TORONTO – Ross Atkins wouldn’t get into the specifics of why the Toronto Blue Jays parted with John Gibbons. The two had their differences, he admitted, but so too, will he and the next manager, he quickly added. Those didn’t lead to the split and getting into the details would be disrespectful, he insisted. "Ultimately, it was a mutual decision," Atkins said Tuesday in speaking with writers about his team’s trying and transitionary 2018. "I know there’s been speculation it wasn’t, but it really was."
The Blue Jays can package the split as they please. The reality is Gibbons’ departure on the heels of all the other changes this season is the final step in killing off the Frankenstein organization the club became over the past three years.
Since former GM Alex Anthopoulos left and Mark Shapiro took over as president and CEO in November 2015, the Blue Jays have evolved in nearly every facet of their operation, from basic business operations and marketing to the roster on the field. The lone holdover area was the manager’s office, where Gibbons adapted in some ways but largely managed his team as he saw fit, never embracing the holistic vision for the role Atkins outlined Tuesday.
The disparate parts awkwardly stitched together functioned well enough in 2016 when the Blue Jays went to the American League Championship Series for the second straight year, although by then the cohesiveness developed in 2015 had begun to fray. Between the growth of a High Performance department that was like a foreign body inserted into a partially reluctant host and a miserable 76-86 finish, the club was further pulled apart.
This year, the Blue Jays made a tepid and non-committal last-ditch attempt at blending the old with the new but once that failed, they aggressively started flushing out the old. Or, to use another metaphor, Atkins and Co. decided they were through trying to adjust Anthopoulos’s blueprint mid-construction to their liking, tore everything down and started out an entirely different build. Gibbons’ foundation isn’t appropriate for the new design.
The new plan?
"Tough, smart and passionate," Atkins said of the traits he’ll be looking for. "Those are the overarching themes as I think about what it means to lead an environment in here to sustain championship-level expectations, understanding what it takes for communication to keep not just 25-man roster, but also the 40-man roster, the 200 minor-league players, the 100-plus scouts, the 100-plus coaches and medical staff people pulling in one direction and feeling connected. That person has to be an organizational leader and spokesperson, not just a leader of the 25-man clubhouse."
That doesn’t sound like John Gibbons, who viewed his top priority as making sure the 25-man roster was in the best position to win every night. To be honest, that sounds a whole lot more like John Farrell, the man Gibbons replaced.
Relax. Atkins isn’t intent on alienating every last Blue Jays fan by rehiring John Farrell. We’re pretty sure the front office understands that’s a non-starter in this market after he infamously left the city to take his "dream job" in Boston.
So who takes over? Great question.
Unconfirmed names circling around the Blue Jays that seem to fit Atkins’ vision include: Rocco Baldelli, the Tampa Bay Rays’ major-league field co-ordinator; Derek Shelton, the Minnesota Twins bench coach who was the quality control coach for the Blue Jays in 2017; Chris Woodward, the Los Angeles Dodgers third base coach who played shortstop for the Blue Jays; Sandy Alomar Jr., the Cleveland Indians first base coach who interviewed with the Blue Jays when Farrell was hired after the 2010 season; Joe Espada, the Houston Astros bench coach; Rob Thompson, the Sarnia, Ont., native who is bench coach with the Philadelphia Phillies and Matt Quartaro, the Rays third base coach.
Blue Jays bench coach DeMarlo Hale, as deserving as anyone of an opportunity to manage, will get some consideration – "we’re 75 per cent through the conversation," said Atkins – as will John Schneider, who managed double-A New Hampshire to a championship this season.
Atkins said the Blue Jays are still at the "gathering information" stage of putting an initial list of candidates together, although they have already reached out to a couple of people.
This is the process he outlined:
• Within seven days, the Blue Jays want to begin doing their phone interviews with a group of 10 or more candidates, a process that could take roughly a week to 10 days.
• The Blue Jays will then narrow the field to a group of five or more who will be brought in for interviews that will involve interviewers from across the organization, a process that could take 7-10 days with some opportunity for follow up.
"It also could be sped up if someone that is moving up our list and we need to expedite the process. That could happen," said Atkins. "Usually if you respect the process you get a clear answer about what the best fit is based on your values and based on what you’re looking for."
The Blue Jays are far from alone in searching for a new manager. The Minnesota Twins fired Paul Molitor on Tuesday and Derek Falvey, their vice-president and chief baseball officer, developed in the same Cleveland front office as Atkins, and could end fishing in the same waters.
