The following is Part 1 of Sportsnet’s Q&A with Toronto Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro. Part 2 will run on Saturday.
TORONTO – There will be no major teardown and there will be no massive buildup for the Toronto Blue Jays during the off-season. Instead, they will try to tweak a roster that, at 30.9, had the oldest average age for position players in the majors, and that heading into Friday’s series opener against the New York Yankees had 25 players over 31 disabled list stints lose 1,357 games to injury.
That’s why during an interview with Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt on Sportsnet The Fan 590 this week, team president and CEO Mark Shapiro intriguingly said "it’s going to be a similar story next year," in terms of the risk and the wide range of possible outcomes.
Shapiro sat down with sportsnet.ca this week, and during a 30-minute conversation in his Rogers Centre office, touched on, well, just about everything.
Sportsnet: You’ve made it clear that your plan is to try and exhaust the competitive window with this group, you’re not going to tear it down to the ground and go the Houston route …
Mark Shapiro: And those are really the choices.
SN: What can you realistically do to not only hope all the things that went wrong this year go right, but actively make things better for next year?
MS: Two things. One, you can very rigorously look at every individual circumstance and partner with the player to control everything you can control to ensure that next year is better, whether that’s workload during the season, whether that’s approach the off-season, or whether that’s rehabilitation or pre-habilitation, or just baseball development or coaching. So individually looking at every player from a rigorous standpoint to work to address some of the things that went wrong this year. On the second level, you can be open to the creativity that an off-season brings, which means I can’t answer that question because Ross (Atkins) is going to be dealing with a variety of alternatives as it goes through that may not involve bringing the club back exactly as it is. That’s just the starting point. It’s unrealistic to think the club can be completely refashioned, but it’s not unrealistic to think that there could be things that change within the dynamic of the team.
SN: You have a handful of obvious opportunities to reshape the club based on natural movement – openings in one or both outfield corners, a middle infielder who can shift back between second and shortstop …
SN: … a starter and perhaps augment the bullpen, too. Based on trade talks you’ve already engaged in before the trade deadline and what you see in the free-agent market, what kind of opportunities exist?
MS: Well, the free-agent market, again, is more of the same. The free-agent market, again, is going to be veteran players, largely past their prime who have track records, and depending upon the levels that they’re at, give us a little more certainty in performance. Trading for young players would likely involve one of two things – trading from our existing major-league core, so you’re taking away from one area to address another, or trading our young talent. Not to say we won’t do that, I think there’s definitely a point in time at which we would do that, you’d like to know with more certainty we’re on the cusp of contention when you’re doing that, not trying to reach contention, because trading some of better minor-league prospects when we’ve just worked so hard to get back to where we are, could be something that puts us on the treadmill of never making progress. So again, I wouldn’t say that we wouldn’t do it, but we have to be really thoughtful about it.
SN: If you’re reluctant to trade prospects unless the circumstances are right, is there some logic in signing a free agent that helps now, but that you have to swallow hard on the back-end of the contract? Because if you’re going to keep Josh Donaldson for his walk-year and then see what happens, you need to give that situation the best chance to succeed. Secondly, as you start thinking about the next core to come, aren’t you going to want some veteran players in place anyways to insulate the kids who come up?
MS: That’s two different questions. The first one is, obviously, within a budget, yes. That obviously makes the most sense, that will be our underlying premise going into the off-season in looking at additions. The second one is I’d like to think we’re going to be extremely conscious as we look to identify, acquire talent and build a major-league team of what character is and how we want that represented here. We’ve got an acute awareness that when teams outperform their expectations, it’s often a collective culture and the makeup and toughness of their players that leads to that level of performance. We have a lot of those guys now, here already, just they’ve got to be on the field and playing. But yeah, that’s something we’re going to be conscious of, regardless of any stage we’re in, because it’s going to be important for us to continue to build upon the culture here.
SN: I’m guessing a couple of the guys you’re describing there are Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki and they’re under control through 2019 and 2020. They might coincide with the arrival times of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette, for example. Is there opportunity, based on what you know of the market, to add that veteran type that can help now and carry through beyond to be there for the kids?
MS: I wouldn’t rule that out. I think flexibility certainly has a premium, especially with those two big contracts already on the books for us. We need to be really careful about how limited we are going forward, just because we have $40 million committed in each the next two years to those two guys, along with the thing people often don’t look at, which is we have some very talented arbitration-eligible players that are going to be making a lot more money in the next few years, as well. But I’ve seen the power of those guys, whether it’s the guys here, whether it was Jason Giambi in Cleveland who at a very similar juncture in that franchise’s time and into a wild-card game as well, and he may not have put up very big statistics, but he played an integral role in helping that team.
