TORONTO – When the Toronto Blue Jays announced they had hired Mark Shapiro from the Cleveland Indians as the replacement for outgoing club president Paul Beeston, the club was playing some inspired baseball.
They were 74-57 on Aug. 31 and a game and a half up on the New York Yankees. We know what happened after that.
But perhaps a more important question is what the Blue Jays’ record was when they began negotiating with Shapiro, who left the Indians after a 25-year career that began in 1991 and included 10 years as the Indians general manager before taking over as president at the end of the 2010 season.
When did Blue Jays ownership (Rogers Communications, owners of Sportsnet) approach Shapiro, and what state did they perceive their baseball team?
In figuring out where the Blue Jays are with general manager Alex Anthopoulos and what the fit between him and Shapiro might be, understanding the timing might be everything when it comes to how contentious those negotiations might be and what vision for the Blue Jays Shapiro has in mind.
That Shapiro’s first significant act as president would be to send the popular Anthopoulos on his way – either actively or passively – moments after executing one of the most exciting seasons in franchise history might seem inconceivable, not to mention a public relations disaster, but stranger things have happened.
Again, timing: Were the Blue Jays at their lowest point – 23-30 on June 2 – when they reached out, in which case Shapiro might have been approached about conducting some kind of house cleaning with the expectation that he would bring in his own people top to bottom?
Were they kicking along at .500 in late July, before the trade deadline? Back then the metrics suggested that the Blue Jays were a much better team than their record, which is why Anthopoulos was so aggressive.
But are the people that Anthopoulos and Beeston answer to as well versed in Pythagorean Won-Loss percentage (which projected the Blue Jays to find success) as Anthopoulos and his staff?
Or did they simply look at the Blue Jays record and see yet another collection of players assembled by Anthopoulos and managed by Gibbons that – even in a weakened AL East – could only vaguely hope to earn a wild card berth?
And in that light, you have to wonder what their conversations with Shapiro were like?
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If at the time the Blue Jays were struggling, then it’s not hard to imagine they promised a wide range of responsibilities including – perhaps – final say on baseball matters and the right to install a general manager of his choosing.
And at the time it might not have seemed like that big a deal if those negotiations included the right, for example, to let Anthopoulos’ contract to expire, and let the Montreal-born executive walk, or at the minimum reduce his authority.
Or the right to replace the significant members of Anthopoulos’ hand-picked scouting and front office staff, almost all of whom are also at the end of their contracts, it should be noted.
Or replace Gibbons, the dugout presence Anthopoulos brought back to the organization precisely because he believed there was a trust and loyalty built up from Gibbons’ first rotation with the club.
Winning changes everything.
In the two months since Shapiro accepted the job there isn’t a single element of the organization that anyone could realistically point to and suggest that Anthopoulos missed the boat on.
His big moves – the deals for Troy Tulowitzki and David Price – worked out superbly.
His minor moves – the trading for Marco Estrada or even plucking Chris Colabello off waivers – worked out better than anyone could have reasonably expected.
The work the Blue Jays have done on drafting and developing players put them in position to acquire pieces they needed this year, while also leaving enough in the cupboard that in the clinching game of the ALDS, the Blue Jays were pitched into the next round by three homegrown pitchers with an average age of 22 in Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna. And there is more young talent on the cusp.
All of which could go some distance to explaining why Anthopoulos hasn’t yet got his deal done.
Which organization is Shapiro being brought in to fix?
The one that seemed to be well on its way to a 23rd summer out of the playoffs in mid-July? Or the one that looks like a juggernaut requiring some pitching help to blow away the AL East again a season from now thanks to the guidance, patience and good judgment of its emerging general manager.
Anthopoulos is the last one to make a case for himself publicly or take credit for what he believes is a team effort from top to bottom, but he did allow at his end-of-season media address Monday that after six years on the job as general manager, he felt he’s begun to “hit his stride.”
He feels like he’s struck on the right balance in evaluating players and what their complete makeup can bring to a team – not only their physical tools, but placing greater emphasis on harder-to-measure traits like competitiveness, baseball smarts and being a good teammate.
“By design, last off-season we really targeted a certain type of player and we walked away from a lot of players that were talented and productive that didn’t fit what we were trying to do,” said Anthopoulos. “And I don’t know as a GM I would have done that a couple of years earlier. I was so caught up on value, contractual status and things like that. You learn from your mistakes and you adjust.”
I believe Anthopoulos is sincere when he says that he didn’t want to distract himself from the heat of a pennant race by negotiating his own deal in August or September, even if he had the option. I asked him if he was on “pins-and-needles” in regards to his status, which is how the silence from all corners on the issue makes it seem sometimes – requests for comment from several Rogers and Blue Jays sources on Monday were declined.
“No, this was an important year with what was going on and it was important that we could all spend our time worrying about trying to win games and trying to enjoy it,” said Anthopoulos. “This was my choice [so] the organization, the players to anyone else, would not have any distractions to take away from what we were trying to do.”
And while they fell short of a World Series berth, what they did get done was extraordinary by any measure, not the least of which was financially.
The Game 6 loss on Friday night drew 5.12 million viewers on Sportsnet with a peak audience of 12 million, making it the largest television audience in network history. The top-10 most watched broadcasts ever on Sportsnet were Blue Jays games during this post-season run and that caps a regular-season rush of record audiences.
Those in turn are reflective of the fever at the gate as the Blue Jays sold out every home game but one at Rogers Centre from the middle of August on. This from a team that was 17th and 23rd, respectively, in MLB attendance the previous two seasons.
Anthopoulos couldn’t believe it himself.
“It shows the interest level in the ball club across Canada,” he said. “I’d been told about it, I’d been told about the World Series years and the interest level and selling out every night, but until you see it for yourself, you don’t completely realize it and it was great to see.”
And on-field success seemed to flow to the bottom line. Rogers Communications Inc., saw its third-quarter profits exceed Bay Street expectations, with the stock price increasing 4.3 per cent from a target price of $46 to $50.
Most importantly for Anthopoulos this only increased his leverage.
His ability to write a deal for himself that presumably gives him the kind of control he deserves is greater than it was before the great Blue Jays offence he assembled finally began to fire on all cylinders.
Shapiro’s first official day on the job is Nov. 1. Assuming nothing gets done between now and then, Anthopoulos will have been a free agent for 24 hours, as his deal expires on Oct. 31.
When the Blue Jays finally get around to talking terms with their general manager, he’ll have a lot of accomplishments he can point to with pride. The results are as real and tangible as Jose Bautista’s epic home run in Game 5 of the ALDS. They weren’t necessarily in view when things were looking so uncertain in June or July.
The organization doesn’t necessarily have the same needs as they might have thought they did when Shapiro was first contacted, way back when.
The question becomes: Who is going to break it to the new guy?