CARLSBAD, Calif. – Among the most impactful phone calls Toronto Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins made before settling on Charlie Montoyo as his new manager was one with his Tampa Bay Rays counterpart, Erik Neander.
The rival American League East executives have a strong relationship and trust with one another, so when Neander raved about the type of impact Montoyo had on the organization, Atkins took the words to heart.
Talking up a valued employee to an opponent seeking to hire that person away isn’t easy, as teams are competitive and secrets are closely guarded. But Neander also believes clubs have an obligation to not stand in the way of their employees’ progress, especially when it’s someone who’s been as loyal as Montoyo was to the Rays.
"You always want great people that contribute as much as possible to your organization and Charlie has certainly done that," says Neander. "There’s a mutual commitment that comes with that in what they give you and what they put into the job and if they go about it all the right way. In exchange, you owe it to them to represent them appropriately and accurately to prospective employers outside of our organization.
"You want to be honest, it’s important just for reputation in the game, that if somebody asks you about someone, to present them fairly," he adds. "That if this is what you’re looking for, this is what you’re going to get. With Charlie in particular, it’s really easy to do that in a way that paints him in a very positive light. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who said favourable things about Charlie."
Neander said that he wasn’t surprised when the Blue Jays came calling on Montoyo later in their process, as “it was known that this is someone who is on their radar and he was held in high regard."
What did the Blue Jays get in Montoyo, who described himself as a blend between old school and analytics?
"He’s positive, he’s authentic, he cares, he works hard, he’s focused on the job that’s in front of him and that’s it," said Neander. "Those are always great attributes no matter if it’s old school, new school, whatever. … What we saw with Charlie with respect to the new-school part of it is not really new school as much as he was exposed to different viewpoints, different modes of thinking and there was a mutual respect and interest in learning from one another.
“You saw him retain, you saw him understand, you saw him demonstrate an open mind to really utilize what he could in the game from other people while staying true to his values, which are the old school part of it."
The Rays also lost major-league field co-ordinator Rocco Baldelli to the Minnesota Twins as Kevin Cash’s staff took a double-hit on the same day. While those promotions weren’t blocked, other teams don’t have carte blanche to keep raiding the organization.
"Typically there tends to be a situation where if you’re coming out of one organization, you’ll look to retain staff that’s already in place with the current organization and look to diversify the staffs through the rest of the league as a whole," Neander said when asked if the Blue Jays and Twins were not allowed to hire other coaches from the club. "It’s kind of an adopted behaviour by the league in general. That’s the way I’d look at it."
Other things you hear skulking around the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa during the General Managers Meetings:
The Blue Jays are far from the only team to manipulate service time with top prospects, as they’ll do with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., next spring. The Atlanta Braves certainly seemed to do the same thing with Ronald Acuna Jr., this past season, sending him down during spring training before recalling him April 25. How did GM Alex Anthopoulos handle that to keep Acuna from getting frustrated?
"I was new to the organization, so I didn’t have a relationship with him but we have meetings with every player in spring training and before games even started, we talked to him about, hey, from the outside in, I felt like developmentally he would have been better served maybe spending a little more time at each level," says Anthopoulos.
"Now, he had success, but I told him at the time that we’ll be open-minded for him to make the team but we do think developmentally, if I had been there in 2017, he likely would have gone a little bit slower. That’s not criticism, it’s just style and my biggest concern for him was his strikeout rate in high-A was really high (32 per cent), and he got moved up to double-A after (115) at-bats. Right there, I probably would have let him dominate that level a little bit more and he kept moving.
“… He had a hard time starting off in (triple-A) Gwinnett (this year), and when he finally did get hot we called him up and he actually came out and said it was the best thing for him, developmentally. But he didn’t have a lot of times in the minors and it moved fast. We expect him to stay up now and it worked out for us and for him, developmentally, we got him a little more time and we still were able to have a good season."
