Goodwill for Shapiro, Atkins will erode if stars aren’t locked up

Shi Davidi and Barry Davis recap The Leadoff, talk about Josh Donaldson, Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins.

TORONTO – A polite and warm ovation greeted new president Mark Shapiro as he took the stage at the Toronto Blue Jays’ annual season-ticket holders event, now dubbed “The Leadoff,” on Thursday night. The same went for new general manager Ross Atkins.

And manager John Gibbons? He received a lengthy standing ovation. True story.

“Wow, what a difference a year makes,” he quipped.

The love-in for Gibbons after last year’s American League East championship is understandable, but the welcoming of Shapiro and Atkins from some of the club’s most important stakeholders is a notable development.

After a beginning poisoned by the surprising exit of former GM Alex Anthopoulos and anger over the unsurprising departure of David Price to the Boston Red Sox, the tenor around the new regime may be shifting.

Maybe that’s simply due to the inevitable optimism created by the looming start of spring training. More than enough time has elapsed, too, for the raw emotion from the early off-season to dissipate.

Still, the goodwill won’t last long if the team doesn’t deliver on the field, and if things don’t turn on the two most pressing issues before the franchise right now: Josh Donaldson’s looming arbitration hearing and what that means for him longer-term in Toronto; and the expiring contracts of star sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

In response to a fan question about the possibility of avoiding arbitration with the AL MVP with a multi-year deal, Atkins replied that, “We want him here as long as humanly possible. … We’re going to do everything we can.”

The comment wasn’t just lip service, as the sides are working to find a way around the club’s previous file-and-trial policy with some type of longer-term arrangement, be it to cover Donaldson’s free agent years or beyond. What’s clear is that the Blue Jays seem intent on avoiding arbitration with the all-star third baseman, as general managers don’t compliment players they’re taking to a hearing the way Atkins heaped praise on Donaldson.

It’s like arguing the player’s case for him.

Avoiding any such drama would be a good move in many ways for the Blue Jays, especially since the situations of Bautista and Encarnacion are another major source of angst.

Retaining both players given the club’s financial commitments for 2017 – $67.5 million to four players before Donaldson’s third year of arbitration eligibility is taken into account – won’t be easy, especially if the payroll remains at its current range of $140 million.

“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.”

Locking up one or both is not without risk, but each has cemented a place in Blue Jays lore, and the franchise hasn’t typically enjoyed graceful exits for its iconic players.

Dave Stieb, Tony Fernandez, Pat Hentgen and Roy Halladay, who signed a one-day contract to retire as a Blue Jay, ended their careers in Toronto but only after leaving and spending long periods of time with other clubs.

Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar, Carlos Delgado, George Bell and Joe Carter, all members of the club’s Level of Excellence, each left and played their final games with other teams. Stalwarts like Ernie Whitt, Jimmy Key, Jim Clancy, Tom Henke, Duane Ward, Vernon Wells and Jesse Barfield also ended their careers elsewhere.

None of that history belongs to Shapiro and Atkins.

Having Bautista and Encarnacion play out their last seasons with the Blue Jays would, for a change, set the stage for the type of graceful, sentimental exit their predecessors lacked.

Shapiro replied to one fan query about weighing the worth of Bautista and Encarnacion beyond the numbers and dollars by saying, “When you’re making those decisions, you’re not just looking at a balance sheet, you’re not just looking at statistics.

“You are factoring in what a player means,” he continued. “Factoring in what he means to his team, as a teammate, you’re factoring in what he means to his community and to his fans.”

The message was just right for the audience, and that’s sure to buy Shapiro and Atkins some capital, but the bottom line in such matters doesn’t live on feel and meaning, it lives on the ratio of production to salary and fitting that into a wider payroll structure, no matter how much a player is loved.

If that’s a message the new regime ends up having to deliver, the reaction at next year’s “Leadoff” is sure to be far different.