Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt are sharp dudes and we’re lucky to have them.
OK, so by saying that I’m mostly just continuing to use the same device I chose to begin my previous two Somebody Speaks! pieces (Ross Atkins, and the previous Shapiro one), but I have to hand it to the two Jeff Blair Show hosts, who asked some real meaty questions in their segment with Blue Jays president this week, and got Mark Shapiro to give some rather interesting — sometimes even candid — answers.
For those who haven’t been able to hear Shapiro past the sound of smoke coming out of their ears any time he speaks, this seems a pretty good distillation of where he’s at.
So… uh… let’s have a look (minus a bunch of nebulous blather about the then-imminent, but not yet official, Marco Estrada announcement)…
This year was not outside of the range of outcomes that we might have expected.
Fair! And the thing is, thinking in terms of ranges of outcomes is something we probably ought to be doing as fans more often. That feels a touch Ricciardian, I know, and seeing the team openly move back into an era of “if everything breaks right”/false hope kind of stuff is still a little unsettling, but that’s kinda where we are. Conceptually, at least. I’m not saying we’re back in the Ricciardi days! The equation has changed so much since then — the Jays have been cut out of revenue sharing and their payroll has transformed, just as the luxury tax has started to keep the Red Sox and Yankees a little more in line, and the second Wild Card has opened up all kinds of possibilities, (plus, at both the big league and minor league level, I think the club is much better off) — but the expectations for them, for now, can’t be too high without some optimism. Not pipe dream optimism, but optimism nonetheless.
That doesn’t mean we’re not bitter about it, that doesn’t mean we’re not disappointed. I can tell you right now, if you don’t watch other teams celebrate — regardless of who they are — if that doesn’t create a bitterness deep inside of you — if we’re not doing that now, if it doesn’t create a fire and a burn to a year from now that we are doing that [making the playoffs], then you’re in the wrong line of business. That being said, we said all along that because of the maturity of our roster, and maybe the lack of balance in that,…
TAKE THAT, CATHAL!
…along with the lack of upper level talent and depth, due largely to trades,…
YOU TOO, ANTHOPOULOS!
…it was a precarious position — one that we were fortunate to avoid last year, and one that we were unable to avoid this year. And frankly, unless we can reposition the team, which is almost impossible to do through either free agency — it’s definitely impossible to do — and even trades, it’s even harder — it’s going to be a similar story next year.
The Jays are in a phase where they’re going to do as much as they can at the big league level to stay competitive without disturbing what’s going on under the hood in terms of player development and the rebuilding of their farm system. That’s why we’ve seen mid-tier free agents, shorter term free agents, and trades where they use money rather than prospects (certainly not marquee ones), as the club tries to fill in the gaps around its roster. It can work — a famous example, and one I particularly like to use (especially since the guy who built the team in question has now joined the Jays), is the 2013 Red Sox, but last year’s Jays work too — and this year’s version maybe even could have, if not for…
The silver lining is twofold. One, if even a couple of the seven or eight things that went wrong this year hadn’t happened — if Sanch had have been healthy, if Josh Donaldson had not gotten hurt, if Russell Martin had not gotten hurt, if Devon Travis hadn’t gotten hurt — I can keep going, by the way — but if just a couple of those? We’d be in at least the Wild Card mix right now. It wouldn’t have taken all seven or eight things to have not gone wrong. Just a couple and we’d be right in the Wild Card mix. So, that’s one silver lining.
All true! Though I can think of two or three choices made on the free agent market last winter that might have changed some outcomes, too *COUGH*…
And the second is it’s been an incredibly productive year of progress in our player development which moves a layer of talent one step closer to the major league environment. So not where we’re going to have the championship depth next year that we need, but we’re certainly getting closer to having the waves of talent coming that would allow us to build a sustainable championship team.
On 2018 and the Corner He’s Painted Into…
BRUNT: I’m not sure how fans would feel hearing you say that 2018 is a similar scenario to 2017.
