Blue Jays’ Shapiro talks Asian market and Astros’ cheating scandal

Shun-Yamaguchi

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Shun Yamaguchi pitches during full squad workouts at the team's spring training complex in Dunedin, Fla., on Monday, February 17, 2020. (Steve Nesius / CP)

DUNEDIN, Fla. – The signings of Shun Yamaguchi, formerly of the Yomiuri Giants, and Rafael Dolis, ex of the Hanshin Tigers, along with the addition of Hyun-Jin Ryu, marked the first substantive foray into the Asian market for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Ryu, of course, was well-known to the big-league team given his track record with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but the two right-handers are by-products of the club’s recent infrastructure investment in the Pacific Rim under regional head Hideaki Sato.

Beyond Yamaguchi and Dolis, the Blue Jays also pursued starter Josh Lindblom, who left Korea’s Doosan Bears to sign with the Milwaukee Brewers, and reliever Angel Sanchez, who went from SK Wyverns in Korea to the Giants in Japan.

In Part 2 of Sportsnet.ca’s sit-down with Mark Shapiro, Part 1 can be found here, the Blue Jays president and CEO discusses the Asian market, the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal, the possibility of expanded playoffs and more.

Sportsnet: You guys pushed resources into Asia well before this off-season, and there isn’t a universal viewpoint on its importance as a market. Why was this the time for you guys to push forth into Asia, not just in terms of signings, but in terms of creating infrastructure, as well?

Shapiro: We have to be diligent about opportunities to acquire talent, regardless of where it is. We cannot overlook any opportunity to find talent, whether that’s amateur players, whether it’s professional trades, whether it’s international free agents – we can’t have a weak link. We can strategically emphasize one thing more than the other, but we need to be good at everything when it comes to acquiring players. Being sure that we’re aware of what the market looks like and that we’re prepared to strike when we feel like there’s a good opportunity, that’s something we need to do. Ryu is not that. He was here already, so we had a chance to see him. The risk in any international market, but certainly in Asia, is that you’re trying to project players and evaluate players that aren’t playing at the same level. That’s where the additional risk lies.

We do have more and more information that allows us to do that better, I think, than we had in the past. I wouldn’t read into the fact that we signed two players that are not from North America this year. That’s just more circumstantial than anything else. It’s opportunistic, which is kind of always the way we work.

SN: What kind of ancillary financial benefits have resulted from the foray into Asia?

MS: With Ryu there’s an opportunity, one, to court and attract a different group of fans that have not come frequently or regularly to Blue Jays games. That’s exciting. It’s not an enormous base, but it’s a real and meaningful and passionate baseball population. There are opportunities that aren’t going to change our financial future, but they could provide some meaningful financial boost and some additional fans.

SN: Is there the potential for sponsorships to help offset the cost of his contract?

MS: I would say that there are some opportunities there. They would not be at the magnitude where it would impact (the contract cost). It wasn’t a driver in us signing him. It was once we signed him, this was a potential opportunity we just encountered so we need to make sure we take advantage of it.

SN: Committing roughly $130 million in payroll spending in one off-season made the Blue Jays one of the bigger-spending clubs this winter. Within the industry, talking to the different agents, what does this type of winter do for your credibility in the market?

MS: I think it’s more just a reflection of where we are as a team. I think any knowledgeable agent, regardless of what they might posture in public, knew that when time is right, the market’s robust, we were going to spend to support the group of players we have. It was only a question of when. The time was right for us to explore everything from trading for Chase Anderson, which was a one year deal, to signing Ryu on a four-year deal and then Tanner Roark (on a two-year deal) in between.

We needed starting pitching. We needed to take some pressure off our young pitching and allow that a little more time to finish off and develop, allow it to catch up to our position players, and this was the right time.

SN: Switching gears, with legal proceedings underway I know you can’t comment on Reese McGuire’s recent arrest. But from a more global perspective, given the value you place on team culture, what’s the process when something like this happens and measuring impact on the big-league team?

MS: Probably a better question for Ross (Atkins), but A: you let a legal process (take its course). You’re there for the player. You talk to the player, try to determine how you can support him and what happened. B: if there’s a role for both Charlie (Montoyo) and Ross on a day-to-day basis to determine what it means to our culture and what it means to our environment, how teammates interpret it, how teammates feel about it, those things are handled internally. Ultimately, you’ll see a decision if it’s made. But the first thing is to let a legal process play out and ensure that is the very first thing that happens before we react, besides just talking and internally handling things at a level where it minimizes the distraction.

SN: Looking more league-wide, the Houston Astros cheating scandal has obviously enveloped baseball and as an executive part of commissioner Rob Manfred’s competition committee, what are your primary concerns as it relates to the game’s credibility?

MS: Well, first of all, it has surprised me. I naively felt that we would get to spring training and the magic of spring training that captures fanbases and captures players and front office executives and everybody about the potential that lies ahead, would divert focus from that and move toward the promise of the season ahead.

