TORONTO – So does this mean the period of mourning is finally over?
Does the fact Alex Anthopoulos has accepted another front-office position and also uprooted his young family to Los Angeles mean this is now Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins’ team?
It’s never that easy, of course. At best, what we will now see is a speeding up of transition, as much as a turning of the page.
This should be expected. After all, this is the first time since Pat Gillick’s departure that Toronto Blue Jays fans have actually been sad to see a general manager leave because, to be polite, there was a sense when Gord Ash and J.P. Ricciardi were fired that both were past their ‘best before’ date.
It was a season no one wanted to end, a ride no one wanted off. The Blue Jays didn’t go all the way to the World Series in 2015, but they came close and ended a 22-year playoff drought. And when it ended, it was sudden and conclusive and marked by high-profile departures; it was as if somebody decided to suck all the fun out of it before we had a chance to sit back and savor what just happened.
It reminded me of a comment Moises Alou made after the Florida Marlins won the World Series in 1997 and then stripped down so much they finished 52 games out in 1998: The ’97 Marlins, Alou said, “never had a chance to at least show up in spring training and B.S. about what we’d just done. It was over. Just like that.”
Whether Anthopoulos’ decision to become the Dodgers’ vice president of baseball operations will allow fans to move on depends entirely on a person’s perception of his departure.
Those who believe it was ownership shenanigans or a power play gone awry won’t be satisfied unless Shapiro and Atkins at least get the Blue Jays back to the playoffs.
Conversely, those who see it as just a professional parting of the ways are probably also savvy enough to fear a ‘reset’ should the team underachieve because, let’s face it, there are few players on this roster in which Shapiro and Atkins have invested their own acumen or reputations. And the farm system is barren – also, not of their doing.
Much of the criticism of the new brain trust has, frankly, been unfair. It seems to me that the most Shapiro and Atkins are guilty of is trying to better their personal positions both financially and professionally; they were offered jobs and accepted them. If an untenable situation was created, it was hardly their doing.
As for the off-season moves so far? Well, there is a fantasyland, I suppose, where David Price signs a five-year deal and stays with the Blue Jays. Face it, Price was not coming back and there are people within the team who knew that in September. My read, from things that Anthopoulos and those around him have said, is that Anthopoulos would have at least approached ownership about making a serious offer to Price.
J.A. Happ? Jesse Chavez? I think Anthopoulos would have done both of those deals. Adding reliever Drew Storen for Ben Revere was just good business, taking from an area of depth in a lineup with silly good offence to add another power arm to the back of the bullpen and opening multiple opportunities down the road. Anthopoulos liked Revere, and indicated during the playoffs he was leaning toward keeping him for 2016 after initially viewing him as a short-term acquisition, but the Storen-plus-cash-for-Revere transaction is the kind of revenue-neutral trade Anthopoulos favors.
Don’t think, either, that the departure of Anthopoulos salts the earth for a possible multi-year contract for American League Most Valuable Player Josh Donaldson, who because of his status as a late bloomer won’t hit free agency until 2019 at the age of 33. Anthopoulos, frankly, never indicated the slightest interest in doing anything other than going year to year with Donaldson, who is in his first year of salary arbitration. Could the transition to Shapiro, who was part of a creative Cleveland Indians front office, actually change the dynamic?
Truth is, there will be two occasions within the next six months where we will get the measure of the new front office. The first will be when the Blue Jays hit an early-season losing streak – which will likely happen – or perhaps find themselves in third or fourth place. That’s when we will see how committed Shapiro and Atkins are to manager John Gibbons, especially if, as many expect, former Indians manager Eric Wedge gets a job with the organization. Gibbons’ 2017 option kicked in on New Year’s Eve but that’s an irrelevancy: If Shapiro and Atkins don’t want him, he will be gone.
Although both players were acquired by his predecessor, J.P. Ricciardi, it was Anthopoulos who negotiated their almost-embarrassingly club-friendly extensions, so it’s understandable that confidence would be higher with Anthopoulos here. Conventional wisdom is that the Blue Jays will be able to afford one of the two and that Bautista would be most inclined to test the free-agent market because – well, because he seems the type, and there is a sense that he might want a change of scenery.
Here’s a caveat, however: Bautista is a difficult cat to read, either through words or body language, as those of us in the media have found out time and again. Nobody keeps their own counsel the way he does.
In the end, getting the players’ names on an extension is a bottom-line, economic decision for a team without any in-house options to replace them and two hitters (Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki) who are controllable, middle-of-the-order hitters in their own right. It’s also a bottom-line decision for two players on the verge of signing their last contract, at a time when the game is skewing younger and the market for mid-30s position players seems to be tightening. Translation: Sentiment wouldn’t play a role even if Anthopoulos was here.
So here we are. Anthopoulos is in L.A., as was widely predicted minutes after he resigned from the Blue Jays, and with spring training on the horizon there’s more oxygen in the room for Shapiro and Atkins. Unlike Anthopoulos, they weren’t able to train in this marketplace as assistant GMs before ascending to the next level; they haven’t had the luxury of figuring out who they can trust, which hallway leads to which front-office back-channel, let alone match media members and agendas. Who to confide in? Who to use to float a rumour? What are the ‘third rails’ – the things that fans hate hearing? (Hint: the phrase “payroll parameters,” is a no-go and, please, no more John Farrell references.)
This is the toughest follow-up act in the history of Toronto sports … and, finally, Shapiro and Atkins have the stage to themselves.