SHAPIRO: Well, Stephen, I’m not sure what the choice is.
BRUNT: The difference between managing a team and managing expectations of a team that’s in the position the Jays are right now, versus looking down the road at your former team in Cleveland where, that’s right. They’re in a championship position, the convergence of homegrown talent and the kind of trades you make when you’re on the verge, and some free agent acquisitions — that’s when you kind of hit the sweet spot in the script. You guys are in a different place. I wonder from your point of view how that is different, running a team?
SHAPIRO: Ahhh, one’s how you want to do it and one is not.
BRUNT: But you don’t have a choice, right?
SHAPIRO: And I think that that’s just a fact. I mean, it is what it is. And your job is to not make excuses, your job is to manage through it. Your job is to figure out a way to put yourself in the best possible position to win now, with what’s in place, and at the same time, to spend an enormous amount of energy with a lot of urgency to build the foundation of a sustainable winner. That involves obsessing about infusing talent through the amateur draft, led by Steve Sanders and Tony LaCava, which I think this year was an exceptional year, followed up on our good year last year; by Andrew Tinnish scouring the international market and infusing talent there; and by Ben Cherington, Gil Kim, and Eric Wedge leading a player development system that maximizes the development of those players in helping them achieve their potential mentally, physically, and fundamentally. It’s interesting because the nature of professional sports, and Major League Baseball in particular, is that people just focus their energy on the tip of the sword, which is certainly where they should, but the bulk of our effort right now is like that duck under the water — it’s being spent really obsessively focusing on the foundation. And at the same time, our job is to do everything humanly possible to gives ourselves a chance to win up here. We owe that to our fans.
On Disavowing a Talking Point That Bit Them All Year…
BLAIR: Is it safe to say that, as you go into this offseason, getting more youthful, getting more balance, is a priority for this organization at the major league level?
SHAPIRO: I guess I’m fatiguing on that statement a little bit, because it’s such an obvious one. And there’s no button to push to get youthful and more balanced, you know? We’re just trying to build a team and an organization the right way. And Stephen probably characterized it, that we would look much different on the field if we could ideally build it. But you can’t just flip a switch and say — well, we could flip a switch and get younger, but we might not get better, right? So, we need championship players. We need players that have the talent to win games deep into October and win the last game played. Certainly we’d like to be more balanced, more athletic, and younger, but that’s a process. So we have, like I’ve always mentioned to you, there’s a duality of the job right now. One is to do the best we can with the circumstances here — and a lot of super players that we think can still provide the foundation to win with some better fortune next year — and the other is to build the model that you guys are referring to.
Yep. Not much to add here.
On Re-Signing Josh Donaldson As An “Article of Faith”…
BLAIR: Knowing how much public sensitivity you’ve shown when it comes to attendance and TV ratings — and I mean that positively — and plus Josh Donaldson’s strong end of season. Are we getting to the point where signing Josh to a multiyear contract this winter almost becomes an article of faith with Blue Jays fans? Or do you think the fan base has been awakened enough that the support goes deeper than loyalty to a particular player?
SHAPIRO: Well, I think not winning tests the faith of fans. So, I mean, I’ve said this multiple times, it’s hard to say there’s a scenario where we’re a better team without Josh Donaldson. How many years can you say that for? I don’t know. But again, the job is about building a championship team and “team” is the word — it’s not about just collecting talent or one player. It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario that Josh isn’t a part of a championship team here, but I think Ross and our baseball operations staff will walk through all those scenarios. It’s an almost certainty that he’ll be back here next year. Beyond that, those are things that we’re going to have to have — much like we started this conversation as we talked about Marco — it’s going to have to be in the best interest of both parties, and see if that fits.
