Ross Atkins betting on current Blue Jays to spark revival

Jamie Campbell and Arden Zwelling discuss Ross Atkins's press conference on Saturday, why a plan focused on 'internal improvements' has failed thus far, and why the Toronto Blue Jays' execution in otherwise sound at-bats has cost them.

TORONTO – Interpreting the comments from Ross Atkins’ first media availability since the April 8 home opener really depends on your level of faith in this edition of the Toronto Blue Jays.

The general manager, now in his ninth season on the job, unsurprisingly expressed “the greatest sense of confidence” in the group he and the rest of the front office assembled, despite a red-flag-filled 19-25 start after blowing a late lead in Saturday’s 5-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.

Shortcomings at the plate are being attacked with “a massive sense of urgency.” The way hitters are working pitchers and getting into advantage counts are “encouraging things” that in time “we can certainly see righting the ship.” Despite being the second-least productive offence in the majors so far, “we feel that there’s enough talent for us to score more runs.” There may be five teams and 4.5 games between them and the third wild-card spot, but “we believe in this talent, we believe there is time left.”

On the flip side, the Blue Jays’ offensive decline from the powerhouse clubs of 2021 and 2022 at this point seems far more like the norm than an aberration. The early returns on the club’s revamped game planning are worrisome, resulting neither in more runs nor a more successful process. A bet on internal improvements to restore lost production isn’t looking good. And the clock is ticking ever louder on a team with 17 players eligible for free agency over the next two winters, and seemingly lacking the necessary farm system depth to successfully turnover the roster.

Each of the outlooks laid out above are fair and reasonable.

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Depending on which side of the ledger you sit lies your answer on how to balance showing patience for the bats to come around versus acting more aggressively in search of help before the current window disappears.

“We have good triple-A players that could contribute here. We have a talented team and we have some time for things to correct. The sense of urgency has always been there and it remains,” Atkins said of his outlook on the balance there. “If there are ways that we could add a player externally that makes sense for the team, we are open to doing that. It’s not just a matter of trading away players and trading away prospects. It just has to make the most sense in terms of adding wins and impact to this team. The sense of urgency is always very high for us to push things over the top. There is nothing more that myself, Mark Shapiro or John Schneider, anyone in this organization wants than for us to be winning more than we are.”

Nobody gets into these jobs to do otherwise, of course, meaning the real debate is whether this team is equipped both in terms of personnel and structure to make that happen.

Some objective data lands squarely on the fence.

Before Saturday’s game, FanGraphs projected the Blue Jays to finish the remainder of their schedule at 62-57, with an average of 4.40 runs per game, nearly a full run better than the current 3.60. That’s obviously a big improvement over where they’re at right now, but would still leave them 81-81, with four teams between them and the Houston Astros, projected to claim the final wild card at 84-78.

Perhaps the Blue Jays’ proprietary projections tell a different, more promising story.

If that’s the case, the priority is for them to ensure their hitters reach those projections and to that end, their offensive game-planning is “always evolving.”

“We have tweaked it, we have tweaked some of the information flows,” said Atkins. “It’s not something that’s set in stone. But the changes that we made, we do believe they can be effective.”

But if their track is more akin to what FanGraphs projects, then the Blue Jays can’t simply let it ride and see where everything lands.

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Atkins acknowledged that he’s explored the trade market, but a deal of consequence at this point of the season requires a premium, like the one the San Diego Padres paid the Miami Marlins for Luis Arraez. The Blue Jays might not have the farm system depth to pull off that type of move and then there aren’t many ideal fits — a left-handed hitting outfielder, second baseman or third baseman with some thump — available anyway.

That, then, leaves the triple-A players Atkins mentioned and even there, nothing is straightforward.

Infielder Orelvis Martinez, the home-run hitting, exit-velocity monster slugging .518 at triple-A Buffalo, seems like the most logical candidate. But keeping him at triple-A for the time being “is a combination of where he would play here, him learning to play second at a level that would be average to above, and the benefit of player development in that time for a 22-year-old,” said Atkins.

Some variation of the above also applies to Addison Barger, Spencer Horwitz, Nathan Lukes, Leo Jimenez and Will Robertson, so until the Blue Jays make a conscious decision to cut into the playing time of someone currently on the roster, they all must bide their time.

Atkins mentioned urgency often enough during his 23-minute session to make it sound like that could happen somewhat soon if there isn’t a timely correction. But one way or the other, “we feel that the best contribution that could create that change in run-scoring is going to come from within our own clubhouse or with triple-A, with the players that are here,” he said.

And if the runs don’t come, if their record doesn’t improve, the Blue Jays will have to go the other way at the trade deadline, ensuring that they keep the asset alive with their expiring contracts.

Atkins didn’t say that outright, of course, offering up only a “we’ll see, you always are prepared for any angle or any pivot that you have to make.” But telling was how he added that “we spend every day thinking about every way to make this organization better and the situation that could present itself,” and not leveraging pending free agents would be Colorado Rockies-esque negligence.

The Blue Jays don’t expect to be in that spot, adamantly believing that their season will turn around. The time is nigh, with two weeks of the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates looming. Given how they’ve played so far, they can take nothing for granted and while that stretch isn’t their point of no return, if not now, when?

“When you dig yourself a little bit of a hole, you’re increasing the importance of the games ahead,” said Atkins. “We have had a very tough schedule, the hardest in baseball. We played on the road a ton. Now it’s starting to turn a bit. So that would heighten our opportunity to turn the tides.”

It’s also an opportunity to reward those who are showing faith in this Blue Jays team, perhaps win back some of those in doubt or prove right anyone for whom it was lost.

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