That clearly has not happened. The foundation of why I’m in the game is that I just love the game of baseball. It’s a part of who I am as a person. It’s a part of my childhood, is a part of my family bonds. That part of me is in pain. Whenever I see issues with labour, when I see things transpire like this, that are just clearly not positive reflections of what is such a great game, and so many great things about it that you and I get to see from a front-row seat. I’ve tended to get back to what I can control, which is the Toronto Blue Jays. And so, I’ve removed myself a little bit more from my thinking about the game with my league hat and focused more on the Blue Jays as we’ve gone through this. It is concerning. It is hurtful to see the game you care about and love getting maligned the way it has. My hope would be all the stakeholders start to realize that we all want the same thing, which is to help the game be better, and that we all take collective ownership of that and work together to move the game forward.

SN: None of the wrongdoing or allegations are tied to the Blue Jays, but it’s clearly demonstrated how technology can be taken and distorted. Have you instituted anything organizationally to ensure that something like that doesn’t end up happening here?

MS: So, two things. One, Ross and I have talked about not necessarily instituting anything, but just making sure there are a series of conversations that are had with the people that have the closest access to both technology and analysis and our clubhouse. And that we reinforce what I think they already know. But what I would hope is that we’ve created an environment clearly defined by a set of values, and that people here understand that it’s not just win at all costs, that there is a code for how we conduct ourselves, how we treat people and the level of professionalism with which we carry out our jobs.

There’s no way any leader or any set of leaders can be monitoring every single thing going on and the only guard rails you can ultimately create is a well-defined set of values that really shape your identity, both your identity as a set of players and as an organization. We’ve painstakingly defined that identity over the last three, four or five years, from the way we’ve identified players, the way we’ve acquired, the way we develop players and the way we try to put thought into our major-league environment. Does that mean we’ll never have indiscretion? No. That’s unrealistic. But I’d like to think that the greatest thing we can do is to kind of ensure that everyone understands the expectations and the values that form a Blue Jays player and a Blue Jays organization.

SN: On a happier note, a proposition for expanded playoffs was recently floated in an article by Joel Sherman. What would Mark Shapiro, as president and CEO of the Blue Jays, advocate for in terms of a future playoff structure?

MS: It’s hard for me to comment cause I’m obviously at the table for those conversations. This is what I would say. It’s important that we’re very careful in expanding not to diminish the impact and accomplishment of making the playoffs, so to be very careful to look historically at what expansion of that playoffs means, what the right number of teams is. As long as that is done, in a way that it preserves the meaning of getting to the post-season, the more we can create the opportunity for additional fanbases to see meaningful games in September, that would be a good thing for the game.

Beyond that, there are a lot of opportunities for thinking about structures that could provide fans and everyone additional intrigue and an additional level of engagement. But at a bare minimum, the only thing I would say is more meaningful baseball games in September is a good thing for the game. But there’s a tipping point where we can’t dilute post-season to the point that it’s not meaningful.

SN: Is there a firm number in your mind of what’s too much?

MS: There is. I’ve been engaged in all the studies. I’m not the one doing the research, but I’m seeing it all. And if you look, it’s not that hard to get to a number if you look at the history and play out what this would have meant since there’s been expansion, since divisional play has changed. You could look at every single season and say what it would have meant. And there’s a clear delineation when you expand to a certain point that you start to get some teams below .500 get in, and there’s a clear point where it’s like almost no teams in the history of this format would have gotten in without being good teams.

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SN: Other leagues are at roughly 50 per cent of teams advancing.

MS: That’s not going to happen, I don’t think. That’s probably too high. But I think somewhere close to that when you look at the two leagues together, but not a clear 50.

SN: OK, Montreal. The dual-city plan continues to seemingly gain momentum, the other day the commissioner discussed it and seems fully invested in this plan. From your vantage point, is there any role for the Blue Jays in this? And what kind of conversations have you had, if any, with Stephen Bronfman?

MS: None, other than talking to (Bronfman) fairly early in their process of just giving our support and what little advice with a group of him and other leaders in Montreal. What’s most important is that we focus on the Blue Jays. The net takeaway is we’re supportive of the Rays continuing to explore that. I think it would be a net positive for baseball in Canada and part of our role is to be supportive of whatever is good for baseball in Canada. You could certainly argue both sides that it’s good or bad for the Blue Jays, but it would be a positive for the Blue Jays and definitely a positive for baseball in Canada

SN: After the previous deal for exhibition games in Montreal expired, you did a one-year deal for two more contests this spring against the New York Yankees. Is that a one-off or are there plans to continue with the visits to Olympic Stadium?

MS: We’re open to continuing. We find it to be both a positive experience for us and a great opportunity for us to get to a different place within the country. Part of what will determine that is what happens with the Tampa situation.

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