In our earlier piece on José Bautista, in which I looked back at the extension he signed in 2011, I was reminded of just how little it seemed at the time that the Blue Jays saved because of the risk factor of José having to play out a season before hitting the open market. Oh, they saved a stupid amount on what he would have cost if he’d hit free agency after 2011 — probably like $100 million — but it definitely felt like the Jays had not been negotiating from quite the position of strength I expected. And it reminded me to maybe not make the same mistake in how I think about Donaldson’s free agency. Much as there should be middle ground between him and the Jays to be found this winter — a more attractive year to do it for the Jays, because they’d be buying his age 32-36 seasons (or thereabouts), and for Donaldson because it gives him security in case anything happens between now and next winter to diminish his market — the latter effect may not be as pronounced as I want to believe. Which doesn’t mean that the Jays couldn’t still sign him at some point, but clearly it will be very tricky to line up.
Shapiro is cushioning that potential blow here.
On Attendance and TV As Factors In the Decisionmaking Process…
BRUNT: Mark, how different is managing and building this team in an environment where you have a full stadium, and still solid TV numbers in a disappointing year, and a corporate owner that is invested in both of those things, versus kind of doing it in some kind of imaginary vacuum where you could just do whatever the heck you want.
SHAPIRO: I think that is a factor. As I’ve said before, it’s not an intellectual exercise, we’re not just building in a vacuum. If it was I think we probably would be considering very different decisions than we’ve made over the past six months, maybe even year. So it’s not necessarily look at things like just attendance or just ratings, it’s really thinking about the recent history of the franchise — thinking about energizing not just this city, but the entire country, and what that meant to baseball in Canada and baseball in Toronto — and understanding that while we have had an incredible covenant with our fans, it may not be built on such a strong foundation that it can sustain a violent pullback from the attempt to contend. So, it’s a balancing act, and at some point we may not objectively feel that we can follow through or have a real chance to win, and we’d have to probably move more aggressively in another direction. We’ve said that from day one. And I think what we’ve tried to do is, if there is a gap between the next generation of championship baseball and this one, have it be as short as possible, and if at all possible have there not be one.
If there’s a gap. *SWOON*
BRUNT: Is there a risk, a danger — and this maybe the wrong word here — in pandering to a fan base? I know bums in seats and people watching TV, that’s the business you’re in, right? Winning games in order to make those other things happen. But it seems to me you’re walking a bit of a tightrope here.
SHAPIRO: I just, again, every time those kind of questions are put up, I’m not sure the options are thoroughly understood by the people that are asking them. Because I don’t think it’s pandering at all, I think there’s over three million people coming through the gates here that are passionate about the Blue Jays and they’re passionate about the success they’ve seen over the last two years, or year and a half, and I think a decision to do anything other than strive to give them a team to cheer for should not be taken lightly. I’ve been through the alternative. It’s not the .500 seasons that you experience [unintelligible], it’s going through a violent turnaround in order to try and build a championship team back. It’s not the only way go, and I feel like we’ve been able to make so much progress over the last 18 months in our farm system — and the progress we’ve made, I mean, subjectively gone from 24th to 9th based on Baseball America, MLB.com, and other sources — we’re moving in the right direction, Stephen. So, I’m not pandering, just trying to do the right thing for the fans here.
Is it inconceivable that in a year it doesn’t look like the next great Blue Jays team is quite so far away? Mostly that depends on what — if anything — they get for Donaldson, or whether he stays. But also… it’s totally not inconceivable!
I kind of think back to when we had Manny Ramirez coming up with the [Cleveland baseball franchise] — which just basically says that I’m older than dirt that I remember that — but, you know, there are certain players, generational type of players — I’m not saying either one of those guys are those guys –…
YES YOU ARE, ADMIT IT!
…that just make decisions for you. You guys have heard me say it over and over again. But if we’re having to debate whether they should be here, they will not be here. They will not be here. If they go to Double-A next year and absolutely demolish that league — one or both — then they’ll move to Triple-A…
Gotta keep them affiliates happy!
