The Toronto Blue Jays head into their third season under president and CEO Mark Shapiro on unsteady ground. They are seeking to rebound from a 76-86 finish in the American League East, where both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are loaded. Franchise cornerstone Josh Donaldson is a pending free agent and off-season extension talks didn’t come to fruition. Top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette need more time to develop in an improving farm system not quite ready to help turn things over. The big-league roster is stocked with both talent and caveats, which is why, in equal measure, they could be either contenders or pretenders.
The club’s most notable additions include Yangervis Solarte, Aledmys Diaz, Randal Grichuk, Curtis Granderson, Jaime Garcia, Seung-hwan Oh, John Axford and Tyler Clippard. As opening day approaches, an obvious question is whether the Jays did enough to ensure they can contend for the post-season?
Shapiro sat down in his Dunedin office to answer that question and more.
Sportsnet How is the team better now than at the end of 2017?
Mark Shapiro Ross (Atkins) and our baseball operations group acknowledged that last year the combination of challenges in depth and versatility along with a mature position-player club created some weaknesses for us. This year, we’ve got more depth, we’ve got more versatility and that, in combination with the progression of our own players leads all of us to feel like we’re in a much better spot to handle what lies ahead and some of the unknowns.
SN In the past you’ve said an ideal roster is balanced between players at the beginning of their careers, in the middle and the end. Is there an ideal way for you to allocate dollars across the roster?
MS Building a baseball team is not an intellectual exercise. So much of the answer is dependent on situation and circumstance. You never know where your best players are going to be. You’re excited to have those guys and always want to pay those guys top dollar, so if your greatest player is Josh Donaldson, than I would say we should pay $23 million to our third baseman at whatever age. So, the answer is to build the best team possible in an efficient, flexible way that allows you to adjust to the things that lie ahead. But there is no formula — we just need to build the team that gives us a chance to contend, compete and play for a championship.
SN An industry trend over the past couple of years has been spending on relievers. You guys have mostly used your money in other areas. Is that due to the volatility of performance among relief pitchers, because the needs where elsewhere or a philosophical approach?
MS I think relievers continue to get paid because they’re still the cheapest source of wins if you’re just buying wins in free agency. There’s also the reality that relievers can come from a lot of different places, there’s not a lot of predictability or consistency, almost no team builds a dominant bullpen year-in, year-out and it does almost require some adjustment and flexibility as the season unfolds.
But no, I don’t think that represents a philosophical decision. Yes, you are trying to find value in free agency and if the early action tended to be on the bullpen guys, then we probably weren’t going to be in and compete for those guys. It also wasn’t our greatest area of need.
SN Given the emphasis on acquiring bullpen arms during the off-season, is the increased need for positional flexibility one of the prime takeaways from last season?
MS I would say based upon the players [we have] under contract and in place, we needed versatility and depth.
SN So it’s not part of a wider trend?
MS There’s a power to that, but I don’t feel there’s one way to build a team. Talk to the best executives and they adapt to the strengths they have internally, they stay flexible to how markets unfold and build the best team possible. Right now, we’re a pitching focused team, that’s the core strength of this team, but that doesn’t mean our philosophy is always going to be [that] our starters are the core foundation.
If five years from now, we have a dominant position-player club that puts up the most runs in the major leagues, we’re going to build around that. We want to win. That’s the bottom line. How we do that is going to be flexible — getting the best talent, the best people, the best competitors and the best teammates.
SN Shifting gears to the business side, you guys faced a dual challenge in selling tickets from both a price increase and coming off a difficult 76-86 season.
MS I don’t think the challenge was from the ticket-price increase. Most other teams in professional sports raise ticket prices, regardless of winning or losing. The Jays had not done that so that’s why there’s some reaction. Other teams in Toronto had done that. We just hadn’t. We’re trying to correct that and the only reason to do it is to compete with the Yankees and the Red Sox. The only reason.
SN You’re trying claw back some of the money that exists on the secondary market and bring it to the club.
MS Absolutely. If you were to look at the ticket prices from all 30 major-league teams, we need to get revenue in line with our market, we need to be a reflection of the Toronto marketplace. We’ll still be able to offer the most affordable major-league ticket in the market, we think. We still think we’ll provide the most value. On any given night, you can still buy a very affordable ticket for a family to come and see a game. The bulk of the increase is in the luxury seats, not in the seats that are affordable for the everyday person. It’s misleading to look at a bottom-line increase and say, “They increased ticket prices.” We increased certain ticket prices, we didn’t increase all ticket prices.