SN: With Jeff and Stephen, you said it’s "almost a certainty" that Donaldson will be back next season. I know you don’t speak in absolutes, but what potential scenarios could change that?
MS: That’s probably not healthy, or productive or respectful to him to walk through. But it is safe to say with every single player in the universe, Mike Trout, anyone, there’s a trade that would warrant doing. So you never say with certainty that you won’t consider a trade. You set the criteria for what value would be necessary to get back internally. You look at those things all the time – even when (media) don’t find out about it you look at those things. And then you make the best decision for the franchise, for the organization.
SN: An extension for Josh Donaldson is going to be expensive. How do you balance finding the value between the immediate benefits the player brings you versus the longer-term ancillary benefits such a signing can bring, especially when you could be soon going through a core transition?
MS: Fans recognize winning and not much else. Show me a case study that shows that fans will pay to come out to see individual players when in a losing environment. We need to build a winning team.
SN: Knowing that the closer he gets to free agency, the likelihood is that only gets more expensive to retain that level of player …
SN: … when is the right time for you to try and extend him?
MS: For all you know, we could have already had those conversations. We may or may not have. We may or may not have them over the next six months. But it’s safe to say when you explore your business alternatives, the kinds of things you’re talking about are the kinds of conversations that are both productive and ongoing. But we don’t intend to have them publicly.
SN: Understanding that you look at rosters in terms of a player’s overall contribution and not one particular skillset, but if you’re looking at areas of this team that are in need of improvement, offence comes to mind, defence comes to mind …
MS: Durability. Athleticism. Flexibility.
SN: … where are the opportunities to improve most likely to come to fruition?
MS: We have opportunities, depending on free agency, in a corner outfield spot, possibly in a backup infielder spot to offset the risk that exists with Devon (Travis) and Troy. Those two, for sure.
SN: What areas of the roster coming back for 2018 do you feel comfortable with right now?
MS: I think, obviously, catcher, centre field, first base, third base – those are pretty good starting points for us. In Zeke (Ezequiel Carrera) and Steve Pearce, we’ve got two players that are clearly major-league, championship-calibre contributors, it’s just determining what roles they’re best in. In Go-Go (Ryan Goins), we have a guy who at worst is a championship utility guy and at best, maybe an everyday guy, depending on the circumstance and the team around him. From a positional player standpoint, I’m just stating the obvious, those are obvious things. Starting pitching – Stro (Marcus Stroman) was a championship-calibre starter this year, regardless of where that is in the rotation. J.A. Happ, when healthy, seems to just churn out quality starts and give us a chance to win games. We obviously need to get Sanch (Aaron Sanchez) back, he’s one of those pivotal points for next season. If he’s starting we’re feeling a lot better about things. If he’s not, it’s a little bit of a challenge.
SN: Within the evaluative process to determine the route forward, how much of a role did the relatively small gap between you and the rest of the league play in your decision-making?
MS: One of the silver linings of this year – and there are two for me, one being the organizational progress beneath the major-league team – is that we have a list of probably seven or eight things go dramatically wrong. And if any two of those things together – (Roberto) Osuna doesn’t blow saves, Russell Martin doesn’t get hurt, Josh Donaldson doesn’t miss as much time as he does, Sanch starts two-thirds of the season, just pick a couple – we’re not having this conversation about next year. We’re talking about how are we going to finish this thing off and win a post-season spot, and then win that game. So it’s not a big leap for us. We just have to make sure we control what we can control to make sure things go better next year.
SN: You mentioned earlier that durability is one area where you can make some gains. How would you assess the performance of the high-performance department this year?
MS: Like every department in the organization, we need to get better. At the major-league level, high performance is really all the same people that were here before, just in a different structure, adding physical therapists, adding nutrition. What’s misunderstood is that the bulk of the major changes in high performance are happening at the player-development level, and even at the player identification level. It wasn’t a good year for anyone involved with keeping players healthy and on the field. But if you go case by case, a lot of those are outside the area of anyone’s control.
SN: In previous years, when there have been a bulk of injuries here, the Blue Jays have done studies and assessments of their processes …
MS: Already done. If you’re not self-evaluating all the time and looking at was your process good, where were there holes, where can you get better, where are the gaps, you’re constantly reflecting on those things, so we did those as the season went on and we’re continuing to do those now.
SN: What have you found?
MS: I’m not going to talk about those things.