This has been an emotionally difficult time in a draining season for the Toronto Blue Jays, and their fans. Trading away Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, the last impactful ties to the post-season clubs of 2015-16, was bound to be divisive, and it was.
Still, the tired, poisoned discourse around the team that’s followed needs to change, for everyone’s sake, as it’s largely focused on the wrong things — things that have little to do with what happens on the field. And that’s on the club and public alike.
The departure of Alex Anthopoulos and the hypotheticals of what might have been had he stayed continue to burden the franchise, even as most of what the former general manager built has been torn down by president and CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins. Like it or not, a rebuild happened after three tepid, toe-in-the-water years during which the Blue Jays never adequately augmented a still-talented base while trying to simultaneously retool for the future.
There are cases both for and against such approach, and their player acquisitions through that period need to be viewed through that dual-goal lens. Now, though, they are no longer tied to a situation they inherited and were forced to play out, but never believed in. The players they acquire now are obtained to fulfil their own vision, which is why it’s their talent evaluation that must be judged from here on out.
Revisiting the departures of Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and Co., over and over is living in a past that’s never going to change. There’s nothing left to parse. The Blue Jays wanted to wipe the slate clean, they did and now they own everything. To help change the conversation around the team they need to start communicating how they’re going to push a burgeoning core with talented but sometimes position-less offensive players and significant pitching deficiencies into the sustainable contender that was promised.
To that end, there must be a real plan targeting actual players that’s more than airy-fairy talk about culture, values, collaboration, options, alternatives and all the other meaningless buzz words that lead to collective eye-rolls.
And it’s precisely that which makes an Aug. 1 Yahoo! Sports piece entitled “Like it or not, Mark Shapiro has unwavering belief in Blue Jays vision” so counterproductive.
In it, Shapiro needlessly extended the franchise’s ongoing self-flagellation by:
• Feigning ignorance about why Anthopoulos left. It’s been widely and accurately reported that as Anthopoulos’ team was winning the 2015 American League East, Shapiro eviscerated everything Anthopoulos built in their early conversations and has since spent four years undoing all he had put together;
• Criticizing “the anecdotal decision making” that had to be changed to make the Blue Jays “an organization that I felt comfortable being a part of,” while refusing to acknowledge that such decision-making had ended a 21-year post-season drought, left behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Danny Jansen, Ryan Borucki and several others, plus the people who fought hard for the drafting of Bo Bichette in 2016;
• Complaining about how he’s “been disappointed too many times by people who get written by a journalist, they just present one side to them,” while going on to say he presents a full picture of himself, but ends up being written in precisely the manner he criticizes.
His comments are disrespectful to the people who helped win the AL East in 2015, which serves no end, and helps sends the discourse back in the wrong direction.
Honestly, the public doesn’t need to hear more about culture. It’s time to talk baseball.
As a one-off, clumsy media moment, the comments in the Yahoo! piece would be no biggie. It happens. But the conversation gets pulled in the wrong direction over and over again, and as Postmedia’s Scott Stinson pointed out here, the trade deadline was the latest example of message mismanagement.
Atkins drew particularly sharp criticism for bragging about how the Blue Jays “turned six or seven years of major-league control … into 42 years of control.” The comment was portrayed as the latest example of the franchise being cheap, a low-hanging fruit gibe that misses the point. What must be understood is that those years of control only have tangible value if the players are actually worth controlling. And even with Derek Fisher, the single piece returned around the trade deadline currently in the majors, that’s no certainty.
The club’s refusal to engage in meaningful extension talks with Stroman before his trade to the New York Mets was similarly obfuscated, a vague suggestion about cost used to explain why a pitching-poor team wouldn’t engage its most consistent arm. Having long ago ceded control of the narrative to the right-hander, the Blue Jays should have more directly explained some of their concerns about extending Stroman, rather than hoping off-the-record conversations filter out, or at least outlined a vision of why it makes sense without him.
Over an extended period, the consistently poor messaging seems disingenuous, allowing for grey areas in the public’s mind and dumb narratives to develop and persist, aided by zingers from acid-tongued columnists.
As a result, even the very important gains the Blue Jays have made over the past four years have gotten lost.
Under Shapiro, the Blue Jays have modernized their business processes, which had been largely unchanged from the franchise’s inception in 1977; increased salaries for coaches up and down the organization, which had been criminally low; unilaterally increased the standard, exploitive salaries of minor-league players; raised the salaries of non-baseball-ops employees who for years could only make more money by leaving for another company; poured additional resources into player development and analytics; made clever incremental gains through various trades and signings to raise the organizational floor; methodically restocked a farm system that wasn’t nearly as barren as described, but had been considerably thinned out; and locked down a long overdue revamping of the club’s facilities in Dunedin, Fla.