SN Are ticket prices closer to where they should be in the Toronto market?
MS I would think some tickets in the most desirable locations will continue to be increased. But I don’t think we’ll have years where you see all ticket prices increased.
SN Then there’s the challenge of selling tickets after a difficult season.
MS Again, that’s a little bit misleading. What happened when we were headed to the post-season, there was a huge amount of season-ticket sales for the following season, largely built around people who wanted access to post-season tickets. A lot of them were brokers and the secondary market — almost 50 per cent of our season-ticket holders were brokers last year, which is not uncommon for other teams.
As we progressed in our business model, we didn’t think it was advantageous to have 50 per cent of our tickets controlled by the secondary market. The main reason for that is a lot of tickets just get dumped and the integrity of pricing for season-ticket holders and the average fan goes way down and the most desirable tickets get sold at a maximum premium. We wanted to create pricing and packages that benefit our fans and provide them with alternatives and values that meet their individual needs. Our changes are meant to benefit them instead of the secondary market.
SN What effect does the secondary market have on the Blue Jays, and is there an impact on sales for this year?
MS The secondary market is a fact, we will always accept and even embrace a piece of that market, but we just wanted to clean that up to some extent. That affects season tickets. When season tickets go from 20,000 to 13,000, you’re going to see a dramatic impact over 81 games. If you still look at our attendance based upon 2015 or 2014 at the start, we’re in good shape. But when you’re looking at our attendance through the window of ’16 and even ’17 because of the tickets that were bought in ’16 for the post-season, we’re stepping back. Last year we didn’t have post-season to sell, so there were no tickets sold in August and September for ’18. All those sales went away.
This market is still one of the best in baseball and regardless of a correction this season, if we win and focus on providing the best fan experience possible, I am confident our attendance will bounce back and lead the league again.
SN As of Tuesday, opening day isn’t yet sold out and usually it sells out pretty quickly.
MS We’re going to sell out opening day. We’ve held back some tickets and it’s probably going to be the highest-revenue game in the history of Rogers Centre. The pace of it is not as important.
SN Overall, what type of decrease, if any, are you expecting in attendance?
MS We’re definitely going to have a decrease in attendance because season tickets are down dramatically for the reasons I explained. I hope we are back in the post-season and we rise back to the same league leading levels once again next year.
SN From a business perspective, how much of a challenge and how significant is that at this point?
MS That’s a volatile question. If we’re playing meaningful games in September, it will be a non-issue. If we’re not, it will affect decisions moving forward.
SN Another challenge looming is renovating Rogers Centre to fully leverage the building. Where does that sit, and from a broader perspective, with Rogers Communications Inc. [which owns Sportsnet], planning an upgrade of its wireless network, is there the money for simultaneous large-scale projects?
MS I can’t answer a question for Rogers. What I can tell you is there’s an understanding from Rogers ownership, top to bottom, that there’s an appreciation of the need as well as an understanding that’s probably one of the biggest levers if not the biggest lever on the Blue Jays business model.
We have both an infrastructure need and a business-model need to renovate the stadium. We have presented proposals for that. They have been embraced by Rogers executives and by (CEO) Joe Natale and (CFO) Tony Staffieri, and everyone down. It’s just a matter of determining funding sources and timing. That’s not within our control, so we continue to operate the business and understand it’s a huge amount of money and we are the only major-league baseball team that is asked to completely privately finance a renovation of this scale.
I think our fans need to understand that. Every other of our 29 competitors receives some public funding for renovations of this scale, or bigger or smaller, even new stadiums. This burden falls completely on our ownership, so in light of that, it’s a big undertaking and one that needs to be thought about carefully in light of all the priorities out there.
SN The proposals you’ve made, have you presented multiple renovation plans at different price points?
SN What’s the minimum you need for the business-model to function?
MS There’s no scenario where you’re not talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s just a question of the multiples of the hundreds of millions.
SN What’s the minimum you need to do to the Dome to sufficiently leverage the building?
MS Rather than give you a list of projects, I would say it’s taking the building from a 1989 experience, which was largely one experience from every seat with the only difference being the vantage point or perspective to providing a different set of experiences for different types of fans. One set of experiences is for the family that wants to come and provide a range of entertainment for their kids, but still allow the adults to watch the game; another from the young, vibrant, single group of people who live within walking distance of Rogers Centre that want to come to what is a really a cool bar that happens to be inside the building; to another set of fans that want to watch the game from a baseball purist perspective behind home plate from base-to-base and score the game; to another set of fans who are corporate and want to walk over from Bay Street to entertain clients and have a very premium corporate experience.
