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Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Atkins Speaks!: On Solarte, Yelich, Sanchez, and More!

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins appeared on Prime Time Sports on Wednesday Tuesday to have a chat with Arash Madani and cheese-and-cracker-dad John Shannon, and honestly, I’m not sure the title of this piece does justice to just how well he hit the right notes in it.

Messaging hasn’t been the strong suit of this front office so far, but I think there’s a lot here that even those most ardently opposed to the way Atkins and Shapiro run the club will have a tough time getting outraged about. There’s genuine candour about working to add Christian Yelich and wanting to upgrade the outfield, honesty about Aaron Sanchez’s tough 2017 and the difficult search for answers, praise of the previous regime (!), and a lack of some of the more overly corporate-sounding speak (not that there was a whole lot of opportunity for that) that fans tend to find somewhat off-putting.

Maybe I’m searching a little too hard to be positive here, but I thought it was pretty good and insightful. Let’s take a closer look at some of the specifics…

On What’s So Good About Yangervis Solarte…

I think a lot of different things. I think the energy, the passion for baseball, the pure aggression that he plays with. He’ll light you up if you watch him take just one swing. I think he and Josh Donaldson are going to get along really well. His joy and passion for competitiveness is something you can feel across the field. I can think of many at-bats where I’m watching, thinking “How far is this guy gonna hit this ball?” So that comes to mind. The versatility, having played every infield position, having been in the outfield in the past, really just being passionate about winning and wanting to play — he’s going to make a contribution in a bunch of different ways — and the more versatility we have the better and the more options we have the better.

That’s a pretty hard sell on a guy nobody is going to mistake for anything more than as a complementary player — and in an interesting piece this week at FanGraphs, Eno Sarris looked at some of the red flags on him, like a noticeable drop in exit velocity from 2016 — but shit, why not be a little bit excited? Solarte is well liked and respected in the game, it seems. To wit:

Plus, Solarte’s 1.1 fWAR in 2017, which was the lowest mark of his career, was better than that of every single Blue Jays position player other than Donaldson, Smoak, Pillar, and Martin. That is perhaps more of a comment on how abysmal the Jays were last season than it is on the greatness of Solarte, but Jesus, he should at least help.

On the Slow Offseason and the Difficulty of Making Deals…

Who knows when everyone who could make a significant impact is off the board? It’s hard to say, but we have another month before spring training gets cranked up, and I could see another player or two still being there as spring training starts. But it may not be the case. And the reasons why? There’s never one silver bullet answer to why [an offseason takes the path it does] when you’re dealing with, one, thirty teams, a hundred players in free agency, and you’re dealing with hundreds of players in potential trades — all the different stake holders, the more robust front offices. There just, in today’s game — and this is just my opinion — there’s so many more opportunities that can be discussed and are discussed and are more readily considered because more and more front offices are aligned in the way they’re valuing players, or at least able to discuss them. When the deals actually happen is when there’s a misalignment in value, when a team values a player more than you do — when we value Solarte more than the San Diego Padres, or vice versa, on Edward Olivares. So that’s when they typically happen, when someone is extremely excited about a player. It’s rare that they happen when you’re valuing guys the exact same way. They do, but it’s rare. Getting to that point where you fully understand it happening more often — because of how robust front offices are and how many discussions actually are happening — so I think all of those opportunities, whether they end up coming to fruition, there’s more to consider each year.

 

The teams that jumped the market weren’t exactly rewarded for doing so in the winter before this one *COUGH* but I’m not sure I buy that this slow winter means that’s necessarily going to be the new trend going forward. Though Atkins isn’t necessarily saying that anyway. He seems to simply be saying that there is a hell of a lot still out there, and a hell of a lot being considered by both sides of any deal. With trades being so much the smarter way to build a roster, and being relied on heavily by teams trying to avoid luxury tax penalties or forfeiting extremely valuable draft picks, it does make sense that this is where this is going. Guess I’ll plan to get away to Mexico a little earlier in the offseason next year.

Interestingly, he’s also saying — though it’s basically evident by the fact that the deal was made at all — that the Jays think Solarte is a more valuable piece to have than Edward Olivares, and the Padres think the opposite. Part of that, surely, is based on each club’s own particular circumstance, but it also seems like maybe — maybe? — a slight departure from the previous regime’s you’ve got to give up something good to get something good approach. Not that Olivares isn’t good, but it seems like if the Jays liked him as much as the Padres do, they probably wouldn’t have given him up for Solarte. I dunno.

