Q&A: Mark Shapiro on development, Blue Jays’ window, culture

MLB insider Shi Davidi joins Irfaan Gaffar from Dunedin, where Josh Donaldson is already responding to treatment and showing improvement so soon after injuring his calf.

• Evaluating the Blue Jays’ competitive window
• Locking up Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez
• Focusing on player development

DUNEDIN, Fla. – The notion of building a sustainable winner is the goal of every professional sports franchise, but even for clubs with a limitless payroll, it’s a near-impossible task. The St. Louis Cardinals are a bit of an outlier on that front, with only one sub-.500 season amid 12 trips to the playoffs this century and still going strong. For most teams riding a wave of success, there is eventually a comeuppance.

A prime example on that front are the Atlanta Braves, who made 17 post-season appearances from 1991 through 2013 and have lost 271 games over the three seasons since. Years of trading prospects for now-players, drafting both low and poorly, and struggling with player development caught up with the former NL East kings, prompting them to sell off assets to revive the organization with young talent.

After all, very few teams can successfully navigate the parallel paths of competing at the big-league level while concurrently retooling, a challenge soon looming for the Toronto Blue Jays.

“We had to make a tough choice, we did what we did by trading off Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel and others, and we did it because we weren’t good enough to win and we didn’t have the talent to grow it organically through the minors,” says Braves general manager John Coppolella. “If we were a larger revenue team, if we were the Dodgers or the Yankees or the Red Sox, sure, we could try to walk both roads. Toronto has a much higher payroll than we do, Toronto draws (3.4) million fans, Toronto is the only team in the country, so they’re able to do some things we aren’t, and they’re also starting from a much better place. Alex (Anthopoulos) did a really nice job there setting them up talent-wise, a lot of the things we tried to do, building through young draft picks, trades to where they have that window.”

A key question now before the Blue Jays after consecutive trips to the American League Championship Series is how much longer the current window will remain open.

Without doubt they are a legitimate contender for a post-season berth this season, but what happens if things go sideways? The bigger-picture questions facing the team next fall could dwarf those they faced this off-season, as the club’s core will be another year older. The crop of potential free agents will include Jose Bautista, Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano, and Josh Donaldson will have just one year of control left before he hits the market.

Complicating matters is that the Blue Jays’ prospect base, while now closer to the big leagues, can’t be counted on to cover roster holes. And with the club’s cost for returning players set to skyrocket in 2018 when Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna, Kevin Pillar and Devon Travis join the ranks of the arbitration-eligible, spending their way to another year of contention is sure to require more than the current $160-million range.

All that means the kind of difficult decisions the Braves faced a few years back may soon be in front of the Blue Jays if they decide the current competitive window is at its end.

“It’s not as important to know where we are with the open understanding that we’re going to need to evaluate it at junctures,” Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro says during a 30-minute interview in his Dunedin office. “We went through that this off-season and we’ll always frame that question, do we objectively feel that through the combination of our own internal talent and the players that are accessible to us, can we build a contending team? The answer to that will frame the decisions. In our collective minds, and this is probably the competitive nature of a group of people that want to win, we feel that with the resources provided we can field a contending team, we don’t see an end to that. We’re not delusional, so we do understand the challenges that exist, but every situation has its challenges.”

Shaprio expands on those challenges and other questions in the following Q&A with Sportsnet:

Sportsnet: Given the coming spike in the cost of your controllable players who’ll be eligible for arbitration and your pending free agents, can the Blue Jays remain competitive without a boost in payroll?

Mark Shapiro: “You can’t speak in absolute certainties, but in everything I’ve seen there’s been a consistent commitment at every juncture to provide the resources necessary. What’s probably less noted, and probably of less concern to a fan but maybe more important for what we’re trying to ultimately build here, the resources, while they’ve been extended for major-league players, they’ve been committed, without almost any limit, to building the infrastructure beneath the big-league team that is essential – not important but essential – to build a sustainable championship-calibre team.

“Whether it’s building out an entire HP team that didn’t exist, or bringing in major-league resources like Derek Shelton to help complement our big-league staff, or front-office roles that can help us make better decisions, or just software that can help us frame better decisions or redoing the weight room in Toronto, or redoing both weight rooms here – the commitment to providing the resources to help both our current group of players perform at their best and help us both identify and develop players more effectively, that’s been without question supported. That to me is as important as spending on any free-agent player because ultimately everything we’re trying to do is build it so that we don’t have to sign free agents because it’s tough to sign free agents effectively.”

Your preference is to pursue free agents as finishing pieces?

“Exactly, or because there’s an opportunity.”

In Cleveland you signed several players – Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Jason Kipnis among them – to multi-year deals early in their careers to contain costs. With the Blue Jays, do these deals still make sense given that you have more payroll to work with, and may not need to take on the risk?

“I still think they make sense. When you talk arbitration-eligible or pre-arb eligible deals, those contracts are about sharing risk. They don’t just need to make sense to us, they need to make sense to both us and the player. Ultimately in every one of those deals, you’re saying listen, the club is going to risk something, it’s going to risk injury, a dip in performance from a player who’s not completely established so there’s no certainty to performance.

