For the greater part of this season, I haven’t been particularly interested in what Mark Shapiro or Ross Atkins have to say. I don’t say this in any particularly negative way about the too-often-maligned executives, because I think the issue has mostly been that there’s been little they could say beyond the predictable. “We believe in these players despite this 1-9 start.” “We like these players we drafted.” “We’re probably not going to be buyers at the deadline, but we won’t rule out some forward-looking moves.”
But now, with the season having turned a corner, and our thoughts drifting beyond 2017, my ears have pricked up. And while Mark Shapiro may well have still mostly been offering boilerplate during his appearance on Thursday on the Fan 590’s Jeff Blair Show, I thought some of it was actually quite interesting boilerplate!
And, perhaps more importantly, after actually hearing it, I thought it deserved a much more full transcription than the snippets I’d seen screaming across my Tweetdeck from reporters trying to distill the juiciest bits, which naturally led to fans arguing about whether Shapiro is a dumbfuck or just a fuck.
I don’t think he’s either, for the record! I think his answers here are mostly pretty good, even if they’re sometimes what we don’t want to hear (and other times precisely what we want to hear, which in its own way makes them suspect). Have a real read and tell me I’m wrong! (Then wait for me to come tell you you’re just a Shapiro-hating clown, that nothing he can do will ever be good enough for you, and how that’s a much reflection on you than on him.)
On Ryan Borucki/Prospect Development
I use the term “prospect development” here, rather than “player development,” because there is clearly a difference — though Shapiro doesn’t articulate it explicitly — between any given player and a player with the potential to be the kind of “championship calibre” piece these Jays are looking to stock up and down their system.
Asked by Blair specifically about Ryan Borucki, and some of his fellow starters at New Hampshire (Jon Harris, Conner Greene, Sean Reid-Foley), and whether the group is “close to being able to making a contribution,” Shapiro began to draw a line between himself and his “call ’em up, only so many bullets in the gun!” predecessor. “I’m kind of a believer that if you have to ask that question the answer is probably no.”
He was clear that he thinks the club is better off than they were a year ago, though, and continuing to get better, before explaining his ideal pitching depth situation:
It’s encouraging to have four or five starters at Double-A we feel are starting to settle in there and do well. When we have four or five prospect starter types at Triple-A, and they’re all dominating the competition there, your answer will be there for you. And hopefully three to five guys right behind them at Double-A, and three to five guys right behind them at A-ball, and a mixture of effective potential bullpen guys as well. So, it’s a process. You can’t cheat the process. It takes time and consistency in executing and developing, but we’re getting better, and we’re better now.
That’s all… pretty reasonable, as far as goals go. And while on one hand it seems like that’s maaaaaybe a bit too conservative, surely there’s an argument to be made for the apprenticeship process being a little more structured than we sometimes under the previous regime. There’s also this:
It’s not just physical domination, it’s also someone who’s demonstrated that they have the routines that are going to allow them to both adapt and adjust at the major league level, as well as maintain consistency. It’s a lot of the things off the field; how they handle themselves professionally, what kind of teammates they are, can they function in a setting where fear, worry, and doubt is going to enter in a lot more, where the pressures are a lot more intense, where they have to bear the scrutiny of Jeff Blair on a daily basis.
I don’t think this means that the club will never get a player on a faster track to the big leagues than his peers — Anthony Alford, though it was largely because of injuries at the big league level, jumped straight from Double-A just this season, and you best believe Vlad Jr. and Bo Bichette will come quick — but I do see why this would would be the organization’s message. Snark all you want, “You can’t cheat the process,” seems like a pretty sound idea.
On Roster Construction
The player development conversation leads well to the next phase of Shapiro and Blair’s chat, which was about roster construction. First, Shapiro offered some thoughts on depth, which — given that he’s saying he’s not looking to youngsters in Double-A for answers — is something that’s been lacking when it comes to these Jays. And which Shapiro, without quite saying it, or throwing specific players under the bus, seems pretty honest about.
Asked about having to start the Nick Tepesches or Cesar Valdezes of the world, here’s what he said:
Almost every organization is going to be faced with doing that once or twice during a season, and that’s why the minor league free agent process, or the waiver claim process, is such an important one to stay focussed on — because it’s not always going to happen organically, just from the players you have. When you look up and there’s three guys in the lineup you didn’t plan to be there, and every pitcher that pitches that night are not guys that were in your plans at the start of the season, you’re probably not in a spot that you want to be. But as long as you’ve got a plan to not have that be the long-term state, and you’re moving through it, that’s fine.