Speaking Of the Farm System and Deals To Be Made…

It really comes down to the acquisition cost. We need to improve our outfield and improve our pitching and which one of those two will largely depend on the acquisition cost. And hopefully it’s both. I think realistically it will be, that we’ll improve in both of those areas. Which one is more important? I think probably the outfield. I’ve been on the record talking about the importance of improving in those areas and we will almost certainly make moves to improve the organization and improve the team. And just to say that it absolutely will be at this position, and will look like X, Y, and Z, isn’t necessarily the best strategy for us — we need to stay open minded and think about all of our alternatives. As I said, it’s not completely up to us.

. . .

Fortunately we have the option to do both. We are in a good position because of the work of the prior regime, because of the work of this regime, because of the work of our current player development, amateur, international, professional scouting departments, our high performance department — we have a very good farm system. It’s not the best, but it’s nearing. As we talk to other teams, and as we see the objective observations, and as we internally try to be objective about our system, we see our system as being in the top third. We have the ability to make trades. As you’ve seen, we’ve made a couple, and feel we haven’t hurt our system terribly by making those moves, and have control in both players we’ve acquired — they’re not one year players. We’ll continue to do that — if you’re trading for control then you’re willing to give up more, obviously depending on upside. Having both of those options puts us in a much better position, not only now, but like I said, a week into spring training, as we get closer to the trade deadline — depending how we’re performing — and as we continue.

. . .

It’s taken a lot of discipline on our part — it can become real easy to focus on now, especially with the expectations of our fans, which we respect and admire and want — we thrive on that — but we have to balance that with wanting to make this one of the best organizations to play for and work in and to pull for. To do that takes an immense amount of discipline on just what is best for the long term of this organization. And when we say long-term, we’re not talking about five to ten years from now, we’re talking about sustaining what is regarded as one of the best organizations in professional sport. That’s our goal. And sometimes that may mean some short time sacrifices.

OK, a lot to take in here. First of all, I don’t think it’s really necessary for a GM to specify which parts of a team’s roster most need upgrading, especially when it’s particularly obvious. But since some people seemingly can’t take the fact that one might dare to be a bit cagey about such things at this time of year, a lot I’m sure will find this openness pleasing — though, given how we still hear whining any time the team adds players that don’t fit Atkins’ stated 2016-17 winter goal of getting younger and more athletic, I suppose it has a chance to come back and bite him.

That being said: REALISTICALLY THEY’RE STILL GOING TO IMPROVE BOTH THE OUTFIELD AND THE PITCHING STAFF!

Also something that’s probably going to jump out at people: praise from the current regime for the last one. I’m not sure that this is the first time we’ve ever heard that — I’d guess that it isn’t — but it feels like it actually could be, and it still stands out to hear it. Blue Jays fans loved 2015, and it’s really hard to get people to believe you’re really a Blue Jays fan and genuinely care about the team and the experience and what it means to us all if you’re grumbling about the best thing ever — even if your reasons for doing so are probably sound. Maybe more than simply being “not Alex,” this is what’s held the new guys back in many fans’ esteem. How can you be one of us if fireworks don’t go off in your mind whenever you think of those magical three months? Moving at least a little bit in that direction is probably good business for them.

And then in the very next paragraph he strikes the right notes again, I think, reminding us of the discipline required to get the club to the point where they can feel comfortable enough to move a second round pick like J.B. Woodman or an Olivares in order to make the big league club better. They could have traded Vlad and Bo and Alford and whoever else to chase the dream of 2016 — or likely even could have given up more high picks to sign compensation-requiring free agents — but they haven’t. And while it was surely easier for them to do that than it was for fans to watch (*COUGH* would have hit the reset button if not for fans *COUGH*), to spin it this way and point to positive results seems the right tack.

It’s certainly something fans, I think, want to hear more than that reset button talk, and I think that’s important. As much as I roll my eyes at Paul Beeston stuff sometimes, the guy had the deep respect of so many fans, and an understanding of what fans — and not just “fans” but Toronto Blue Jays fans — wanted to hear. Sometimes it was bullshit, and that was a problem — we’re still dealing with the fallout of his diversion-creating comments about a grass field — but you didn’t think Beeston didn’t want the best for the Blue Jays. The new group, even though they should (it’s their jobs for fuck sakes!) haven’t been given that same kind of benefit of the doubt, I don’t think. If they want to change that, showing fans that they get it instead of telling them that they get it is a pretty powerful tool — and, again, maybe I’m being way too generous, but that feels like maybe what’s going on a bit here.

