Ross Atkins talks Blue Jays’ priorities, slow start to off-season

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Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins joined Arden Zwelling and Ben Nicholson-Smith on At the Letters this week for a wide-ranging conversation about everything from the current MLB off-season to front office philosophies to his days as a minor-leaguer with the Cleveland Indians.

Here are some takeaways from their conversation.

The Blue Jays off-season priorities

Atkins said his club’s priority this off-season remains building middle infield depth.

“We’ve got to protect our middle infield. Devon Travis is a player that is remarkable when he’s on the field. And we hope that he is,” Atkins said. “But we’re not going to plan on him playing 160 games. We’re not going to plan on Troy Tulowitzki playing 160 games. So, who’s going to play the 80-160 games between those two positions and what’s the best possible fit to create depth and versatility?”

Beyond that, Atkins said the Blue Jays front office is also working towards bolstering the pitching staff and adding to the outfield.

“To the extent that we can protect our middle infield, that’s the priority. And then secondarily would be complementing our pitching in some significant way,” Atkins said. “That could be a guy that’s a fourth, fifth calibre starter, or an elite reliever, or some hybrid of those two.”

Atkins said his preliminary discussions with teams and agents this winter have revealed opportunities he didn’t expect coming into the off-season, but that those circumstances haven’t dramatically changed his team’s goals.

“There are always things that are unexpected. And they’re subtle. They’re not shock-factor unexpected. It’s more, ‘That’s interesting, and that could shift the way that we prioritize our moves based on opportunities,’” Atkins said. “And that’s happened to some extent. It happens every year.”

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The slow MLB off-season

The 2017 off-season has been slow to develop, with very little movement around MLB to this point. Atkins feels there are a few reasons behind that, one of them being teams waiting for bigger dominos to fall before making their moves.

“I think there are some interesting names that are on the market, in trade and free agency, that are obviously significant pieces to different teams’ equations,” Atkins said. “Whether it’s [Giancarlo] Stanton or J.D. Martinez on the offensive side, or Jake Arrieta on the pitching side, typically those types of impact players will tend to set the market and set the pace.”

Atkins also said MLB front offices are now valuing players much more similarly than in the past, which can both facilitate trade discussion and hold up the free agent market.

“More teams now value players in a similar way,” Atkins said. “I think that’s good for baseball because that allows more trade discussion. I think what that then creates is more patience in free agency. To understand what’s available to you throughout trade, throughout free agency, and to make sure that you have a picture of the entire market.”

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Don’t count on a Blue Jays tear down

After the Blue Jays finished the season 76-86 with one of MLB’s oldest rosters, many fans wondered whether the team should tear down its current core with an eye towards the future in a similar fashion to the long rebuild cycle the World Series champion Houston Astros went through earlier this decade.

Atkins said he doesn’t believe that strategy is best for the Blue Jays.

“It’s never black and white. But I personally don’t feel that you should ever be in a rebuild mode, especially in this market and in this environment,” Atkins said. “There might be soft resets based on circumstance, based on where you are as a team. It’s managing risk and mitigating risk. And understanding that there are times that you should be more opportunistic. But, personally, I don’t buy into the strategy that we’re not going to be a good team for five and six years.”

Atkins said he views 2017 as merely a down year, and not a sign that his front office needs to dramatically overhaul its major-league roster. He said the Blue Jays were still debating whether or not to add to the team until about 10-15 days before the trade deadline, when the decision was made to sell off certain assets for prospects.

“It’s a combination of our projected health, our projected win probability, and our subjective feelings and sentiments in and around the clubhouse on our chances. Marrying those and then ultimately making a decision based on the opportunities that we have,” Atkins said. “We just experienced it at the trade deadline. We didn’t trade Vladimir Guerrero and Bo Bichette for player X at the deadline, whoever that may or may not have been. We didn’t triple down. That’s a part of that theory and that strategy.”


Humble beginnings

Reflecting on his years as a minor-league pitcher in the late 1990s, Atkins spoke about getting to know some of his teammates from Latin America, and learning about how challenging their adjustment to minor-league life in the United States had been. He said those experiences inspired him to improve the transition resources available to Latin American players once he took on a front office role with Cleveland.

Atkins, a 38th-round pick in 1995, also told a story about signing his first professional contract with Cleveland at a McDonald’s for a signing bonus of $1,000.

“It was 15 minutes in a McDonald’s, signed the contract, and got on a plane,” Atkins said.

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