The stuff about the importance of the minor league free agent process was of particular interest to me, because I’d chatted a couple times over the past couple of days (specifically with @james_in_to and @creosports) about the Jays’ odd use of the DL — especially when it comes to their depth pitchers. Could the Jays be buttering up potential minor league free agents by letting it be known that they’ll sometimes gladly put you on the big league DL rather than demoting you to Buffalo? They’ll never tell, I’m sure. But it certainly wouldn’t be out of character to try to come off like a good organization for those guys by doing right by them — something we saw with how accommodating they were in trading Joe Smith to Cleveland, too.
It at least maybe makes you think a little bit.
So depth is one concern, and they’re working on it. The other big concern is, in terms of roster construction, is that the team needs to get younger and more athletic. That obviously hasn’t been an easy thing to do — young, athletic players aren’t available for cheap, and a team can’t turn over its entire roster overnight — but it’s clearly another goal Shapiro at least claims to be working toward (cue sour-ass nitwits braying about whatever it is sour-ass nitwits bray about).
Here’s what he said when asked about how he gets younger with the roster, and the contract situation, he inherited:
It’s almost an unfair question, because you probably know the answer to it before you ask it. I mean, I think you deal with the situation and circumstance you’re in. And we certainly — when you look at some of the better teams out there in the American League; Houston, New York, Cleveland — they are teams that have a diversity of ways to score, athleticism, a blend of youth and experienced players, a balanced team. Again, that would be a long term goal for us. We are what we are now, we have some of the best players in the game on our team, but we’re a little skewed towards the veteran side instead of a mix. And when we do bring young players up they’re probably not the right calibre of young players that we need to have here mixed in with veterans. The goal is to build that over time. Again, there’s no cheating that process, that takes time. If there’s a time that we reach where we feel like we can’t continue to contend and win with the core we have, then we’ll have to look at an alternate plan, but right now we still feel like — although this year has been extremely disappointing to date — that we still have a good core of players, and if we can get healthy, we have the capability of surrounding them with some other players certainly, and being open to some trades, but we still feel that we can build from the core that we’ve got.
Naturally, this led into some probing about the whole “tear it all down” idea, which I thought Shapiro may have gotten a little defensive about — but not before first lauding the fans as a key reason they’re going to work to keep the club’s competitive window open (not mentioned: the possibilities that the second Wild Card spot opens up, especially when there are only, like, four teams in the American League that aren’t trash):
There’s two reasons for that, and the first one is just, what you’d see if you come down here on any given night. To be here last night, there’s not a night that I don’t sit, watching the game, look out at our stands or walk around our concourses and just wonder in absolute amazement and appreciation at just the number of fans who come out here. I still feel like our jobs are to obsessively give those fans something to cheer about. And the night that we don’t give them enough to cheer about, and they don’t go home happy, that we need to be resolved to work harder to do that. So that would lead to answering your question, which is: I’m not sure what alternative you’re giving me. What are you saying — to just start over and start the franchise over? Because it is what is is. We’ve got the players we’ve got. We think they’re great players. But there’s no alternative — there’s not an A or a B, “Would you like to go with this younger group of players or do you want to build around the players that are in place here right now?” So we’re going to do the best we can to build around the players we’ve got, and we happen to believe that there’s both some championship calibre talent, as well as people, in that mix. And we going to continue to work hard to surround them with other players that help them win.
I kinda love it. But, of course, there is an alternative — and it’s an alternative that a lot of people thought Shapiro might look toward when he first arrived here. Clearly, though, the Jays aren’t about to burn the whole damn thing down. Not until next summer, at least (or so I sometimes like to theorize).
Speaking of which!
On Extending Josh Donaldson
If there’s going to be any kind of a mild rebuild here, it’s going to come in 2018. That’s the worst case scenario, of course, but should things go poorly next season, the Jays will have incredible mid-season trade chips in the form of Roberto Osuna, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, and Josh Donaldson. Those are players that will bring back top quality prospects who will fill in so many spots on a roster that in 2019 and 2020 will be in the beginnings of being populated with guys who we now see at New Hampshire and Dunedin. Stroman, Sanchez, and Osuna are set for free agency after 2020, and it’s not entirely crazy to think that by the middle of next summer they might end up looking like they’re not going to be part of the next great Blue Jays team.
A huge part of that, of course, will come down to what happens with Donaldson.
Especially so because it doesn’t exactly sound like an extension is in the works (not that anyone should have expected that it would have):
With JD, it’s obviously going to be a consistent subject that both he and we have to deal with. I tend to feel like there’s situations both from him and outside of his control that affect that decision for both him and us. The simplest answer to that is that it’s hard to imagine any scenario where we’re a better team without him. He’s a pretty special player, now that he’s gotten kind of healthy over the last couple of weeks — it’s a pretty good reminder of just how great he is offensively and defensively, when he’s healthy. So, again, we want JD here, we appreciate who he is, the way he is, the way he competes, how smart he is, how he prepares. But as far as — the future for right now is next year, and then we’ll explore at the right times, privately, whether there’s an opportunity beyond that.
