Ross Atkins Speaks Again: On Bautista, Business, and the Player Acquisition Strategy We’ve Been Dying to Hear

Ross Atkins
Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ross Atkins’ media blitz of last week has apparently carried over into this one, as the Jays’ GM spoke with Naylor and Landsberg on TSN Radio here in Toronto on Monday morning, ostensibly as a follow-up to the José Bautista presser that took place over the weekend.

Bautista’s event, which Arden Zwelling summed up excellently in his piece Bautista stays on-message in ‘happy’ return to Toronto for Sportsnet, was an exercise in spin that I didn’t really want a part of. Atkins’ comments, on the other hand, though hardly devoid of their own spin, offered some insight into how he views the business of baseball and how the Blue Jays operate — and in at least one instance, hopefully, will operate.

They’re comments worth looking at, in other words. (Though I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my interest was piqued especially by the fact that Atkins said a couple things — coincidentally, I’m sure, and only of interest to me — that I’ve been saying for a long time.)

Let’s dive in.

i. On Bautista…

OK, let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first. Atkins, unsurprisingly, said that the notion that the Jays came to Bautista reluctantly after not finding anything else satisfactory out there (which, let’s be honest, is totally true), isn’t a fair one, but isn’t one that bothers the club either. “We understand that no one has the full picture of any negotiation, and what the market is, who the alternatives are, the desire on other teams. So, in any situation where you’re negotiating for a player and trying to build a team there are a lot of variables,” he explained.

He also said the only thing that he could have possibly said about offering Bautista the qualifying offer earlier in the winter. “We would have been pleased to have gotten him on a qualifying offer — we would have been extremely excited. You don’t offer qualifying offers in hopes that they decline them. I suppose that some teams could, we didn’t.”

I’m preeeeeeetty sure that they’d have gladly taken the draft pick if they could have found a satisfactory corner outfielder for the right price, but obviously nobody should hold their breath for the GM to say that.

Atkins also obviously had to say that he believes Bautista will have a better season in 2017 than he did last year, but he justified that position well, I think. Asked if he had concerns about José’s dip in performance, he affirmed and elaborated on what he had said in his presser last week about feeling confident he’ll be better.

“We’re not concerned or we wouldn’t have made the offer that we did,” he explained, right before using the exact line I’d used all winter in response to people acting like the club would never sign him because they were so absolutely hellbent on acquiring the compensation pick *COUGH*. “That’s just a piece of the puzzle, it’s not the entire puzzle. That’s a reason that he was at the level we were able to acquire him for. However, having said that, there’s a lot of reason to believe he will be back to the 2014-15 levels. There’s subjective reasons that we spent time understanding this off-season, there’s rationale — it’s not just based on hope or a roll of the dice. When you can find things that give you conviction, or at least some confidence — that you have reason to believe that things are going to turn, that’s why you make — and how, in our opinion — you make better decisions.”

Bautista has a real decent chance of being a pretty tremendous bargain for the Jays this year, and ultimately that’s why they ended up circling back to him. (Well, that and the fact that they couldn’t find anything suitable as an alternative.)

ii. On playing the market…

This stuff, I thought, was somewhat interesting, and not just as a post-facto justification of both the Bautista decision and how the Edwin saga got all fucked up — though there were certainly elements of that in here too…

“Essentially your strategy is to consider all your alternatives, then you try to understand positions in the market, and then you negotiate,” he said, sounding straight out of business school (y’know… I imagine). “To strike on multiple fronts, you’re going to typically overpay. So the strategy was, as you saw it play out — it was to offer the QO; once declined consider all alternatives; and as positions change, there’s a time to make offers. So the one thing I would add to it is — I mean, you guys know this and understand this — is when you do strike and you start to get aggressive, you’re taking yourself off of, not just free agents, but the potential of trades. And that’s at every angle. So there’s only so many opportunities to just be aggressive. And the more aggressive you are, if it’s on several fronts, it’s going to be hard to have the best deal possible. Every team — every team, not Blue Jays specific — has a certain amount of resources. And resources are in terms of players and money, so to maximize those resources, you not only need to be strategic, you have to be thoughtful and sometimes patient.”

What this sounds like to me is a soft plea to quit the “DO SOMETHING!!!!” stuff that fans tend to do — and that I’m absolutely guilty of as well — and maybe under-fucking-standing that there is a process going on behind the scenes, and that it might not operate at the speed you want. But that’s only because the front office wouldn’t be doing its job if it did.

If they had continued to be aggressive on Edwin until the very end they would have not landed Morales and Pearce — which in retrospect would have been fine, but at the time was dangerous because there was nothing close to a guarantee that they would have been able to sign Edwin, aggressive or not. They had alternatives, they had Bautista and other moves they could be more patient with, and in the end it worked out pretty OK. I mean… Bautista, Morales, and Pearce is a pretty nifty contingency plan.

iii. Yeah, but about making trades…

I’m burying the lede a little bit in this post, because here’s the part of the interview that I thought was most interesting: when Atkins said the damn thing that we’ve all been saying forever and that the Jays have never quite done.