“You’re going to risk a variety of factors that can happen with a very young major-league career for cost-certainty because you believe in the player as a person as well as a player. The player is going to risk some upside, clearly, that would exist if they go year to year and then test the market sooner than ultimately those deals allow them to do. The question becomes is the shared risk something both sides are comfortable with? Can you find the sweet spot for the shared risk? It’s got to be a little uncomfortable for the club, but there’s a tradeoff, and it’s got to be a little uncomfortable for the player, but they get security and a contract that will change their lives. Every player is different and every situation is different. There’s no commonality other than you’re able to find that sweet spot.”

Does it make sense to explore such a deal for Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman?

“It always makes sense to explore those things and we’ll never comment on whether we’re doing those things along the way, but I’ll leave the decisions to Ross (Atkins) as to when we’ll explore that.”

Now that free-agent compensation rules have changed, there’s a feeling that teams must make quicker decisions on pending free agents lest they lose them for nothing. What type of impact does that have on your decision-making in terms of trying to extend Josh Donaldson?

“Draft-pick compensation is going to be the last thing we worry about with Josh. It’s about winning and a player who’s among the best players in the game, the hardest workers in the game, the most intense players in the game and certainly represents a lot of the competitiveness that we want this team to represent moving forward. Can’t give you a direct answer to that, except for the fact the draft pick is not going to be something that factors into that decision.”

You’ve spent a significant part of your career in player-development and some of the team’s top prospects could start being ready for the big-leagues later this year or next year. How do you successfully integrate players while also trying to remain competitive?

“Any time you try to expedite the player-development process you’re short-changing the foundation a player’s got. That doesn’t mean you’re going to make the transition easier, because I don’t care how much experience and how strong a foundation is, there’s an art to transitioning players at the major-league level and putting them in the best position possible to succeed and there’s still going to be a wide range in how players react. Some are going to have to go back, some are going to be able to stay and make the adjustment at the major-league level.

“It’s up to the culture you have and the on-field leaders you have to ensure that a player, when he transitions, has the support necessary to compete and feel as comfortable as he can possibly feel, in an environment where it’s impossible to feel comfortable. Having the foundation of success and failure at the minor-league level, of making adjustments and maybe most importantly, I’ve always viewed player development to be developing a player to be his own coach when he gets to the big leagues. You’re developing a player so that when he gets there, he is very aware of what he is doing when he’s successful, which is what most players don’t think about, so when he struggles, he knows what he needs to do to get back and (have) the resources at the major-league level, the coaching staff in place, to help him execute those things. It takes time to do that.”

Do you look at the prospects in the system and try to project out how they’ll fit into the big-league rosters in intervals of one, three and five years?

“I’ve always done that, it’s been a part of what I learned from the time I was a farm director and the GM and assistant GM in Cleveland, John Hart and Dan O’Dowd, were doing that, to what we did in Cleveland to what we do here. However, it’s often humorous to look back. The farm systems we had in Cleveland in the 1990s were incredible. But if you look back at the names we wrote down in those three- and five-year plans, it speaks to the reality that things aren’t going to go the way you want them to go. If you are pinning all your hopes on two or three prospects as being absolutely crucial to your plans, and they’re at double-A and A-ball, you’re in big trouble. You need to develop a system that’s extremely productive, that has a depth of talent, understanding that some guys will be better than you think they’re going to be, many guys will not be the players you think they’re going to be because of injury or for other reasons, and there’ll be a few players that come out of nowhere that you didn’t expect.

“That’s why I say there’s got to be an obsessive focus on identifying and developing talent. If we do that, and we’re really focused on being the best we can be, if Tony LaCava and Steve Sanders lead us through another impact draft and we’re the best amateur department we can humanly be, if they then go into a player development system that’s focused on developing the players mentally, physically and fundamentally to be the best to their potential, and we ultimately build a major-league team and transition those guys into a big-league culture that is aligned with how we identify and develop and is committed to those players to maximize their potential, then we’re going to be in a good spot.

“But we’re still in the process of learning each other, articulating what the link is between scouting, player development and the major leagues, and building that. Those pieces have to work together, be joined by a set of values, by an identity of what a Blue Jays player is.”

You speak a lot about culture but establishing one can take a long time. How close are the Blue Jays to having the culture you envision for the organization?

“I never eventually envision anything because what I want above all is a learning culture. A learning culture means you have the humility and the openness to realize you can always get better. There’s got to be a simplicity to it and I go back to me learning from Ross when we were talking about what to put on the graphics on the walls down here, quotes and motivational statements.

“Ross just said, ‘Hey, let’s just put, Get Better Every Day.’ That summarizes everything. If everyone in the front office and everyone on the major-league staff and all of our players and our trainers and our strength coaches are all waking up every day thinking how can I get better, and we’re doing that collectively everywhere, our potential is limitless and we are going to continue to make huge strides and we are going to get better.

“I’m not saying we were bad ever, but there’s no time when you’re done, because somebody somewhere else is focusing on how they can get better. … That’s the culture I want. It’s not about me, it’s about everybody taking ownership, accountability and thinking about, each in their own way, how we can get better.”

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