The Texas Rangers, Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Angels also have vacancies while the Baltimore Orioles appear set to part ways with Buck Showalter.
Atkins wouldn’t put too many restrictions on his pool of those to be considered, but it doesn’t sound like a player just out of the game will get much run. "They will have experience leading," said Atkins. "That is something extremely important for us."
And rather than following people who developed under certain managers, Atkins hinted that their organizational lineage will carry far more weight. "There are people learning a great deal from the Houston organization right now with how they’re deploying information," said Atkins. "There are a lot of examples. The way we’ve been thinking about it is more organization and less person. What organizations are they learning from? That definitely has value."
Atkins described two teams – the Astros and the Rays – as being "a little bit ahead of the curve" in integrating information for use on the field into their in-game decision making. He added the Indians and Dodgers as two teams who have been harvesting data for longer than most other clubs. The Blue Jays, he said, were doing "some really, really smart innovative things and using information really well," when he arrived, and he wants the next manager to help advance that.
"That’s cultural," said Atkins. "It’s across the game that it’s happening. It’s just collaboration. If you really peel it back, the word analytics is way overused. Just think about walking into a casino and wanting the odds. Do you want them? Probably. You want the information before you bet. It’s similar – the information, there’s just more of it. It’s understanding how to simplify and synthesize all of it. Certain teams have been doing it longer because of their culture."
That doesn’t mean the Blue Jays’ analytics department will be sending down daily lineups to the manager’s office, or dictating bullpen usage. Atkins won’t be calling the dugout midgame with suggestions.
What he wants is for the manager to tell the front office what information he needs them to gather and then to provide them with data that can then be applied on the field, to the lineups, to setting the roster for the upcoming week.
"Just five years ago, a lot of managers were still using matchup information based on stuff they had kept on notecards," said Atkins. "Now, when some managers think about matchup situations, they’re thinking about types of pitchers and types of hitters and massive sample sizes because of the amount of information that is at your fingertips publicly and then most front offices have another team that’s working on making that information more specific to their needs. Being able to synthesize that and maximize it takes a group effort and takes a collaborative effort. We were working towards that with John Gibbons, too, on a daily basis and we’ll continue to work toward that with the next hire."
The next manager will need to exploit every margin.
The roster will be young and while Atkins argued that the worst of the tumult inherent to a rebuild is past, there are lots of growing pains to come and there won’t necessarily be a ton of external help coming before next year.
In terms of payroll, the Blue Jays will "spend less money" in 2019, in part because young players are far cheaper, but also because attendance dropped to 2,325,281 from 3,203,886 in 2017.
They want to play their young players so they won’t be blocking their opportunity with pricier veterans. They don’t believe signing big-time free agents makes sense as a way to fast-track the process. Look for them to operate on the periphery of the market, looking for value plays. They should re-sign J.A. Happ immediately once he becomes a free agent but probably won’t shop in that market.
Atkins said he doesn’t have an exact payroll number yet, "I just know we’ll have enough."
"We will have enough to understand all the opportunities in the market and make sure we’re prepared when we see one we benefit from," he added. "But we’ll be thinking slightly more long-term in those acquisitions."
Expect the Blue Jays to explore trades for players like Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Kevin Pillar, who may not necessarily time with the core they hope to develop. "Guys that have less control and how those fit for other teams, we’ll have to be proactive in seeing if those opportunities are there," said Atkins.
The Blue Jays also have a surplus of infielders and outfielders at both the big-league and minor-league levels and Atkins stated bluntly that, "we need to turn some of our position-player depth into pitching. That doesn’t mean we won’t trade from our young core or guys that haven’t even gotten to the major leagues. We have to be open to any way to make the organization better."
But that starts with the manager, starts with rebuilding a trust and a unity from the top to the bottom of the organization that existed in 2015 but over the past three years came undone as parts were replaced and the methodologies changed along the way.
While others will participate in the process, "it’s definitely my hire," said Atkins and having his relationship with the new manager be a strong one "is probably one of the most important things for the future of the organization."
"I have to feel connected," he continued, "and I have to feel as though that bond is as strong as it can possibly be."
Atkins may gloss around the matter, but that wasn’t the case with John Gibbons. The Frankenstein the Blue Jays had become needed to die. They can only hope something better arises in its place.