TORONTO – Ross Atkins is about halfway through the 14-day period of self-isolation for travellers returning to Canada — and in-between the backyard games he’s suddenly able to play with his two daughters — the Toronto Blue Jays general manager is doing plenty of reflection.
There are baseball issues galore to resolve amid the COVID-19 pandemic, to be sure, and we’ll get to those. But there’s also a recognition the game specifically, and sports more generally, can set an example “by modelling appropriate behaviours and being smart with our decision-making.”
“The self-isolation thing, for me, it’s been incredible perspective and it’s also been extremely impressive to see this community, my neighbourhood, the city of Toronto be so respectful of the recommended guidelines and all the suggestions from our leadership and government and to see people embracing it and abiding,” Atkins said during a conference call Wednesday.
“It’s hard to tell from my home, but it seems very different (from the United States) and people seem to be very respectful from my vantage.”
Be it in Florida, from where Atkins returned on a Blue Jays charter last Wednesday, or back home in Toronto, that message can’t be hammered home enough for efforts to reduce the spread of coronavirus to work. Any sort of return to normalcy on that front hinges on easing the looming calamity North America is facing, and the more people with a platform that repeat the message, the better the chances of scaling back the rate of infection.
If you want things to go back to the way things were, smarten up and follow along. There’s no instant-gratification, magic-bullet solution here beyond staying away from one another for an indefinite period, and Atkins was spot on when he said, “there really are no shortcuts.”
To that end, the Blue Jays’ baseball operations department is making things up on the fly, just like the rest of us, cut off from the structure typically provided by the 162-game schedule and the larger baseball calendar. Each offers its own rhythms and demands for an organization, be it from the opening day that was supposed to happen Thursday, to the wave of roster moves and player-acquisition opportunities the finalization of rosters would have created right now.
When, or even if, opening day happens is a moving target, as are the draft, the July 2 international signing period, the trade deadline and all the other annual action points that dictate a team’s workflow.
One example of that for the Blue Jays is “making sure our (research and development) staff is appropriately thinking about the draft and not staying hyper-focused on advanced and professional scouting right now, which is where we were focused,” said Atkins.
“As we get more clarity from Major League Baseball on what those timelines could be, then we’ll start to think about how we adjust hours, how we ensure that we’re pulling performance and R&D services and baseball operations services into the right departments at the right times,” he continued. “Until then, we’re brainstorming on those questions ourselves. We’re making sure that (there isn’t) something that doesn’t get mentioned, talked about, thought about in some way. … All of us have those clocks. There will be alarms and bells going off based on the time of the year.”
In the absence of anything concrete about the start of a season, what it might look like and the needs it might require, the draft is an immediate priority for the Blue Jays, especially given that they hold the fifth-overall selection. The potential impact of drafting so high is immense, which is what makes the uncertainty there troubling within a baseball context given that there are no high-school or collegiate players on the field to evaluate.
That’s merely one problem, with everything from how to fairly conduct a draft under the circumstances to the financial implications of committing millions per club to sign players at a time there’s no revenue coming in all under consideration, too. Delaying or even cancelling this year’s draft and combining it with the 2021 talent restock is being kicked around as well.
Adding to the burden for the Blue Jays is that Shane Farrell, hired in December to replace the departed Steve Sanders, is heading into his first draft as an amateur scouting director. The invaluable Tony LaCava is working closely with him just as he did when Sanders first started, which will help, and two of them suddenly have more organizational resources at hand than they otherwise might have.
“In today’s world, with the technology that does exist, there’s still ample baseball work to be done,” said Atkins, adding later that, “what we’re focused on is understanding players to the best of our ability with the information that we have.”
Pitfalls lurk everywhere in such a process as while the games may be frozen in time, development and growth as much as possible under the current restrictions doesn’t stop. Scouting activity is supposed to be shuttered, and if teams have to work off of old information, the number of potential blind spots is ominous, but teams must be prepared for every scenario.
“No question we would much prefer to have continued looks at players and continue to watch them in games, there’s no doubt about it,” said Atkins. “But other teams will not have that access as well, and we feel if a draft occurs in two weeks from now, we would be ready. There’s not going to be a draft occurring two weeks now, I don’t want to speculate on when a draft may or may not be, but we feel that we could get prepared in a short period of time based on the information we have and be very competitive.”
That’s a state of being across the organization, be it from players trying to maintain momentum from a strong off-season and a good spring, to scouts on the trail of a diamond in the rough, executives laying the groundwork for a move to an analyst working through a new data set.
All they can do is work toward an opportunity and reset if it gets kicked further down the line, cognizant there’s a greater good that needs tending to. “We all have to be collectively focused on making sure we’re being responsible to a community much, much bigger than baseball,” is how Atkins put it, and right now, that very much applies to all of us, too.