Atkins must tread carefully around what has and hasn’t worked

Shi Davidi and Hazel Mae discuss first impressions of Jays GM Ross Atkins, off-season priorities and the importance of Tony LaCava.

TORONTO – If you were looking for Ross Atkins to make you forget all about Alex Anthopoulos, well that didn’t happen during his introductory news conference.

That’s no knock on the new general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, who, given the circumstances, acquitted himself rather well Friday.

He was smart, measured and complimentary toward assistant GM Tony LaCava and the rest of the current front office – quite rightly so on the latter. But beyond stating the desire to build a sustainable winner and theoretical talk of philosophy and process, there wasn’t much firm to hold onto.

“Ultimately this all about the players,” said Atkins. “I’ve always felt that if you can create an environment where players want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, they want to be a part of a team, it takes the pressure off the players.

“Secondarily, players want to be authentic, they want to be themselves, they want to grow, they want to improve, but, ultimately, players are looking to take risks and looking to push the envelope and not fear making mistakes. …

“When you respect what it is they have to do, you can better understand how you can help them, how you can support them and how you can build around them. I also think those same values apply to a culture that goes to work every day to build that team.”

Aspirational stuff, but really, it’s going to take some time to figure out where this thing is going, which isn’t necessarily unusual when a new general manager is hired. Anthopoulos offered up little in his first meeting with media when he took over from J.P. Ricciardi on the penultimate day of the 2009 season.

Still, Anthopoulos inherited a terrible team with a tire-fire clubhouse and weak farm system. He had a blank canvas. Atkins inherits the 2015 American League East champions with the game’s best offence under club control and a handful of solid prospects just reaching double-A and below. There’s no need to sell future, since a franchise-wide recast is not only unnecessary, it would be a mistake.

Atkins must tread carefully around what has worked and what hasn’t, on top of needing to win over a suspicious fan base still coming to terms with the largely unwanted departure of Anthopoulos. The big-league team is strong. The environment for players was excellent last year. The club’s draft record is pretty solid. The player development staff has churned out players. Don’t fix what ain’t broken.

“Really, the biggest perception has been that they had 15-plus players to make the moves they made last year,” said Atkins when asked for his view of the Blue Jays’ player development. “You have to have a large amount of talent to make the moves they did, so I think they’ve done an incredible job of identifying talent, I think they’ve done an incredible job of providing resources from strength and conditioning, nutrition, mental, all of those aspects, for their players here. They have some incredible coaches here, some of them I know well, an incredible major-league staff that has transitioned players well to the major leagues, so I’ve seen a lot of positives from the outside.”

The same goes for the big-league club, which for the winter will remain the domain of LaCava while Atkins acclimates to his new organization.

Atkins believes the starting rotation as constituted is good enough for the Blue Jays to contend in 2016, that the club still needs some “complementary pieces,” and that the organizational depth needs to be fortified.

His outlook on 2017 and beyond is less clear.

“First and foremost, I see this team as very, very good. One that people will fear, and they’re going to be competitive,” said Atkins. “Really [competitive] windows, they’re difficult to talk about. You have to think about them, you have to plan for them, but it’s more about being flexible and agile, you have to face every decision and every threshold as it presents itself, and when you go through the process of making big decisions, understand how it impacts you in the short-term and long-term.

“I don’t foresee anything bigger than let’s think about how we can make this team as good as it can be, see where that takes us and then we’ll have to be prepared and think through what our alternatives are given our circumstances.”

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In a lot of ways, there’s the rub.

Anthopoulos very much viewed the 2017-18 seasons as win-now seasons, too. He would have made those years the priority. If the Blue Jays don’t win next year and change course afterwards, Atkins and Shapiro are going to wear it.

Though industry perception has been that Atkins would eventually end up in the general manager’s job, Shapiro used the executive search firm the Milwaukee Brewers used when hiring David Stearns to replace Doug Melvin. After crafting a job description for what he was looking for, Shapiro interviewed four candidates – Atkins, LaCava, Rene Francisco of the Kansas City Royals and one other person – none of whom had previous experience as a GM.

“I didn’t really look at that, it’s not something I said had to or didn’t,” said Shapiro. “Certainly there is a dynamic with me here where it maybe allows me to be a little bit more open-minded to someone that hasn’t because I can be a resource for that person and provide some of the depth of my experiences, good and bad, to help provide some support.

“But I think all that was a positive to allow the net to be wider and a little more creative and not limited to someone who just has experience. If I had never sat in the role, I probably would have been very particular that that level of experience or close to it would have been essential.”

Shapiro described Atkins as not only the ideal person to lead the team, but also build a collaborative management structure to ensure continued success. While that sounds like a shot at what already was in place, he insists it’s not.

“It’s less about a criticism and just about infrastructure, it’s more about some of the departments that have an opportunity to be built,” said Shapiro. “We hired Angus Mugford as director of high performance to oversee a mental performance department that’s largely not in place right now. There are opportunities in that, there are opportunities in building out really strong leaders in departments like [trainer] George Poulis and [strength and conditioning co-ordinator] Chris Joyner that have done outstanding work, but can really be aided in their work to ensure there are competitive advantages.

“So in the strength and conditioning areas and the medical services areas, how do you look at those as opportunities to beat people? How do you look at those as opportunities to gain competitive advantages?

“In [director of analytics] Joe Sheehan, we’ve got one of the bright young guys in the game today in analytics but he’s operating with a staff that’s smaller than most. Those are examples, not specifics, where we have an opportunity to build out the existing infrastructure to gain competitive advantages.”

If all that builds on what’s in place and the success continues, no one is going to mind one bit. If it doesn’t, people will justifiably, and probably angrily, ask why the Blue Jays messed with success, just when it finally arrived.

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