Shapiro aims to prop up Blue Jays’ outlook in uncomfortable market

Mark Shapiro spoke with Sportnet’s Hazel Mae during the MLB Winter Meetings. Shapiro spoke on whether he or Ross Atkins makes any final decisions and comparing his first ever Winter Meetings to his most recent.

SAN DIEGO – You can hear some pretty interesting and juicy things in the hallways during baseball’s winter meetings, ranging from the obvious to the absurd, from fact to fiction.

Take this one from the wild portion of the spectrum – Jose Bautista is thinking about representing the Dominican Republic in next spring’s Americas Olympic qualifier, as a position player who maybe pitches a bit, too. Word is the Toronto Blue Jays icon, who briefly served as a closer during his days at Chipola College, has touched 94 m.p.h. during his workouts.

That so needs to happen.

Then there’s chatter such as this, that the Blue Jays, struck by a market-induced epiphany, have realized any free-agency spends they make will have to be uncomfortable, and they must now decide is the degree of discomfort they’ll endure to land some arms in a pitching bull market.

Fact? Fiction? We’re going to find out.

“We need to get better. We need to add. We need to strike,” president and CEO Mark Shapiro said Tuesday while subbing in for GM Ross Atkins during the club’s daily media briefing. “There are different degrees, some may not be how you define that or someone else defines that, but we clearly need to add. We can’t just roll the same club out again as it sits there today.”

We’ll skip parsing the words there, especially on the mandatory caveat. Their degree isn’t the same as the New York Yankees’ degree, which is the kind that drops $324 million over nine years to land all-world right-hander Gerrit Cole. Their degree this winter has been unable to land options well down the food chain, with right-hander Kevin Gausman, joining the San Francisco Giants for $9 million, and shortstop Didi Gregorius, who took $14 million from the Philadelphia Phillies, becoming the latest players they engaged with to sign elsewhere.

Given that, it’s Shapiro’s effort to prop up expectations and seemingly create some urgency that’s especially noteworthy. There’s risk in re-upping on that front, especially as after initial optimism about a step forward was dashed when Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, Jordan Lyles and Mike Moustakas all signed elsewhere.

They can’t dash hopes again with late-market, value-rebuild adds, and that applies not only to their fans, but also within the industry, as well, since in their talks with agents, the Blue Jays have been saying their plans include signing two or three starting pitchers.

A failure to follow through erodes credibility on multiple fronts.

To that end, the Blue Jays continue to pursue Tanner Roark and they appear to have some interest in Rick Porcello, as well. A reunion with Edwin Encarnacion is possible – a budget of 50 games at first base for the slugger makes sense, and means he won’t totally tie up the DH spot – as is bringing back Justin Smoak.

Hyun-Jin Ryu remains the big prize – they dreamt about a Cole scenario that was never going to happen – and a tweet from Ken Rosenthal indicating the Los Angeles Dodgers will now pivot to Madison Bumgarner perhaps helps the Blue Jays on that front.

Action, though, not words is what matters and the Blue Jays will need to ante up to land Ryu, who, like Cole, Moustakas, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon and Dallas Keuchel, is a client of Scott Boras, who has a shot at a billion dollars in negotiated contracts this winter.

No one’s winning this winter quite like the super-agent.

The Blue Jays certainly have the financial ability to get Ryu, as Shapiro once again touted the club’s flexibility as a key asset that’s “among the best in the game.”

“We’re very well positioned,” he added. “The combination of young talent along with the lack of future commitments, it will never be this again. It’s just for this moment.”

That’s why the Blue Jays need to be careful with any contract they sign – every move they make now cuts them off from potential moves down the road, especially the particularly high-leverage ones like signing a Cole type when their situation is more appealing.

But their financial flexibility won’t disappear in a year or two, either, since changes to the way the Blue Jays operate on the business side means they should be able to spend beyond the club record payrolls in the $160 million range if they are contending again.

“We’re positioned extremely well from a business perspective and I think the ceiling would be higher than it was in ‘15 and ’16,” said Shapiro “We’re positioned well on the business side for us to take advantage of that opportunity and that will be deployed in player payroll.”

As for what that payroll number looks like in 2020, Shapiro was evasive on that front, not wanting to divulge to agents precisely how much money Atkins has to work with.

The expectation is that their attendance next year will be similar to this one, when they ranked 21st in the majors after drawing 1,750,144 fans, extending the startling decline from consecutive seasons of three-million-plus fans in 2016-17. Remaining in that range means that 2020 revenues will also be similar to the 2019 numbers, and suggests that the payroll will remain in the $100 million range, too.

“I think that’s reasonable but not necessarily the case,” said Shapiro. “There are still some variables, there are still some situations that would lead to a payroll being bigger and there are some variables that if we don’t feel the right moves are out there that would lead to the payroll being lower. We’re not going to spend it just to spend it, but there’s certainly opportunity to go beyond last year in the right circumstance, as well. It’s not a static number.”

It’s certainly not a static market, either, as after duds the past three years, industry-shifting moves are back at the winter meetings. The Blue Jays have come to understand things have changed dramatically beneath their feet, and the test is in whether they can adjust in time to successfully reposition themselves for 2020, and ideally beyond.

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