TORONTO – The worst of the tumult is probably over now for the Toronto Blue Jays. They’re through a rebuild’s most acrimonious parts – splitting with beloved, iconic players and weathering the fallout – and though remnants of the 2015-16 playoff teams remain, any hope of resurrecting those clubs are long gone. Stay fixated on how Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson departed if you want, but at this point Kylo Ren’s advice to Rey in Star Wars: Espisode VIII The Last Jedi is rather fitting: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.”
Because everything from this point forward is about servicing the future for the Blue Jays, and the true judgment for president and CEO Mark Shapiro lies in whether he’s able to establish the sustainably competitive baseball utopia he’s described since his arrival in November 2015.
Shapiro never seemed fully comfortable playing out the American League East championship group he inherited from former GM Alex Anthopoulos, nor with the collection of veteran talent from a variety of sources his predecessor stitched into a winning whole. In a sense the Blue Jays have been a Frankenstein-like hybrid of old and new since the change.
The next core, to be largely made up from players developed in the farm system, will for better or worse be built to his vision. He fully owns what happens from now on.
“I believe that to win in the American League East, you need to outperform objective expectations,” Shapiro said Friday during a 40-minute conversation with writers who cover the team. “I believe that to beat teams that play in some of the biggest markets in all of Major League Baseball, under the MLB system that doesn’t share revenue evenly, that has no salary cap, that we need to not just play to our level of performance, we need to play great baseball. To do that we need to be a team and to do that we need to have players that outperform expectations. Those players are high-character, tough, resilient and good teammates.
“That’s what we’re trying to build here.”
The expectation is that Shapiro, whose contract runs through the 2020 season, will remain in place to oversee that process, despite a report this week from Joel Sherman of the New York Post suggesting he’s a candidate for the New York Mets’ GM vacancy. While Shapiro didn’t totally kill the speculation – why waste any leverage for a potential extension? – he didn’t sound like someone with a foot out the door, either. “This is where I want to be,” he said.
A more immediate matter is the future of GM Ross Atkins, whose deal is up after the 2019 season and who barring any surprise changes will be getting an extension, one that likely takes place quietly behind the scenes and doesn’t get announced. Atkins will need some term behind him to hire any manager of consequence to replace John Gibbons once the season ends, and you’d expect that Shapiro won’t send him into the search process without solid footing.
That stability will also play during forays into the open market, although Shapiro implied that the club’s payroll, which started the year at roughly $163 million and has since shed about $13 million through trades, will be lower next year, which to an extent is the natural by-product of a roster trending younger.
While he said that the payroll hasn’t been set for 2019, he added, “I’m confident that where the payroll is at will have zero impact on our ability to execute our off-season plan.”
That plan will include forays into free agency, but “we’re not going to be playing on Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.” A safer bet would be on the Blue Jays waiting out the market for some value-play additions to the bullpen, and perhaps a moderately more significant spend to bolster a starting rotation that needs at least one, if not two reliable inning-eaters.
Spending beyond that at this point, Shapiro insisted, is somewhat counterproductive.
“There’s an opportunity cost, too,” he said. “In order for those players to transition, in order for those players to develop, in order for us to get a clear understanding of who we have and what they represent for our future, we have to play them. Playing young players is a double-edged sword, playing young players leads to volatility. Volatility can be a great thing because there’s huge upside for those players, but it can also be a disappointing thing because there will be some young players that break your heart. The only way to find out about who a player is at the major-league level is to commit to that opportunity and to commit to those players. We’re embarking on that process now.”
Eventually, he said, the Blue Jays will need to outspend their revenue on payroll when the team is ready for contention. “I have already had those conversations,” said Shapiro, adding that “this is the commitment from ownership.”
Until then, expect to see a lot of the kids, and often, including Vladimir Guerrero Jr., for whom Shapiro wouldn’t rule out the possibility of making the team out of spring training. Given that the players association put the Blue Jays on watch Thursday when a spokesman told Sportsnet the decision to keep Guerrero down in 2018 “was a business decision, not a baseball decision,” he certainly had incentive to leave open that possibility.
But Shapiro also took aim at the union by questioning “the player-development background of the person that commented,” and when the possibility of facing a grievance next spring if the association felt Guerrero was being again held down to manipulate his service time, Shaprio replied: “I welcome that scrutiny.”
Well, it’s going to come, and not only from the union about how the Blue Jays handle Guerrero.
All eyes will be on how the Blue Jays leverage a farm system stocked with Guerrero, Ryan Borucki, Danny Jansen, Sean Reid-Foley, Rowdy Tellez and Anthony Alford by Anthopoulos and bolstered by the additions of Bo Bichette, Nate Pearson, Kevin Smith, Eric Pardinho, Cavan Biggio, Jordan Groshans, Hector Perez and Orelvis Martinez, to name a few, under Shapiro.
“When you see that concentration of talent and you start to see that talent backing up, you see it every level, not just one or two levels, not just five or six guys, if you have the stomach and the toughness to stay that course and play that out, there’s a very exciting run of championship baseball that comes behind that,” said Shapiro. “But you’ve got to stay strong. You’ve got to stay positive. You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing. And you’ve got to do the best job possible to develop those players and ensure that as many as possible reach their potential.”
Switched off the path Anthopoulos set the Blue Jays on, the team is now firmly on Shapiro’s course. The way to define his tenure now is in where the Blue Jays ultimately end up.