Blue Jays enter into off-season of opportunity with much at stake

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins hints that the club will be very busy this offseason, saying it will look more like the offseason following both the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

TORONTO – The bigger-picture uncertainty, at least at this point, seems set to hover above the Toronto Blue Jays for the foreseeable future, Mark Shapiro’s status a subject for both the industry’s chattering classes, as well as the club’s restive fan base.

Try as he might to quell the speculation by stating that he’s content in and committed to his role as president and CEO – something he did again Tuesday – the issue of his contract expiring after the 2020 season will be in the background of every decision that’s made.

And important, perhaps pivotal decisions loom, ones that will either propel the Blue Jays’ attempt at a quickie rebuild, or relegate this young core of talent to the same post-season-less fate franchise icons Carlos Delgado and Roy Halladay experienced back in their day.

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That’s why even if the competitive window doesn’t really open until 2021, at the earliest, the meaningful external adds must start now.

“I’ve been clear and consistent about enjoying where I am and wanting to be here,” said Shapiro. “From a competitive perspective, I want to finish the job. I think that’s incredibly important to me. The bottom line is this – I wake up every day excited about where I am, about who I’m working with and about what I’m doing. There aren’t many people who get to say that. As far as worrying about anything else, I just focus on doing the job and everything else takes care of itself.”

Of note is that Shapiro said one of his regular interval meetings with senior executives at owner Rogers Communications Inc., is due in the next month or so. To this point, he added, he’s received consistent and strong support in the direction and the plan of the team. The rebuild has sapped attendance sharply, from back-to-back years of three-million plus in 2016 and ’17, to 1,750,144 in 2019, but, Shapiro said, ownership was prepared for that occurrence as part of the competitive cycle. There’s going to be a time to push, he added, with the new nucleus getting there.

To that end, Shapiro’s fate, and that of GM Ross Atkins, quite likely hinges on what the Blue Jays accomplish in this off-season of opportunity, with perhaps as much as $30-$40 million in financial flexibility to work with.

As things stand, they have roughly $30 million in guaranteed money for 2020, $14 million of which is due to the retired Troy Tulowitzki (who also has a $4 million buyout on a 2021 option that may have to be accounted for next year). Of their nine arbitration-eligible players, only Ken Giles will earn a big-ticket salary, likely in the $8-10 million range. A handful will be non-tendered, while Matt Shoemaker will almost certainly be back one way or another, likely to join Trent Thornton and Ryan Borucki in a threadbare rotation. The rest of the roster right now features players with zero to three years of service time who earn six-figure salaries.

There’s surplus value aplenty to work around, which is why the Blue Jays are positioned to flex some financial muscle this off-season, timely given that they have to fix a perilously thin pitching staff.

“It’s not good enough to have depth,” said Atkins. “We have to have guys who can contribute in significant ways. What I can tell you is our off-season will look more like the off-season after ’15, after ’16, where we were much more open to different structure and term. Whether or not that name is a year-in, year-out all-star name, is too hard to say yes or no to. But I can say we need to acquire pitching that we can count on.”

For context, the club’s notable free-agent signings after the 2015 season included J.A. Happ ($36 million, three years) and Marco Estrada ($26 million, two years), while after ’16, they added Kendrys Morales ($33 million, three years), Steve Pearce ($12.5 million, two years) and Jose Bautista ($18.5 million, one year with mutual options).

So, if you were hoping for a run at Gerrit Cole, check yourself, stat.

Expect the Blue Jays to shop in that gooey middle-tier again, which means starting pitching like Jake Odorizzi at the higher end of the spectrum and Rick Porcello on the lower end. They’ll probably try to find value in the likes of Tanner Roark and Alex Wood. They’re not going all-in just yet, because commitments on the books now tie up money that might be better spent later.

Still, the Blue Jays can’t simply wait for after 2020 to invest, lest the second-half progress they made in 2019 stall.

As Atkins himself noted, roster refurbishment “has to be progressive.”

“We have to think about this being a very important juncture where we have an opportunity to add and we’re going to continue to have more opportunities to add over the next couple of off-seasons,” said Atkins. “We just need to make sure we’re prepared to take advantage of all of them. Getting all of the work done in one off-season to just make us an 100-win team in one off-season is very difficult to do.”

Their needs don’t stop in the rotation.

First baseman Justin Smoak is a free agent and while he “will remain an option,” said Atkins, “it would be nice to consider alternatives that are more flexible, can play other positions as well.”

An ideal fit for that description is Mike Moustakas, who aside from having power and experience at first, second and third, bats left-handed and offers the type of middle-of-the-lineup impact that would help support Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio.

The Blue Jays would also do well to improve their outfield, where they have an abundance of low-on-base-percentage, high-slugging options in Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez, Billy McKinney and Brandon Drury (who plays the infield, too). First baseman Rowdy Tellez fits that description, as well, and with the Blue Jays finishing last in batting average (.236), 27th in OBP (.305) and seventh in strikeouts (1,578), there is a clear area of opportunity.

“We’ve got to do a better job of putting the ball in play. That is clear and we will do that,” said Atkins. “We started to see that in the second half. Teoscar’s approach was much better. The swing and miss is still there but the chase is less. Randal had a significant effort to do so, and we saw times of improvement where there was less swing and miss and more contact in zone, certainly a better performer in the second half, but the emphasis was there. I think the opportunity is there in the game of shifting. …

“We’re going to continue to encourage and train guys to do a better job of that.”

Like all off-season plans, that’s easier said than done. Across the board the Blue Jays’ needs are obvious, the solutions much less so. And lurking in the background is that what happens in the weeks ahead will have wider ramifications not only on the years to come, but also who is in charge of them.

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