, of course, is that the reality of the situation is the Blue Jays are an older team -- albeit old with mostly elite players -- in a game that is skewing younger and with a greater emphasis on defence. They are playing in a division, the American League East, which is in transition. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox still have more resources than anybody else, but they’ve also deliberately become younger and, in the case of the Red Sox, developed a top-five farm system in addition to a young core.

Savvy baseball fans know that the piper will be paid at some point, likely in 2016 or 2017. But the simple fact is that with Spring Training just three weeks away, that’s not on the table for most Blue Jays fans. Shapiro and (to a lesser degree) Atkins are still viewed through three filters: first, would these guys trade for David Price the way former GM Alex Anthopoulos did? Second: will they get Josh Donaldson’s name on a long-term deal? Third: will they be able to convince at least one of Bautista or Encarnacion to sign extensions?

The first is moot, although the guess here is the answer would not be in the affirmative. The third is a little out of their control, as it depends on ownership’s willingness to spend money on a couple of 30-something hitters -- one of them a designated hitter -- in a game that is more than ever fixated on youth and defence. Mostly though, it depends on whether either player wants to skip a free-agent market that is painfully thin.

Shapiro and Atkins met with Bautista last month and from all accounts the meeting went well. Shapiro won’t say whether he’s confident about getting a deal done with Bautista, but what he will say is he is “committed” to working at what he can control when it comes to negotiations.

As for the risk? I wonder if Shapiro tipped his hand when he said: “Jose is probably as committed and focused on maximizing his potential as any player I’ve seen. He treats his body like a Fortune 500 company; he’s running it for best possible efficiency.” Translation: Bautista might be a guy who will fit into the Blue Jays’ definition of risk, even if this year’s free-agent market would seem to have raised the financial bar.

Edwin Encarnacion; Jose Bautista; Toronto Blue Jays; MLB

Both Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are set to become free agents after the 2016 season. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

“Free agency is not arbitration,” Shapiro said. “You don’t frame free-agent values on previous markets. Arbitration is a setting where you do that. The free-agent market is very situational, and it can change year to year by the demand for a talent or skill or a position; how the teams in the market at that point define risk; what their total threshold their for risk is; what their payroll is. So the value negotiated in free agency this year may or may not have an impact.”

Getting Donaldson’s name on an extension has a better chance of getting done with Shapiro at the helm, I believe, than it did with Anthopoulos -- regardless of the stalemate the sides reached in arbitration.

Similar to the situation with Donaldson, a late bloomer who won a Most Valuable Player Award in 2015 at the age of 29, the Indians found themselves trying to square a contractual circle with pitcher Corey Kluber, who won a Cy Young Award after the 2014 season in which he was 28-years old.

Kluber settled on a five-year, $38.5-million contract before the start of 2015. While Donaldson has a year of service time on Kluber, the structure of the pitcher’s contract (it includes club options for $13.5 million in 2020 and $14 million in 2021, with an escalator clause based on Kluber’s finish in Cy Young voting in the years up to 2020 that could up each option year as much as $4 million more per season) might provide a path forward in talks with Donaldson, who is three full seasons away from free agency.

I know, I know: I’ve gone ahead and done it again; gone ahead and raised the Cleveland thing. So how about changing the focus, then: how has being the son of a well-regarded and powerful player agent -- Ron Shapiro -- helped shape Shapiro’s approach with players?

“I love players,” Shapiro said. “I’m not looking to hammer guys. The way I see it, 98 per cent of the time we’re working towards an identical goal. That’s winning ball games. It’s just two per cent of the time where business interests take over and the relationship is divergent.”

Logic says it’s too early to judge Shapiro et al on the two per cent, let alone the 98 per cent. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.