…And if they go to Triple-A and demolish that league, and there’s both a need here, as well as an opportunity, then I think they would enter in the conversation up here. Does that take a half a year next year? Does that take two years? Does that take one and a half years? Three years? I’m not sure. But they’re obviously special talents that had absolutely incredible seasons — among the best in all of professional baseball. And I think we all should be excited about that, and not feel hesitant to talk about it.
Look, I know that asking them to keep Donaldson is a lot, but to still have Donaldson, Stroman, Sanchez, Osuna, Martin, Travis, Smoak, etc. all here when VladnBo hits? Those are some pretty fucking good building blocks right there. Without Donaldson it leaves you wanting a little bit. But with him? Why that’s almost downright exciting.
On Roberto Osuna…
I think that this is a young pitcher that bore an incredible burden over two years, and pitched late into October. Not just a lot of appearances and a lot of innings, but high stress, high leverage, on the biggest stages in baseball, and that it is natural to have some level of regression or fatigue. He’s already proven he’s got the toughness, the makeup, and the personality to handle that role, and to handle the adversity that comes with it. So we’re not going to approach it any differently. I think the most important thing for him to do this offseason is to focus on his conditioning and come into camp having both rested his arm and conditioned his body in position to handle that role next year once again, hopefully with some of the downtime this year doing the way that carried this team to a championship.
If you remember back to when Osuna was a prospect, conditioning was definitely something that it was felt that he’d really need to work on to reach his potential. That talk all seemed to disappear around the time he missed a year with Tommy John surgery, as he returned to the mound looking far fitter than we’d seen before — probably for a lack of having anything to do but get himself in shape while he was out. Interesting to hear this come up again now. I’m not sure we can read into it so far as to think Shapiro is suggesting that it was conditioning that caused Osuna’s late-season swoon, but… it’s interesting.
I was a little bit nervous when the hurricanes were coming, just because I lived through Andrew and what that meant to the [Cleveland baseball team], and never went back to Homestead, basically were searching for a home for 15 years after that. I’ve been incredibly pleased, and appreciative, of the response of Pinellas County and the city of Dunedin — Pinellas in particular — because we did not initiate conversations, out of sensitivity, and they reached back out to us. As you said earlier, the president’s job is to kind of, to some extent, be pessimistic. I feel very optimistic that we’re going to move towards completion of a deal before year end, and that we’ll be working towards plans and concrete renovations — massive renovation of Spring Training situation and facility, which really ultimately moves it from Spring Training to a state of the art training and rehabilitation centre for the Toronto Blue Jays. A 365 day a year home for us to not only train our players but to gain a competitive advantage.
The Pinellas County thing is interesting here, because the city of Dunedin — who badly want to keep our tourist dollars from moving to nearby Clearwater, or anywhere else in the state — seem to have been on board with the proposal currently on the table since day one. The county’s approval is still pending — though obviously Shapiro sounds optimistic.
Here’s a quick note about it that made it into my latest Blue Jays mailbag at Vice Sports:
Nothing is official yet, but according to a piece at TBNWeekly.com last week, Tim Ramsberger, the chief operating officer of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, spoke to the paper about how funds collected from the region’s “bed tax” (a 6 percent tax levied on all hotel guests) were being allocated.
“We just completed our first run of applications for contracts, which were approved by the County Commission,” he said. “Five to six contracts have been approved totaling about $40 million over the next two to four years. Another, the Toronto Blue Jays spring training complex in Dunedin, is in the process.”
A meeting to discuss the deal was scheduled for September 11th, but cancelled due to Hurricane Irma, and no make-up date has been set yet, as far as I know. But it sounds like this is really going to happen. It also sounds like Shapiro was more careful than he was when first talking about this, to avoid calling the new facility the “home” of the Blue Jays (which, let’s be honest, it is, if you think about it in terms of organizational operations, though no fan wants to hear a thing like that). Good spinning, I guess!