TORONTO – There is an underlying volatility to the ongoing drama that perennially surrounds the Boston Red Sox, one that in a season of disappointment led to Dave Dombrowski’s firing despite three straight American League East titles and a World Series championship.
Details of behind-the-scenes troubles have already begun to leak out and in due course, as per the norm in Beantown, there will be an Airing of Grievances like in a Seinfeldian Festivus, fuelled by conspiratorial whispers and carefully planted background.
Same show, new episode.
The relevance to the Toronto Blue Jays, beyond the sudden flux to hit one of the AL East’s behemoths, is in how Red Sox ownership acted decisively with a Hall of Fame-bound executive, even though Dombrowski’s contract as president of baseball operations ran through 2020.
Fair or not, right or wrong, principal owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner along with president and CEO Sam Kennedy didn’t risk letting any dissonance within the front office linger, opting instead to reset. Their next hire will operate with the stability of contractual term and a mandate clear to the wider baseball industry, and there’s significant value in that.
All of which brings us to Toronto Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro, who was named Paul Beeston’s replacement two weeks after Dombrowski was hired by the Red Sox in the summer of 2015 and received the same five-year term as his counterpart.
Like Dombrowski, Shapiro’s deal expires at the end of 2020 and like the Red Sox, his team is approaching an operational crossroads.
Rather than trying to extend a competitive window while navigating a difficult payroll structure and the uncertain future of star outfielder Mookie Betts, however, the Blue Jays will be looking to rebound from a brutal rebuild year and further build out a promising base.
If you think it’s a simply a matter of throwing a whack of money at dudes in free agency, well the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, San Diego Padres, even the Cincinnati Reds offer differing degrees of a cautionary tale.
Bottom line – the next steps are really, really hard, especially when the gap between the Blue Jays and the AL’s front-runners is so wide. At 55-89 heading into Tuesday’s series opener against the visiting Red Sox, they need to go 8-10 over their remaining 18 games to avoid the fourth 100-loss season in franchise history, and first since 1979.
No matter how talented the base is, that’s a lot of lost ground to overcome, and it’s not going to correct on its own.
Still, this is a significant period of opportunity for the Blue Jays, and not just in the micro sense of the coming off-season, or in the more macro sense of the next couple of years, but more holistically through the next decade.
Already armed with the potential superstar duo of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette, they have a potential ace coming soon in right-hander Nate Pearson along with a still relatively deep farm system. They also have the financial flexibility to spare, without a single salary guarantee beyond 2023.
If you’re going to lay an ideal organizational foundation, that’s pretty much it.
Now, factor in the Rogers Centre renovation that’s in the works and will be part of a wider-scale sports-anchored property development project around the dome, and the Blue Jays should soon turbo-charge their revenue streams. Spliced together successfully, the potential to create a sustainable contender along the lines of the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers is there.
The trick, of course, is in making sure all the pieces come together, either before or as the Blue Jays are moving into their refurbished digs.
While that project is out of Shapiro’s hands – “that is being led by a group of people at our ownership group at Rogers,” he said in early August – he’s no doubt put in place the financial models for how the team will monetize a refurbished stadium.
Since taking the helm, he’s restructured and modernized the organization’s business operations, setting the Blue Jays up to better leverage a new competitive window across the board. The club’s fiscal guts are all his.
The piece that could be most elusive is constructing the roster to get them there, which brings us back to a more micro view, the coming off-season, and Shapiro’s contractual status.
With one year left on his deal, the same as GM Ross Atkins, a question the representatives of free agents will be asking is whether the person they sign the deal with will be around to see the contract through. The same goes when the Blue Jays broach the possibility of long-term extensions with Guerrero, Bichette and others – what exactly, they’re sure to wonder, would they be signing up for?
A front office’s grand, long-term vision, after all, doesn’t carry much weight if its top executives lack the contractual term to back it up.
Which is why the Red Sox did the right thing in parting with Dombrowski if they saw things differently, and why the Blue Jays shouldn’t simply leave Shapiro’s fate to be settled next year.
The clock on their grander plan, the chess game rather than simply the checkers match, is already ticking since the service time clocks on their young core are off and running. While there’s lots of development to come, the time to start adding pieces, even mid-tier dudes, not just finishing-touch impact stars, has to start this off-season for 2021 to have a chance.
Clarity moving forward is important after Shapiro rode out the competitive window he inherited, tore the roster down when it capsized and set an entirely new foundation.
If the Blue Jays believe he’s the person to see things through, his contract should be extended and announced publicly out of respect to a fan-base that deserves transparency. If not, they’ll only be breeding the type of industry uncertainty the Red Sox acted decisively to stamp out.