Ross Atkins may be the Toronto Blue Jays’ general manager, but he expects Tony LaCava to continue leading the way this off-season.
It’s an unconventional setup perhaps necessitated by the timing of Atkins’ hiring – just a few days before MLB’s Winter Meetings. LaCava, also a finalist for the GM job, has already completed much of Toronto’s off-season work. Atkins, hired Thursday, says he’ll ease into the new role with help from LaCava.
“He’ll hold the lead there,” Atkins said. “He’ll work us through the Winter Meetings and through this off-season as the leader of our decision-making. I’ll support and complement any way that I can.”
At some point that dynamic will change and Atkins will make more decisions. Until then, he’s content to watch.
Atkins and Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro addressed the team’s front office, roster and payroll during a wide-ranging session with the media Friday. Here are the highlights on the Blue Jays from the new team president and GM…
Shapiro started the GM search by writing down the attributes, experiences and inter-personal characteristics he wanted most. That led to a broad list of candidates which he refined to four in consultation with executive recruitment firm Korn Ferry.
Though Shapiro interviewed Rene Francisco of the Kansas City Royals and one other candidate, it came down to LaCava and Atkins, two candidates Shapiro described as right choices. In the end Shapiro chose Atkins to become the Blue Jays GM.
“I had no doubt in my mind that when it comes to people, process, structure, that Ross is the right guy to lead people through that and elevate process and make great decisions that’ll lead us to championships,” Shapiro said.
Atkins and Shapiro met while Atkins was a player in the Indians’ minor league system, and he soon transitioned to the front office. A fluent speaker of Spanish, Atkins oversaw Cleveland’s Latin American operation before taking on broader responsibilities within the Indians’ front office.
“He’s developed as an effective leader, and obviously incredible baseball acumen — a feel for players and feel for the game,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro consulted with Korn Ferry to be sure he wasn’t biased toward Atkins, his longtime co-worker in Cleveland. “That wouldn’t be fair to him and it wouldn’t be fair to the fans of Toronto,” Shapiro said.
Pitching, pitching, pitching
Atkins intends to bolster the Blue Jays’ pitching staff, both in the rotation and in the bullpen. Ideally he’d like to enter the season with eight capable starters on the depth chart, which leaves room for another arm or two.
“We’ll look for additional pieces beyond the major league team to see how we can fortify the depth that way, but absolutely we believe the rotation has enough to contend,” Atkins said.
Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey, Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ have spots in the Blue Jays rotation, which leaves Jesse Chavez, Drew Hutchison and Aaron Sanchez as candidates for the fifth spot. That’s a solid foundation, yet there’s room for more.
“A rotation always needs another arm,” Shapiro said. “Depth is absolutely essential, because you will encounter things you don’t expect.”
The Blue Jays will also look to add bullpen depth on the trade and free agent markets before opening day. “You can just never have enough,” Atkins said.
Shapiro said the Blue Jays aren’t at their payroll limit, but declined to give specifics on how much Toronto’s working with. Having addressed most of their major needs, the Blue Jays say they’re looking to be creative, a suggestion that unexpected moves are being considered.
The 2015 Blue Jays spent modestly in the off-season before trading aggressively in July. For now, though, Shapiro’s focused on ensuring the Blue Jays are contending next summer.
“What’s most important is we build a team that warrants adding in July,” he said.
What about David Price?
The Blue Jays didn’t pursue Price aggressively, choosing instead to spend on multiple arms.
“It’s never a question of do you want David Price,” Shapiro said. “That’s silly. Of course, yes, we want David Price. It’s a question of how do you build a championship team within the parameters you’re given. It’s as simple as that. We have all the resources necessary to build a championship team, but they’re not unlimited.”
Baseball Operations additions possible
Both Shapiro and Atkins credited the Blue Jays’ existing baseball operations staff, citing LaCava, Andrew Tinnish, Perry Minasian and Joe Sheehan in particular. While LaCava was initially disappointed not to be named GM, Shapiro expects a smooth transition.
“It took about 15 minutes to shift from disappointment to talking about what we need to do,” Shapiro said. Two hours later they were out for lunch talking about ways to improve the team.
Atkins won’t be the last new hire the Blue Jays make. After losing international scouting director Ismael Cruz to the Los Angeles Dodgers, they have at least one position to fill. Beyond that they could look to build on areas such as mental performance, medical staff and analytics, for example.
The Blue Jays have spoken to former Indians manager Eric Wedge about a role with the organization. Wedge would not “replace anybody here” if hired and nothing’s imminent, according to Shapiro.
It’s been a busy off-season for Shapiro, who has been sleeping four or five hours per night while juggling the GM search and the off-season calendar. Having now hired a GM, he expects to spend more time on the business side.
For example, the Blue Jays’ existing spring facility in Dunedin, Fla., ranks among MLB’s oldest, making improvements a short- and long-term priority. The Blue Jays will start by talking to Dunedin officials in the hopes of finding a solution.
“If we exhaust that, we’ll start to look elsewhere,” Shapiro said. “That’s real, that’s a concern. That’s an area we’re going to focus on.”
By the end of his first year with the Blue Jays, Shapiro hopes to have a plan in place for large-scale issues such as Rogers Centre renovations and spring facilities.
Atkins acknowledged that the Blue Jays have depth in left field, where Ben Revere, Michael Saunders and Dalton Pompey are all candidates for playing time. The Blue Jays tendered Saunders a contract after hearing an optimistic report about the meniscus injury that sidelined him throughout the 2015 season.
“He’s clearly a guy with huge potential and upside, yet he’s not a guy we can just ink into the lineup,” Shapiro said.