Blue Jays making sense of slow start, where to go from here

Domingo Santana’s home run was the difference as the Milwaukee Brewers spoiled the Toronto Blue Jays home opener.

TORONTO — Tuesday morning it gets familiar again for Mark Shapiro. Not that the home opener or, for that matter, opening day ever really gets old when you come from a baseball family. It’s just that once all the glad-handing and interviews are done and the home portion of the season gets started, it’s back to the old push and pull of the MLB season.

In the case of Shapiro, the Toronto Blue Jays‘ president and chief executive officer, that will mean continuing to look at the oldest roster in the game and contemplating what he calls “the problem we’ve been dancing around for two years: you don’t want a team to get past its prime all at once; you like to manage your roster.”

Shapiro made the comment on Prime Time Sports just hours before Tuesday’s 4-3 home opener loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. He was not being a killjoy; not being a buzzkill in a city that is primed for the type of sports party it’s never seen, what with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors keying up for the playoffs. This is our best of times. Rather, Shapiro described the Blue Jays situation using the phrase “it is what it is,” without making it sound as pejorative as, say, J.P. Ricciardi used to make it sound.

Prime Time Sports
Shapiro Looking To Build A Consistent Winner In Toronto
Originally aired April 11 2017

What is “it” exactly? This is an old lineup loaded with track records; there isn’t enough stuff left on the wheel to reinvent it. The good news is it’s an experienced team. (If Troy Tulowitzki and Kendrys Morales can have more games like Tuesday’s, it’s all good.) It can also be bad news if you want it to be, if you let your gut tell you experience is morphing a little too much into age when a team starts 1-6 for the first time in franchise history.

The opener started with Tim Raines, the former Montreal Expos outfielder and current Blue Jays baserunning instructor who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this season, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to Blue Jays Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar. I see Raines and I think of speed. I think stolen bases. I know what you’re thinking: the only Major League team without a stolen base this season actually has a baserunning instructor? Yes, it does, although most of Raines’ responsibilities involve the minor leagues.

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OK, so that’s gratuitous. This is not a base-stealing team and as Jose Bautista showed going first to third on that high-hop single to centre by Morales in the first inning, it’s the brain that comes in to play as often as the legs. But these seven games, with not much happening at the plate, only serve to reinforce the reason why Blue Jays management fixated first and foremost on free agent Dexter Fowler in the off-season; why they were willing to part with both Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in order to land the energetic switch-hitter for the top of the order.

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Fowler instead signed a five-year, $82.5-million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Not much has changed from a lineup that was deemed to be too right-handed and one-dimensional at the end of last season, when the Indians carved up the Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series. Immediately after their elimination, both manager John Gibbons and general manager Ross Atkins said getting younger, more athletic and a little more left-handed was Plan A. Getting the switch-hitting Morales solved about 20 per cent of that particular issue. Never mind “it is what it is,” this off-season was what it wasn’t.

Slow starts are nothing new to the Blue Jays. They’ve gone to back-to-back ALCS’ after 11-14 and 11-12 starts, and in fact have had one winning first month since 2010, when then-manager John Farrell led the 2012 Blue Jays to a 12-11 record. In the eight seasons in which Gibbons has been in charge of the team at the time of the season opener, the Blue Jays have gone 94-116 in the opening month. No wonder that on Monday, Gibbons – whose laissez-faire approach to handling a veteran club in the spring is a trademark – allowed that in the future he’d be inclined to listen to people who said players need more at-bats in spring training.

Shapiro remembers how one season the Cleveland Indians decided they’d study why teams have slow starts or, more particularly, what were the indicators of slow starts. They studied the Cardinals and spoke to then-manager Tony La Russa, who told them his philosophy was to play his regulars a great deal in the first 10 or so games of the Grapefruit League campaign; rest them for the middle 10; then treat the final 10 games as if they were regular-season games. Beyond that? The study didn’t reveal much that an organization could hang its hat on.

Teams get off to slow starts for a variety of reasons, including one of the oldest out there: Because baseball.

What an odd way this has been to start the season. Interleague play? No team should ever have an interleague game be its home opener; give us the Baltimore Orioles or Boston Red Sox. Somebody to sink your teeth into. The Brewers? Please …

Shapiro understands why people would worry about the age/experience balance, and its impact on slow starts. He also understands that patience and faith are his stock in trade: that “usually if you make decisions for the right reasons – track record, character and competitiveness … if you believe in the reason you put the team together (the way you did) it will pay off.”

The Blue Jays have spent a great deal of money on their high performance department – HP were the two most mentioned initials this spring – so it was natural to ask Shapiro whether the key to understanding slow starts might be close at hand. As he noted, it wouldn’t have been much help this spring because regulars Josh Donaldson and Devon Travis were rehabilitating injuries, and Bautista was playing at the World Baseball Classic.

“We just couldn’t have done it this year,” Shapiro said, knowing full well that the dance was going to continue – hopefully, with a little less discordant music the rest of the way. Some normalcy would be welcome, no?

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