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The Shapkins Defender – Chering Blossoms

Welcome to The Shapkins Defender, where I inhale your toxic screeds and spit out the fresh oxygen of optimism, like a tree that kind of understands WAR. (Just don’t ask me to explain it.)

This edition is quite a long one. So, I recommend skipping it to spend time with your family and friends. (I’m just kidding. It’s long but all gold. Your family and friends, on the other hand, are a real fucking snooze fest. Kidding again! I love them and you and everyone. Please don’t sue me.)

First things first, I’ll respond to a couple of comments from my last piece. First up, this guy.

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“Slowly burning planet lol. I remember when the media pumped up Acid Rain but it was a fraud then there was a massive hole in the Ozone Layer lol, what a joke that was. And more fear-mongering bs about Global Warming now re-packaged as Climate Change lol. And the filthy rich control your politicians(as they always have) to pump up Climate Change to downsize our standard of living like the rest of the 3rd world but they will live better than Kings.” – John Smith

Like most conspiratorial thinking, John’s sentiments touch upon a broad truth and get all the details wrong. If Mr. Smith and I were to sit down and have a beer together, I’m sure we could find a lot of common ground in the arena of the filthy rich controlling politicians and chipping away at the lives of regular people. However, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer were/are very real, just as climate change is real. (I could provide some links, if you’re interested. Though I have a hunch you might pre-emptively declare the various sources to be untrustworthy, since you’ve already decided these issues to be “a fraud” and “a joke”.)

In fact, acid rain and the damage to the ozone layer were caused by the filthy rich and the corporations they own. Which meant that the solution was reining them in and not letting them run roughshod over people and the planet. And that’s why solving climate change is so challenging now, because it’s essentially the same dynamic as acid rain and the ozone layer, where policymakers have to prioritize environmental standards over the profitability of the fossil fuel industry, only with much higher stakes this time. Should be a fun century!

Anyway, enough with depressing subjects. Let’s talk about the Blue Jays!

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“In all honesty, what is the point of these articles? So we can get sad about the current state of the jays and direction of the team? This team is as directionless as it ever has been thanks to an inept front office and rogers is as bad an owner as it ever was. We don’t need this kool-aid garbage, a more realistic assessment is needed. The good teams spend $, its a known fact, the Jays aren’t going to win with this Front office spending like the Rays.” – AD

I’m going to answer this question in an annoying, roundabout way by talking about Ben Cherington. Ol’ BC, as he likes to be called, was promoted from within to be the general manager of the Boston Red Sox after the 2011 season. (He had been working for the team in varying capacities since 1999.)

When the team fell out of contention in the summer of 2012, they started a roster teardown and subsequent rebuild that they only recently came out of. In 2012, 2014 and 2015, the Red Sox finished last in the AL East. (Miraculously, the 2013 team won the World Series after signing a number of veteran free agents on short-term deals.)

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Then they turned the corner in 2016, winning the division three straight years, including the World Series in 2018.

What happened in the middle though, in 2015, was that the team seemingly became impatient with the rebuild and hired Dave Dombrowski to be President, working above Cherington. This didn’t seem to go over too well with Ben, as he announced his resignation shortly thereafter.

Now, one could certainly give Dombrowski the credit for the 2018 World Series. I’m sure he deserves at least a portion of it. But that team was largely built by Cherington before he departed. Even some Dombrowski acquisitions, such as Chris Sale, were accomplished by using the fruits of the Cherington farm. And it seems to me that, although it ended up working out in his absence, the Red Sox let a smart and talented guy walk away because their particular media and fan environment didn’t have the patience necessary to let him finish what he started.

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Similarly, many people in Toronto are now growing restless with the regime of Shapiro, Atkins and, until recently, Cherington himself. There was a rumour floating around a few months back that Shapiro was being considered for a position with the NCAA’s Big Ten. Shapiro claimed that he didn’t genuinely consider it, but who knows? Personally, I would be disappointed if this regime was also dismantled because the loudest voices in the room were also the least patient. So, that’s why I started writing these articles, because I actually think things are going quite well with the Blue Jays system overall. Sure, the big league team is bad right now. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

First off, the big league team is only going to get better. Most attempts to study aging curves in baseball show that players will have their best seasons, on average, between the ages of 25 and 30. Players are individuals, of course, and will therefore not all strictly follow the exact same path. But it’s not unreasonable to expect a roster full of young guys to improve each year, even if a couple of guys struggle. So, the Jays are well-positioned in this regard, with most guys still under 25. Even the older guys like Grichuk and Drury are still within that window, at 28 and 27, respectively. (The only guys on the roster older than 30 at the moment are Roark, Shoemaker, Anderson and Bass.) And those young guys aren’t going anywhere for a while either. Other than those three 30+ guys I just mentioned, Brandon Drury is the Blue Jays player closest to free agency, with three years of control remaining. Most of the rest of the squad is five or six years away from hitting the market.