Anthopoulos also kept in constant communication with Acuna’s representatives, reinforcing the message that "the goal was for him not to have to be yo-yoed up and down." The Blue Jays will likely find themselves trying to convince Guerrero of similar things next spring.
WINTER MEETING TRADE
The Rays pulled off the only trade of the winter meetings, acquiring catcher Mike Zunino from the Seattle Mariners in a five-player swap with speedy outfielder Mallex Smith going the other way. After a surprising 90-72 season, they’re in a delicate spot trying to upgrade a still developing young core that performed sooner than expected.
"Just because you won 90 games it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a 90-win calibre team moving forward," says Erik Neander. "There are reasons for optimism moving forward, from the youth, the inexperience and you can dream and paint optimistic pictures about the trajectory of the group. But you also need to be careful about the uncertainty that comes with young players. That works both ways.
“There are plenty of examples of players that upon coming back for the sophomore season don’t actually build on what they’ve done, but experience the struggles a lot of guys tend to get in their first year. We want to be really mindful of that, we’re really excited about our group, what they demonstrated last year. As a front office, there’s not a lot that we did to make it easier for them to win games. And what the players did, the way they responded, the way our staff led gives us a lot confidence in the mental makeup of that group and that they’re going to be hungry to continue getting better and be motivated.
“We’re really happy with the collection of young players we have. How to best supplement them, the ones we want to give opportunity to, you might consider putting some established talent on top of them. That’s all stuff we’ve got to work through."
The Blue Jays are in a curious spot with Justin Smoak, who’s due $8 million in his walk-year. The switch-hitting first baseman offers them an important steadying presence on a young team, as well as a production pillar in the lineup. He makes a ton of sense for their roster. But in terms of asset management, keeping him all year and letting him walk for nothing doesn’t make any sense, and there isn’t likely to be a substantial return for him at the trade deadline given that he cleared revocable waivers in August, meaning no team was willing to take on his salary while surrendering nothing.
That’s why if they plan to trade him, now is probably the time, while if they intend to keep him, they should at some point examine an extension to keep the asset alive. The trouble with that is then a potential path forward for Rowdy Tellez would be blocked and Ross Atkins said this week that he hoped the prospect would force their hands in the spring. How could he fit the roster?
"There are so many variables," replies Atkins. "We’re several months away from opening day, we’ll see what it looks like. My hope is he’d have the chance to force his way onto the team somehow, some way."
MANAGING THE KIDS
There’s also the matter of how many grown-ups the Blue Jays want to sprinkle around their kids in the clubhouse. Justin Smoak and Kendrys Morales, for the moment, are the only guys who could fill that role, although Ross Atkins says it’s valuable but not essential.
"It’s just professionalism," he says. "I think Danny Jansen could set a great tone if he goes about it the right way. Sean Reid-Foley and Ryan Borucki will be able to set a great tone if they go about it the right way. But there is tremendous value in the impact J.A. Happ had on individuals last year, the impact that Justin and Kendrys have already had has some value. It’s not something that you absolutely have to have. You have to have the best talent and we want all those individuals to be great teammates."
STREAMLINE TRADE DEADLINE
The GMs left the meetings having considered streamlining the non-waiver and waiver trade deadlines, a "discussion that was very productive," in the words of Ross Atkins.
"There’s a sentiment that discussion is important and there are just so many variables to it and potential unintended consequences that need to be worked through. My personal opinion is that the waiver process is the larger issue, not the actual deadline date. Making the waiver process more efficient, in my opinion, is where there’s a greater opportunity."
USING TECH TO STEAL SIGNS
Another hot topic among the GMs was discussion about the use of technology to steal signs. "My personal opinion is that it needs attention," says Atkins. "If players and coaches and managers and front office executives think it is occurring, that’s enough for us to pay attention to it and make sure that’s not occurring, that our focus and energy isn’t going to that. That’s bad culturally, that’s bad for the game and we cannot allow that to be a distraction."