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Photo Credit: Tim & Sid / Sportsnet

Highlights from Mark Shapiro’s insightful ‘At the Letters’ interview

Mark Shapiro has his work cut out for him this offseason. With the Blue Jays coming off a 67-95 season, there is vast room for improvement for this rookie-driven team next year.

While the club is technically only a few years into its rebuild, 2020 will be a crucial year for the Blue Jays in terms of taking the next step towards contention. And the framework for any sort of positive progress must be laid this offseason through free agent signings and trades.

The job status of Shapiro has been shrouded in mystery, with his contract reportedly expiring next season. There are plenty of big picture questions about this organization and many of them stem from the team president.

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Shapiro joined Arden Zwelling and Ben Nicholson-Smith on the latest At the Letters podcast and answered many of these queries; from building a playoff contender, to the rumours about other teams (and leagues) courting Shapiro, to the latest word on Rogers Centre renovations.

It’s an hour-long interview with the Blue Jays president and CEO, but it’s a must-listen.

On the keys to building a playoff team:

“I’ve always been a big believer in looking at the different segments of the player population and feeling when you’re ready to win, you need representation from all three.

You need young players – Robles and Taylor – really hyper-young, talented players that give you upside, tonnes of energy and frankly, can just play and stay healthy.

You need players in their prime like Rendon and Trea Turner, guys like that, right in the middle of their prime because they’re the most reliable performance. You can bank on what they’re capable of.

Then you need veteran players and they’re volatile because they get hurt a lot and they get dips in performance, but they’re the guys that want to win, they can handle pressure better and they’re the guys who make younger players better.”

This was interesting from Shapiro, who said the ideal mix of a playoff contending team involves up-and-coming rookie talent, established players in their prime and established veterans. Judging by this formula, the Blue Jays have a lot of work to do to check off two of those three boxes.

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On his contract status:

“I honestly don’t give it much thought at all. I never have. This will be my 29th season. I just kind of believe that if you do a good job and continue to focus on doing a job and not on your tenure or status, that it all kind of takes care of itself.”

So, the fact that Shapiro mentioned nothing about being under contract beyond 2020 lends one to believe that his deal is in fact expiring next season. However, Ken Rosenthal reported that talks are underway to extend the Blue Jays president with a new deal.

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On reports about being in the running for Big Ten commissioner:

“It’s been mis-reported. 100 percent. Yes, do I get contacted for jobs and was I contacted for that one? Yes. Someone approached me about that. Have I entered in any interviews? I can honestly say that in 29 years, there’s only one job I’ve pursued or interviewed for … and that’s this one.”

This confirms that not only do teams around Major League Baseball revere Shapiro, so do other sports leagues. He’s been approached several times by other organizations, but never put his name in the running for any of these rumoured positions.

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On whether he’d consider jumping ship to another team or another sport entirely:

“I’m not a ‘grass is greener’ guy. I tend to be a guy who’s very introspective and thoughtful. But the things I value are the opportunities to lead, and the opportunities to lead without compromising the values I believe in.”

If anyone thought Shapiro might jump ship to another MLB team (or another sport entirely), this comment squashes that notion.

On the early stages of the Blue Jays’ rebuild:

“We really are only a year and a half into rebuilding. I feel like we’re on an elevated timeframe. We didn’t really turn the clock and say: ‘we are absolutely rebuilding’ until halfway through the 2018 season.

History can tell you how long it takes. It can take much quicker, it can take four to five years, it just depends. I feel like we’re on an elevated timeframe and hopefully the results will follow.”

It may feel like the Blue Jays have been rebuilding since the end of the 2016 season, when in actuality, Shapiro notes it’s only really been a year and a half since the organization chose to clear to the deck.

On coming off a disappointing 67 win season:

“People recited to me that we were coming off a 67 win season, and it doesn’t feel like that to me. I look at the trends in the second half of the year and I feel like we were competing.

Even towards the last month of the season, we started to win more; close to a .500 team against one of the toughest schedules, with one of the youngest teams after having traded a lot of starting pitching.

Do I think we’re just one or two decisions away from being a championship team? No, I’m not pollyannaish about that, but do I think we’re better than a 67 win team? Yes, I think we’re better than a 67 win team.”

Recently, Ross Atkins also boasted about the Blue Jays’ second-half results and they were narrowly a .500 team from July onwards (33-38 in the second half after starting off 34-57). Taking this core of players alone in 2020 should result in more than 67 wins, but the front office needs to supplement this roster with free agents and some trade targets.

On trying to build a contending team around a mostly young core:

“You can’t plan the expectations of a playoff team with all young players for that exact reason; because the young players provide volatility. Volatility can be really good, they also tend to be on the field more, which is a good thing.

They provide you the upside, but there’s also some downside with those players.”

On paper, it seems like most front offices would prefer a younger core of players, but teams like the Blue Jays and Padres have proven there’s a lot of volatility with giving the bulk of at bats to rookie players. Shapiro realizes there’s a big swing in variance by having young players drive the bus on this team.

On Rogers Centre renovations:

“My focus is obviously this stadium and supporting what I would say is broader effort that is more than just the stadium, and a broader vision. I am excited to contribute and be a part of that process, but it’s no longer something I’m driving.

Where we can, we still need to continue to improve fan experience. We still need to focus on the infrastructure here. We just put a brand new roof on. We did a lot of work on the infrastructure around the stadium, and we’ve done a lot of work inside the stadium as well. We’ll have some major upgrades next year that I think will impact fan experience.

We’ll continue to look for ways to improve but the fact remains that it is a 35-year-old building and those age buildings are either going through massive renovations or being replaces throughout the sport. That’s just the nature of it.”

We’re still waiting to hear the official word about these “major upgrades that will impact fan experience”, but it sounds like the big picture stuff is out of his hands for now. That may be because the city is still working through the whole Rail Deck Park project, which is a massive undertaking and the Rogers Centre is only a small piece of the puzzle.