TORONTO – This is a time for the Toronto Blue Jays to be proud of all they accomplished in 2015, to cast optimistic glances toward the immediate future, to, for the first time this century, realistically think about the finishing touches needed to win the World Series next season.
This should be a good place for the franchise to be.
Yet nestled amid the good vibes from the club’s first American League East title since 1993 and a deep playoff run is lingering uncertainty, with incoming president and CEO Mark Shapiro due to start next Monday, and the status of GM Alex Anthopoulos, whose contract expires Oct. 31, still unsettled.
An extension that shouldn’t be complicated seems to be, and Anthopoulos took responsibility for that at the beginning of his season-in-review session with media Monday, saying, “It’s been my decision to not have any discussions with respect to that, because we were in the post-season.”
Fine, makes sense, but that doesn’t explain why on Oct. 26 this is still an issue, especially since Shapiro was hired Aug. 31 and the entire matter could and should have been resolved before the regular season ended. Instead, Anthopoulos was left to obfuscate about his status for much of his 45-minute session at Rogers Centre while at the same time discussing a path forward he may or may not be around to execute.
No one ever said understanding the Blue Jays was easy.
As things stand, Anthopoulos is believed to have a strong extension offer on the table, so money and term won’t be the sticking point. Rather, the decisive factor in whether he stays or goes, and the latter is a real possibility, is likely to revolve around the working relationship between him and Shapiro.
Remember that for both men this is an arranged marriage, not one of love, and such relationships in business can be tricky.
Still, they’ll discuss things over the next few days and they are smart enough to find common ground on how to make a partnership work. Really, it’s incumbent upon them to do so with the franchise in position to definitively turn the corner on the internal rot left from more than two post-season-less decades.
With Anthopoulos at long last establishing a Blue Jays way of playing the game, an enviable core of position players under club control, and feverish excitement for the team and the sport across the country, now’s not the time to risk losing momentum.
Anthopoulos, who rightly feels he “hit my stride” as a GM this season, has earned the right to operate the Blue Jays with autonomy on the baseball operations side, but it’s also reasonable that he be expected to do so within the framework set up by the accomplished and highly respected Shapiro.
Things are obviously going to be very different under Shapiro than they were under the retiring Paul Beeston and some change should refresh the organization. And it’s fair that Anthopoulos be expected to adapt to the change, as well, while at the same time being allowed to maintain the structure that at long last has developed a Blue Jays way of doing things.
There’s certainly a way to make things work, but the two men don’t have much time to figure it out.
Both the looming end of Anthopoulos’ contract and the baseball calendar are bringing things to a head, as five days after the World Series ends, the Blue Jays must finalize calls on their player options – those on Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and R.A. Dickey will be exercised; the one on Maicer Izturis will be declined – and decide whether to extend pending free agent Marco Estrada a qualifying offer of $15.8 million.
Then there are other pending free agents like David Price, Dioner Navarro, Mark Buehrle and Mark Lowe, filling holes in the rotation, settling on whether Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna should be stretched out as starters or remain in the bullpen, adding other relievers, trying to balance out the batting order with a left-handed bat or two, plus other tweaks and adjustments.
It’s not the gut-job the Blue Jays needed after the 2014 season, but some deft touches are required.
“We’re in a great position going forward, I think we could take the approach of really focusing on the rotation and come back with a great club, assuming health,” said Anthopoulos. “We will have some financial flexibility, but at the same time we have a lot fewer needs.”
Finding players with the requisite talent along with the character and makeup the front office so focused on last off-season will remain the priority, and the emphasis on the latter parts of that mix is a crucial point of Anthopoulos’ evolution, to the point that he believes, “there’s an identity for this team right now, an identity for this organization.”
And that is?
“Team-oriented, selfless, hard-nosed, smart in terms of on-field play, talented, athletic, good defensively,” he replied. “Those are things I would expect us to have. It doesn’t mean it’s always going to work out, but those are things that are going to be prioritized here, and those are the types of clubs you’re going to see here.”
That outlook is one reason to believe 2015 wasn’t a fluke.
At times when need beckoned and easy-but-flawed solutions surfaced – Jonathan Papelbon comes to mind – the Blue Jays stayed disciplined, even while pressure to get the volatile closer came from players, coaches and the public.
A special team was the result, one that can largely return intact.
“There were times during the off-season where it was almost like trying to grab the forbidden fruit, you have a need, you have a hole in the lineup, the bullpen and the rotation, and you know somebody may not be a great fit but you need that talent, and we walked away and it paid off to stick with our approach,” said Anthopoulos. “As a GM, I don’t see us ever going back to the other way, we’ll always stick with a certain criteria going forward. It took me a few years to finally realize some of those things.”
The process of getting Anthopoulos to that point wasn’t easy, and credit for that goes to assistant GM Tony LaCava, manager John Gibbons and the coaching staff, who in the wake of last year’s disappointment continually drove the point home that character matters.
It resonated, the results showed, and just when everybody should be basking in the glory of what was, it’s the GM’s fate that dominates.
“I wouldn’t want to get into any of that type of stuff, those are private discussions,” Anthopoulos replied when asked what he wanted to stay. “All I can say is I love being here, I love Toronto, I’ve always maintained that, and that’s probably as far as I’d go with that.”
The clock is ticking.