And What of Christian Yelich?…

Here’s what I could say on a player like Christian Yelich: all 30 teams are in, so it’s not up to the Blue Jays on whether or not we get him. All 29 other teams, in addition to the Marlins. We’ll do what we can. We are definitely going to do everything we can to consider how we can make our team better in any possible way, and as you know, and as relates to players that are with other teams, there’s only so much I can say. But Christian Yelich is a remarkable talent and he’s going to impact the Marlins or whoever he’s playing for in a significant way. So we’ll see.

. . .

It would take a young controllable player that we feel could be as talented or more than those two players. So, you know, it’s the future and the control that is so attractive about younger players. You hear us talk about it all the time. The athleticism and having players before they’re making money that is — all these guys are making tons of money, even the league minimum is a ton of money, but when it gets into fourth or fifth year of arbitration it starts to become a little bit more cumbersome and making a real impact on your total payroll. That’s why the younger players like Marcus Stroman and Devon Travis and Kevin Pillar are so attractive to the Toronto Blue Jays and many other teams, and why so many teams and media and so many people in the game are talking about the Houston Astros and the Cleveland [Baseball Franchise] and the Dodgers.

The “it’s not up to us” thing is an interesting one. It certainly worked well in the case of Shohei Ohtani, because where he landed certainly wasn’t up to the Jays. But when you can offer more money or a better package of prospects for a player, a lot of fans are going to think that it very much is up to the club. So… we’ll see where this goes. More importantly, THEY’RE IN ON YELICH! Also: GO GET YELICH! (Uhh… don’t go as far as giving up Vlad or Bo, though.)

And speaking of those two, I can’t help but have noticed the stuff about how important the years before a player gets into that fourth and fifth year of arbitration, which fits nicely with what I wrote last week about wanting to keep the club’s talent level high as Guerrero and Bichette move through their especially valuable pre-arb and early arbitration years — something that adding Solarte helps with, too. (Of course, so would adding Yelich!).

On Aaron Sanchez…

There’s a couple things that are different [as he recovers now, as opposed to in-season last year]. One is that we’ve learned a lot from the 2017 setbacks, and the 2015 setbacks that he had. He also had a small blip in 2016 that we were able to overcome — we’ve learned a great deal from that and we’ll continue to adjust. But the biggest difference is that we’re not in a competitive season — that’s what the timing of when that happened and how that happened and trying to get him to come back to full form. We learned from the steps we took. Could we have done things differently that could have resulted better? I don’t know. We don’t know the answer to that question. We feel as though the steps that we took, at the time, we felt were absolutely the right steps to take. They didn’t work. We’ve learned from them a great deal. The biggest difference is we have more experience — Aaron has more experience; he’s an integral piece to this, obviously. Everything he is doing, on and off the field, matters, and he is exceptionally driven and exceptionally motivated, and he’s going to manage that well. He’s wise beyond his years, a very mature young man, and I know that — I can’t imagine that we have anything near that this year — can’t say never, can’t say it won’t happen — but I’m certainly optimistic it will be a lot brighter year for him than 2017 was.

. . .

We were systematic about that, and thoughtful about it. It wasn’t the kitchen sink approach. It was making sure that we considered all of our alternatives and every expert in the field. It just didn’t work out.

Not sure what else one could say about that, really. Non-blistered fingers crossed!

Lastly, On the Jays’ Overlooked Weapons…

A friend of mine, a guy I grew up with, Mike Lowell, just called me — he was looking for insight into the media; he reports for MLB [Network] — and he said, “Man, you guys could have one of the better rotations in baseball.” And I think no one has forgotten that, but I think no one is really thinking about the Toronto Blue Jays’ starting rotation as a potential — being dominant. Being a dominant rotation, and we’re going to look to even make it better. I can’t say enough about Pete Walker, he’s a difference-maker in this game, and John Gibbons is exceptional, and Pete does an exceptional job with our pitchers.

More praise from AA regime guys here, but I think the important thing is the fact that he’s not wrong that the team could genuinely have a really strong staff next year. I mean, obviously it depends on which Marco Estrada shows up, and which J.A. Happ shows up, and whether Aaron Sanchez is healthy. But these guys aren’t that far removed from pitching their asses off in 2016, and pitching this team into the ALCS that year. Those kinds of performances and then just hitting a little bit and this could actually work! Yeah, it’s a lot to ask, but there are ways, at least!