The Toronto Blue Jays didn’t sign a minor-league free agent position player this off-season and that’s a point of pride for club president and CEO Mark Shapiro.
It means the Blue Jays are steadily building depth and can backfill positions on minor-league teams with players developed inside the organization.
Overall, it’s a good sign, but doesn’t mean the Blue Jays are where they want to be.
“We’ve made progress, but we need to have waves of talent,” Shapiro said Wednesday during a guest appearance on The Jeff Blair Show. “Not just good talent, but impact talent. We need to not just talk about [Vladimir Guerrero Jr.] and Bo Bichette, but we need to be able to reel off [several] names. [It’s] a really risky proposition [to] pin your hopes on two guys.”
To that end, Shapiro is excited about several other Blue Jays prospects, and specifically highlighted promising right-hander Nate Pearson. The 21-year-old was drafted in the first round (28th overall) last year and pitched just 20 innings for the organization. Even so, he was highly touted on several 2018 prospect boards, including Baseball America, which ranked him No. 91 on its top 100 list.
“Not many times does a guy who pitches 20 innings end up on top 100 charts,” Shapiro told hosts Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. “I want to temper getting too excited about a guy who has only pitched 20 innings, but he did hit 100 miles per hour every single start last year. I have a hard time thinking about guys that are comparable to him; as athletic, as flexible, as good work routines and hard working, are sinker-strikeout guys and throw 100 m.p.h. That’s a nice combination.
“Still, pitching is dangerous and fragile, but he’s certainly a guy, when you look at the Blue Jays system, to be encouraged about.”
Shapiro covered a plethora of subjects in the 40-minute interview and also took phone calls from fans. Here are some takeaways.
When it comes to the likes of Pearson, Guerrero and Bichette, the Blue Jays are going to face interesting decisions in the immediate future surrounding the placement of top prospects at suitable minor-league levels. Upon dealing with that, the club wants to emphasize conversation.
“I think it’s very important that, while a player is not given a choice in where he goes, you involve him in the communication and explain the circumstances,” said Shapiro. “There is somewhat of an art to where you place players. It’s not a science.”
Toronto’s front office does have experience working with a mega prospect: Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins, during his time with the Cleveland Indians, played a vital role in the development of shortstop Francisco Lindor. After being taken eighth overall in the 2011 draft Lindor spent parts of five seasons in the minors before receiving a call up to the big leagues as a 21-year-old midway through the 2015 season. He grew frustrated on several occasions.
“Ross was having countless conversations with him to explain: Take advantage of the moments that you have, regardless of whether its A-ball or double-A, because they are not going to be long,” recalls Shapiro. “You need to take advantage of every minute of development time you’ve got … [Lindor] obviously got to the big leagues at a very young age to become one of the best players in MLB, because he did utilize the time in the minor leagues and took full advantage.
“Great players move themselves,” he added. “Great players don’t need front office people to make decisions on when to move them.”
Avoiding another rough start
The Blue Jays began last April with a 2-12 record — a hole that was ultimately too deep to climb out from. One year prior, the club finished 11-14 in April.
Poor starts are nothing new to Shapiro-run teams. When he was leading the Indians, the club endured several rough openings, prompting Shapiro and Co. to dig into analysis of what could be causing the bad play in early stages of seasons.
“What we found was there was really no one team that consistently got off to good starts,” he said.
However, Shapiro did study the St. Louis Cardinals teams that were guided by manager Tony La Russa. Those clubs found success in opening months and Shapiro reached out to the Hall of Fame skipper for advice. Shapiro then relayed his findings to former Indians manager Terry Francona and, recently, Francona’s Blue Jays counterpart John Gibbons.
The Blue Jays are approaching a significant next step in the process of renovating their spring training facilities in Dunedin, Fla., and hope construction can begin by the end of this year.
“We’re about on the one-yard line,” said Shapiro. “We’re close to punching it in.”
A key vote at the county level will be held on April 10, at which point the Blue Jays hope for a green light pending approval from the various stakeholders involved. The $81-million project will include funding from Pinellas County, the city of Dunedin and the State of Florida, in addition to the baseball club.
“I feel relatively confident that April 10 should get a positive vote and then we should have some actual construction going on by the end of this year,” said Shapiro. “I think next spring will be impacted by that progress, hopefully in a way that transforms our training, but if not, in a way that it’s visibly evident to everybody.”
Shapiro said changes to Dunedin Stadium, where the Blue Jays play their spring training games, will result in increased seating for fans, as well as more food and entertainment options. Those changes, as well as ones to the team’s nearby training complex, will bring about a “paradigm shift from what currently right now is just a spring training facility,” Shapiro said, noting that he expects the endeavour to provide a competitive advantage and a facility that ranks among the very best in MLB.
Spring training dollars
Contrary to popular belief, spring training doesn’t actually produce large financial gains for an organization. Shapiro estimates that only four teams — including the Cubs and Yankees — actually see monetary benefit from the pre-season camp.
“For everybody else, including us, you’re hoping to make enough revenue to offset the loss because it really is a time where you’re spending a ton of money,” he said.
The process of relocating staff and players, paying for meals, hotels and rental cars can be pricey. Essentially, the club is moving its entire operation from Toronto down to Florida for nearly two months.
The Blue Jays’ push to renovate their spring training stadium and add more seating is partly aimed at covering off some of those expenses, Shapiro said.
Rogers Centre renovation
There has been talk for several years of changes coming to the Blue Jays’ primary home, Rogers Centre. Shapiro spent the first two years of his Blue Jays tenure researching stadiums and arenas around the world and has sought fan and designer feedback.
He has since made a proposal to owner Rogers Communications Inc. about modernizing the nearly three-decade old stadium and said that an active conversation is ongoing.
“We’re not speaking different languages,” said the president. “There is a complete understanding, appreciation and investment in that from ownership. It’s really just timing. When will it fit with other business priorities and other important things they have to do to run the majority of their business?”
Scary labour climate
The dominant story this off-season has been the lack of activity on the free-agent market. It has led to all kinds of far-ranging chatter about collusion and a potential labour strike.
Shapiro, the son of a prominent player agent, said he was alarmed at the discourse.
“I’m concerned when I hear the sabre-rattling, the anger, the disdain, the accusations flowing,” he said, noting that he occupies a middle ground — he’s neither an owner nor player. “There is a lot of misunderstanding from players as to why things are happening. I don’t think there’s one reason, I think there’s a combination of reasons.”
Among the reasons he listed: Scott Boras representing the best free agents and the super agent’s strategy of waiting until late in the off-season to have his players sign, front offices that are more informed, data driven and like-minded in how they value players; a great free agent class next off-season; the collective bargaining agreement impacting teams as many try to stay under the luxury tax threshold.
“There’s a bunch of different things,” said Shapiro. “And when people don’t understand what’s happening, they tend to try to grasp at simple explanations. It may be why there is a president in place in the United States that defies a lot of logic and reason for a lot of people.
“It’s more of an aberration than it is a trend in a lot of ways.”