In his presser last week Atkins was asked about the fact that his stated goal of getting younger and more athletic hasn’t exactly been accomplished with his moves this winter. Lansberg and Naylor asked this again, and while he answered similarly, there was one specific that he added in his talk with TSN that is both notable and, I’m pretty sure, fucking outstanding

“How you do that is you don’t trade your prospects,” he explained. “You don’t make your team younger by going into free agency — the one way you do it is you don’t trade the bulk of your double-A and triple-A players to acquire 32-year-olds — or whatever their age is. So our strategy to stay younger, and more athletic, and more agile, and to keep and balance is to use cash instead of players.

YAS QUEEN!

I don’t know if this is related to all the talk about Edward Rogers and his burgeoning influence on the club, but seriously. SERIOUSLY. I have been saying this for years, as have a great many people who follow this ballclub, because obviously. OBVIOUSLY.

We’ve seen it a little bit already in the acquisitions of Francisco Liriano and, to a lesser extent, Melvin Upton, and we’ve seen it in the way they’ve eschewed the trade market this winter, but to hear the GM say this takes it to another level. BECAUSE SERIOUSLY.

Mind you: I’m not saying that the Jays should never trade away their prospects, because that’s just not feasible. And teams can certainly move prospects smartly to bring in players who wouldn’t otherwise be available, or attainable, and whose value justifies the move — the Red Sox with Chris Sale this winter, for example, or the Jays’ own deal for Josh Donaldson two winters ago. But a team this successful and this wealthy should always look to use cash first, rather than prospect capital, to fill the holes on their roster that need filling. Using prospects as currency certainly works and makes sense if that’s your only avenue to improve, but that shouldn’t be the case for a team like this. Certainly not when they already have a farm system that hasn’t yet rebounded from several years of big trades.

Like, I’m thinking mostly here of things like that rumoured offer to Pittsburgh that might have landed the Jays both Andrew McCutchen and Tony Watson. Hey, great! Our corner outfield and lefty relief issues are solved! And, in a vacuum, maybe you can even justify why that’s a better way to go than pouring some of the club’s finite cash resources into those positions. But on the other hand, HOLY SHIT, JUST PAY JOSÉ BAUTISTA AND BOONE LOGAN AND KEEP THE PROSPECTS!

Whether they have the financial wherewithal to stick with this sort of strategy, and whether they can avoid dumping too much money into deals that eventually turn sour, is another thing. But damn, this was good to hear.

Now just start spending to the luxury tax threshold and who could even complain?

iv. On further upgrades…

Much like he said at last week’s presser, Atkins kept all kinds of doors open regarding “upgrades” and moves that could still be to come. Backup catcher and lefty relief are the obvious spot, but not the only ones that could use help:

“We feel like we are in a position to look to upgrade, so it doesn’t have to be at those positions, it’s ‘how do we create more wins for our team?’ So that’s run scoring and run prevention. And we would love to have a guy that dominates left-handed hitters in the AL East, and we would love to have a backup catcher that, in the event — we hate to even think about it — but in the event that something happens to Russ, could step in and catch a significant amount of games. However, there are acquisition costs, and there’s alternatives. So we’re considering those on the trade front and guys that remain in free agency, but ultimately it doesn’t have to be done by opening day of Spring Training, or even by opening day of the regular season. We’ve done the heavy lifting and now feel like we’re in a position to look to upgrade. Those are the clear areas where. Because of the reason I mentioned Russ — we feel great about AJ Jimenez, but he hasn’t been there and done that. So if there’s a guy that we could acquire that could step in in the event that Russ has a small setback, we’re going to look to do that. The same on the reliever front, and as you saw last year with relief pitching, there’s opportunities that present themselves — early in the season, over the course of the season. So in the event that we aren’t able to make a significant upgrade, it doesn’t mean that we can’t start the season as a competitive team.”

Word was that the cost of lefty relief help was too high at the deadline last summer, so Atkins is walking a bit of a fine line here, but I certainly think there are some small moves that can be made to strengthen the club in both of these regards, while they still look for the kinds of upgrades Atkins speaks of elsewhere.

Where, specifically? Another decent right-handed reliever sure couldn’t hurt. There was a rumour that the club would have considered moving Justin Smoak at some point to accommodate Edwin, and he sure as piss could be upgraded upon. And, of course, left field is going to be a mess unless Dalton Pompey takes the ball and runs with it.

Other than that? This is actually a pretty damned decent looking club, really. And it’s not like it’s going to take a whole lot to improve those areas, either.

Shit, we’re finally at the point where we might even want to think about getting excited about this team.