We don’t currently have the depth or differentiation between experiences. We have one experience for all those people and they have to adapt their own experience to that. Ultimately, to compete in the entertainment landscape and make it a compelling fan experience, regardless of whether we win or lose, even though we know winning will be the most important lever, we need to modernize our building, we need modernize our fan experience. Within each one of those buckets could be a series of projects as well as just infrastructure to keep the building standing.
SN Obviously there’s a big difference in price, but at what point do you perhaps start looking at some of the more creative new-stadium/entertainment-complex models some teams are using now, Atlanta being a recent example, rather than a renovation?
MS We’re so fortuitous to have the location we have. That footprint, with how the city has evolved around it and continues to evolve around it, I just can’t see a scenario where it would be advantageous for us to go somewhere else. Maybe that’s what we have to end up doing if we can’t figure out a model of renovation, but I think it’s possible to renovate the existing building, regardless of scale, and there are a wide range of scales.
SN Could naming rights for Rogers Centre help fund the Dome renovation?
MS Naming rights is a complicated issue because there are so many things that go along with that including the pride and community commitment of our ownership and of the Rogers family. Those are all things being discussed at the ownership level, but the building is named for a person now, not a company. Much like the Yankees and the Red Sox probably considered those things and decided not to, those are all things that get considered when you look at the running of the business.
SN Of all the existential questions facing this team right now, is the stadium’s future the biggest one?
MS There are so many different pieces moving. It’s safe to say to the biggest lever that exists for the Blue Jays business right now is a renovation… and all the different things that go along with that. More operational and less revenue-wise would be the renovation of the spring training facility, which we are very close to pushing across the finish line.
SN What steps remain to finalize the spring-training facility renovation deal?
MS The city piece is largely done. There are tiny little pieces in the development contract we’re working through. Converting the county terms of agreement that I agreed to into a contract that’s a tri-party contract between the city, the Blue Jays and Pinellas County is still in the process of being done. Lawyers are all looking out for everybody’s interests. I feel like we’re making progress there, but there’s still work to be done.
There’s an April 10 County vote that we would love to be on the agenda for, and we’re using that as a goal right now. The state funding application is in, and was conditionally approved, meaning there’s language that will be in the agreement that still needs to be worked through.
But we’re at the point of taking about language. All the large funding pieces are clear, everybody has said they’re committed to it, it’s just a question of pushing things across the finish line. The city has an RFP (request for proposal) out for bid right now for a design firm, so we’re moving forward.
SN A huge point of emphasis for you since your arrival has been on the farm system, which is improving according to third-party rankings. Where do feel the farm system is at right now?
MS I feel like we’ve made tremendous progress. That involves an incredible job by our baseball ops staff turning what are seemingly small trades into players like Teoscar Hernandez and Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez. If you’re really focused and understanding … then you make the most of those opportunities. The same is said about the drafts the last two years, as well as what we’re doing internationally. I feel like there’s an understanding and appreciation and an embracing of an entire organization that when it comes to acquiring amateur talent, we need to obsessive about that focus.
Then, led by Ben Cherington, Gil Kim and Eric Wedge, our player development department has been extremely creative and open minded about how we develop the strongest foundation for players — how do we develop not just baseball players but championship Toronto Blue Jays players. So we’ve elevated our process, we’ve elevated our structure, we’ve challenged ourselves from a staff perspective to get better in the way we are developing baseball players mentally, physically and fundamentally.
Those two efforts in acquiring and developing have resulted in what is a much deeper system. But what I would say is we need to relentlessly continue to execute on that, our success is dependent on having not just system that gets to a certain point, but that continues to produce talent. That’s not a philosophy, that’s a reality. We’re trying to be better than what our payrolls suggests and the only way for that to happen is to have special players and special people produced by our farm system.
SN Lastly, with opening day quickly approaching, what’s your sense of how this season may turn out for the Blue Jays?
MS We’re going to go to as far as our starting pitching and our health takes us. If the starting pitching stays healthy and productive and we avoid longer-term, catastrophic-types of injuries, then we’ll be playing meaningful games through the end of the season and hopefully into October. We’re still at a point where it’s a little bit fragile. There’s still that underlying reality that we need to stay healthy, but I think that’s true for almost every team.
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