The Blue Jays now feature an exciting core of position players that offers lots of promise, although the challenge of how to properly align the group defensively to better aid run prevention isn’t being talked about nearly enough.
Regardless, there’s lots for Shapiro and the Blue Jays to take credit for without continually disparaging what was inherited, or harping on irrelevant-to-the-fanbase intangibles like organizational culture. As a prominent agent told me for a piece Ben Nicholson-Smith and I wrote looking at the changing free-agent market in 2017, “we elected a rodeo clown for president yet owners think fans will care about the nuance of WAR?”
“Fans want homers, fist pumps, walk-offs, closers throwing 100, neon arm sleeves, and their team to play in games that count,” he continued. “Nobody buys jerseys that say (Andrew) Friedman, (Theo) Epstein or Shapiro on the back. They want heroes and role models. Good guys and bad guys. Fans don’t pay $750 a pop for dugout club seats hoping to see five walks that night. They want to see their favourite hitter go deep and whether or not he pimps it.”
Right now, the Blue Jays aren’t there. All they have to peddle is the hope their young players accomplish what the teams Anthopoulos built in 2015-16 did, and they need to show fans how they’re doing more than passively waiting for kids to grow up.
Shapiro’s messages would resonate far more if he credited Anthopoulos for leaving behind Guerrero and others, a scouting staff that provides a competitive advantage, a group of talented executives like senior vice-president, baseball operations Tony LaCava, AGMs Joe Sheehan and Andrew Tinnish, director of minor-league operations Charlie Wilson and pro scouting director Ryan Mittleman, among many others.
A respectful connection to what was isn’t too much to ask.
More importantly, if the Blue Jays front office has full conviction in the path it’s on and the decisions it makes, criticism from media observers and bandwagon fans inanely spitting social-media venom should have zero impact. Club officials are armed with proprietary, detailed information that gives them a much fuller picture of players than what’s publicly available, and vindication comes through being right in the aggregate, not in the moment.
The Blue Jays’ decision-making models will either carry the day, or they won’t and that’s what is most pivotal now that Guerrero, Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Danny Jansen and Ryan Borucki, among others, are in the majors building toward the future.
The clubhouse environment and culture of expectations will be set by the kids now, and to the Blue Jays’ good fortune, the current young core is comprised of smart young men who are about the things you need to be about to win. They need the latitude to find their way without superfluous interventions, and the discourse needs to shift into how to augment the roster around them to ensure success.
Some of the most pressing issues not being talked about nearly enough:
• Can a team be successfully built by acquiring numerous players of similar skill sets and profile (e.g. Derek Fisher, Billy McKinney, Teoscar Hernandez, etc.), rather than seeking specific pieces and methodically plugging them into place?
• Is the organizational emphasis on making players positional jacks of all trades, masters of none, setting the Blue Jays up to be a subpar defensive team that ultimately undermines the pitching staff?
• Why, in its fourth year, is the expensive and arguably excessively large High Performance Department still drawing quiet complaints throughout the organization for the way it functions? Is it being given too much leeway in deciding when players should be resting, and what exercises they should be doing? Why are so many players in the organization suffering lat/oblique injuries? Has it actually helped keep players on the field?
• If teams are doing such a good job of projecting talent in the minor-leagues these days, shouldn’t the Blue Jays have a better idea of what they have coming on the pitching side in the minors? And what do their projections say about the quality of pitching coming? Is there enough potential impact within their current arms stockpile to form the staff of a legit contender without wasting too much of the position players’ service time?
• Is continuing to make the type of cautious, conservative small-gain transactions made by the front office thus far sufficient to take this team to the next level? If not, can the front office transition to make riskier moves outside its comfort zone?
That’s really the crux of the program now.
Continuing to demean Shapiro and Atkins as “Shatkins” or with other trifling barbs, is garbage. They’re not carpetbaggers from Cleveland, as they’ve been called, serving as spies for the Indians. They’re not actively seeking to alienate fans, nor are they trying to turn the Blue Jays into a small-market operation because they’re seeking small-market efficiency.
At the same time, let’s be real.
They tanked this year and to keep pretending otherwise is insulting. In refusing to make significant adds prior to the 2017 and ’18 seasons, they pretty much ensured we’d get to this point, barring lowest percentile outcomes. Taking a step back financially is excusable when the team is this young, but to keep sitting out opportunities to add experienced or veteran impact is not. That needs to be watched vigilantly this winter.
Most importantly, this team is totally theirs now, built to fit their vision, set to their master plan. They believe their finished product will be superior to the one they inherited. Now that the base is clear, this is their time to show everyone what they’ve got.
Let’s talk about that.