TORONTO — The baseball landscape will look considerably different a week from now, after the flurry of free agent signings and trades expected at the Winter Meetings. The Toronto Blue Jays have plenty of needs to address, so the upcoming meetings represent a real chance to make progress on the field.
Alongside their present-day wish list, the Blue Jays are also juggling a variety of longer-term issues. In a meeting with the Toronto chapter of the BBWAA Thursday team president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins addressed a wide range of topics regarding the team’s short- and long-term challenges.
Atkins endorses Gibbons’ managerial skills
Atkins didn’t know John Gibbons all that well before joining the Blue Jays, but after the 2016 season, Atkins believes his manager has “elite” abilities.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that John Gibbons has everything it takes to build a championship team,” Atkins said. “He has an elite understanding of what it takes and what it means to play 162 games and to get into a post-season, the toll that takes on a player. He seems to keep his eye on that better than anyone I’ve been around. His ability to be patient and work with the resources that are given to him are elite. He’s extremely well-received, extremely well-respected, a great in-game decision maker, has everything he would possibly need to win a championship.”
The Blue Jays re-worked Gibbons’ contract last off-season, removing the rolling option that once existed on his deal while giving him a raise. He’s now under contract for the 2017 season.
Jays expect to have interest in non-tender candidates
The free agent pool will expand Friday, when teams non-tender arbitration eligible players whose projected price tags are uncomfortably high. The Blue Jays anticipate that some of those players will be of interest to them in the coming weeks.
“There usually are,” Atkins said. “It’s just going to depend on what we’ve done prior to that and certainly how they fit us.”
For example, the Blue Jays could turn to the non-tender market for relief depth or a backup catcher and choose to spend on other areas such as the outfield.
Fan support strong in Toronto
Seeing the support of Blue Jays fans first-hand left an impression on Shapiro, who described the connection fans have with the team as “incredibly special.” The team’s front office executives now want to be sure the success of 2015-16 carries over.
“It’s important to work hard to deliver on the promise that has been fulfilled over the past couple of seasons,” Shapiro said. “If you don’t walk away from that environment motivated and feeling responsible to continue to field a contending team, then you’re walking in with blinders and earplugs.”
The Blue Jays stand to lose lots of talent in free agency, but Shapiro pointed to the acquisitions of Harold Ramirez, Reese McGuire and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., as important reinforcements for the organization.
“We are with a sense of urgency doing everything we can humanly do to fortify and build the foundation,” Shapiro said. “And (we) still have this strong belief that a sustainable championship team is dependent on a healthy, productive system.”
Shapiro optimistic on Dunedin project
In an attempt to line up funding support for a revitalized Dunedin facility, the Blue Jays continue working with the city, county and state. Shapiro acknowledges that it’s a “complex equation,” but even then he remains encouraged by recent talks and expects clarity by the spring or summer.
Eventually Shapiro hopes to see the facility provide the Blue Jays with a year-round edge over other clubs.
“I really do believe that calling it the spring training facility or the spring training project is probably the biggest misnomer,” he said. “Ultimately what we’re trying to create is a 12-month-a-year, 365-day-a-year training and rehabilitation facility that provides us with not only a warm weather home, but a competitive advantage.”
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays continue planning for renovations at Rogers Centre, and met Tuesday with construction and design firms.
“I wouldn’t call it the first meeting, but it was the first formal meeting to begin to move the design process forward,” Shapiro said.
Diversity on Blue Jays’ radar
There are few minority managers, GMs and owners in baseball, but Shapiro suggested that taking a longer view could help build up diversity in the sport.
“As much attention needs to be placed on the entry level efforts as the upper level efforts,” Shapiro said. “In the end it’s an important area in baseball because, as with entertainers and actors, there’s a disproportionate focus, so we can be a model for broader society and it’s important for all of society.”
The Blue Jays recently hired Bobby Meacham as the first African American manager in the 133-year history of the triple-A Buffalo Bisons.
Donaldson in ‘great shape’
Josh Donaldson was notably banged up down the stretch, requiring regular attention from trainers, but his winter recovery regimen hasn’t required surgery or anything else unexpected. “He’s in great shape,” Atkins said.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. will count against the MLB payroll in 2017, but Shapiro said the salary in the first year of his $22 million deal is “so small that there’s hardly any impact” … Asked to choose between Jay Bruce and Michael Saunders, Atkins played it safe, saying “both guys are great alternatives for us” … The Blue Jays recently added Ryan Borucki to their 40-man roster with the expectation that he’ll continue starting. “He has an above average changeup,” Atkins said. “It’s rare that you have a group of people absolutely pound the table for a player without one exception. It was unanimous across player development.”