First of all, this is, unfortunately, the way it’s probably got to be. Donaldson is reaching free agency at an awkward age — he’ll be 33 on Opening Day in the first year of his next contract — and it’s really hard to see the value in entertaining giving him a long-term extension before the Jays see what his age-32 season looks like. Will he break down? He certainly has dealt with some injury problems this year — as Shapiro basically admitted (which… had anyone from the team actually admitted that yet?) — and while I think it’s way, way, way too early to look at him as a guy who might be starting to break down a little bit, the age and the fact that he plays so hard would have to give anyone pause before they handed him a deal that would take him through age 37 or longer.
All we have to do to understand the value of waiting is think about what the Blue Jays would be paying José Bautista right now, and for the foreseeable future, had they extended him between 2015 and 2016, when he had a year left on his deal. (They definitely would be paying Edwin Encarnacion more than Cleveland is right now if they had extended in the spring of 2016, too.) So… yeah. My guess right now on Donaldson — and it’s been my guess for a while — is that someone is going to be willing to take the risk and pay him, like, $125 to $150 million over five years next summer, and that the Blue Jays (who’d maybe do, say, $90 million over four years) probably won’t be that team. Whether that means they just get a draft pick for him, or if they flip him as a rental next summer, obviously remains to be seen.
Or maybe someone makes them an offer they can’t refuse this winter. They’ll certainly be getting calls on him.
I still kinda doubt that though. The Jays sure do seem to be digging in pretty hard on this “trying to stay competitive” business. Hard not to when…
On The Season Ticket Price Increase
This one is actually pretty easy:
The increase in ticket prices are not tied into the renovation at all. Those are tied towards, y’know, just, to be frank, just helping us compete against the teams in our division, and helping us, y’know, develop and progress our ticket prices in line with the industry, and in line with the other sports teams in Toronto. It’s never easy for anyone in these jobs to do. Never want any fan to feel like you’re being disrespectful to them. But that’s the business side of the job.
I added “y’know” a couple places in the transcription of this bit, where I may have excised them elsewhere, to get across that Shapiro did get a touch less assured than usual here. Which is understandable because he was being so careful not to throw the beloved President Emeritus (or the guy who ran the business side of things under him, who people get super defensive about because he’s Canadian and nice on Twitter) under the bus.
The previous regime left a whole lot of money on the table when it came to ticket sales. The new regime is correcting that, and unfortunately taking all the shit that goes with it.
A big part of why Shapiro was brought in — and I’m sure part of the way he sold himself to Rogers — was to modernize the club’s revenue streams. This is the big one. It sucks for people who feel like they’re getting priced out, but that’s just business. Hard to fault them for it. All in the game.
On Ballpark Renovations
Get past the PR-speak and, actually, this all kinda works, doesn’t it?
This stadium, as every stadium, still feels great when it’s packed. But there is no compelling feature within this stadium that would cause people to want to be here other than the environment and atmosphere when it’s special or the team’s winning, or just being a hardcore baseball fan. I think ultimately what you’d like to do is design the coolest bar in Toronto that happens to be in Rogers Centre. You have the greatest family entertainment centre, the best food and unique food products. You’d like set all those experiences within a ballpark, and then also have the pure baseball purist experience from base to base for the fans that still want to watch the game the same way they’ve always watched it and scored the game. But a diversity of experiences, targeted for the different parts of our fan base that provide people with a great, cutting edge fan experience. It always starts with winning, but in every other aspect of the experience as well.
Note that there’s no mention of grass here, nor is there mention, specifically, of ripping up the fucking contract with InBev and getting actual local booze in the damn place like a real team. Still… he’s kinda on to something here, isn’t he?
I mean, I have a little bit of a hard time with the notion that a corporate-y baseball club slash arm of the Rogers empire will be able to pull off creating “the coolest bar in Toronto” — IT’LL BE LIKE REAL SPORTS MIXED WITH A TERRIBLE FAUX-IRISH CHAIN PUB, BUT WITH SHIT SERVICE AND OBSCENE PRICES! — but why the hell not give it a go, eh? It’s not like the stadium isn’t basically a giant bar anyway, right?
And while I am personally a fan of a more simplistic approach to the ballpark experience, I recognize that I’m not exactly the person the Jays are trying to capture. They’ve already hooked me. I’m one of those “hardcore baseball fans,” Shapiro speaks of. And as such, if there genuinely is a way to mix all those things together, and to first and foremost keep the damn ballpark a ballpark, that’s great. I’m all for it.
Granted, I half keep expecting Shapiro to tell us he’s sold stadiums Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook. But that’s probably just because I’m hearing the sound of chirping squids in the back of my head — as I do every time Shapiro speaks, even when he’s being as completely reasonable as he has been here! God, those people are the worst.