And below the major league level, the organization still has a well-regarded farm system, meaning that any area of the team that doesn’t perform will be getting reinforcements. The Jays arguably have a surplus of catchers already, with two decent guys at the big league level and a collection of interesting prospects as well. Some of the infield prospects lost a bit of shine in 2019, such as Kevin Smith and Logan Warmoth. But I think it’s too soon to be giving up on them, personally. And even without them, Jordan Groshans is the highest-ranked position player prospect in the system, despite spending most of 2019 on the injured list. And there are other guys behind him who are also earning plaudits around the industry, such as Orelvis Martinez and Miguel Hiraldo.

And everyone knows the biggest weakness is currently pitching. But help is on the way there too. Baseball America’s recent top ten Blue Jays prospects had five pitchers on it, including Nate Pearson in the top spot.

And there’s even hope for the less-hyped pitching prospects in the system. There was an article in The Athletic recently about the Cleveland baseball club that Shapiro and Atkins used to work for. If you’re not a subscriber, I won’t rehash the whole thing. But the piece basically details how the Cleveland organization has a real knack of using analytics to turn pitchers that are not highly-touted prospects into quality major leaguers. The players used as examples are Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale and Shane Bieber. Those first four names were acquired, by trade, during the Shapiro and Atkins regime. The last three were drafted in 2016, just after they came to the Blue Jays.

And why should we assume that they just left all of this cutting-edge analytical stuff in the States? Do border guards have amnesia rays these days? (Actually, that wouldn’t be too surprising.) Could Shapiro and Atkins do something similar with guys like Trent Thornton? Jacob Waguespack? Julian Merryweather? Anthony Kay? Thomas Hatch? I have no idea! But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope that maybe one or two of these guys surprise everyone and find some extra gear that we’re not currently expecting.

I know this all might sound a bit wishy-washy because I keep saying that so-and-so could do this and what’s-his-face might do that. But that’s the nature of rebuilds. Those seven Cleveland players from the article were the success stories. But there were surely some flops during that same timeframe, guys whose names we don’t know because they couldn’t put it together in the same way. At the moment, you can look at the names in the Jays’ system and feel despair because they haven’t done anything to impress you yet. Some of them never will. But it’s not blind faith or “kool-aid garbage” to believe that the people who have a track record of success at player development will continue to successfully develop players.

And as for your comment that “the Jays aren’t going to win with this Front office spending like the Rays”, I agree! But they won’t spend like the Rays. Even the stripped-down Jays of 2019 had a payroll almost twice that of Tampa. (111 million to Tampa’s 64, according to Spotrac.) And Shapiro has repeatedly said that ownership will allow the payroll to get back up once the time is right. And why should we doubt that? The Jays payroll was 7th in MLB as recently as 2017. I agree that Rogers is a bad owner but they seem to at least understand that spending is required every once in a while. That’s not ideal but certainly better than the situation in Tampa, or Cleveland, for that matter.

I know not everyone follows all of the minor league teams. But this is not “directionless”, in my opinion. I actually think it’s a very clear direction. It just requires patience. The roster is already loaded with talented young players who should just get better, on average, though some may disappoint. Areas of surplus will be used to address areas of weakness. And once the promised land seems within range, I think they will make the necessary financial commitment because, as you said, “The good teams spend $”. But they also put a focus on a healthy farm system and player development. Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals, all the teams that are consistently good, they combine the farm-focused analytical stuff with the budget to supplement it. Just spending money isn’t enough. Look at the Rockies. Or the Angels.

If they don’t spend, I will join you in condemning them. I really will. I’m not a fan of the current trend across the game of billionaires saying “We have no money” when what they actually mean is “We don’t want to spend it.” I have no interest in being an apologist for a regime that wants only to cut spending and nothing else. But I don’t think that’s the case. Why would Shapiro leave Cleveland just to have the exact same financial restraints he left behind? When Andrew Friedman left the Rays for the Dodgers, he didn’t suddenly bring the payroll down to Tampa-esque levels. He just implemented the creative solutions of the Rays organization at a higher budget level. And they’ve now won their division six years in a row, with no one seeming close to catching them. (The second-place Diamondbacks finished 21 games back in 2019.) I think this Shapiro front office is just going to pick their moment.

One thing about the Cherington-era Red Sox I didn’t mention earlier is the disastrous signings of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Before the 2015 season that led to Cherington’s departure, the Red Sox signed Ramirez to a four-year deal with 88 million bucks and Sandoval to five years and 90 million. You probably already know this, but both were terrible and had to be released before their contracts were up. The 2018 Red Sox won the World Series in spite of the fact that both were on the payroll but neither guy was on the team. Cherington denies any suggestion that he was pressured to make these signings, claiming that he brought the ideas to ownership. But we can’t really know if he felt pressure from the fans and the media to do something bold. Though that’s just mere surmise on my part. But I guess what I’m getting at is that it might feel good if the Jays threw a bunch of money at, say, Dallas Keuchel and Nick Castellanos right now. But would it feel good a couple of years down the road?

So, I don’t know, man. I’m not saying you have to enjoy the rebuilding process. It’s not to everyone’s tastes. But I just don’t see any reason to panic. The Jays are currently in the same position as the Nats were about ten years ago, or the Cubs were five years ago, or the Red Sox were four years ago, when they nudged Cherington out the door because his rebuild wasn’t coming along fast enough. And I’m not going to wish for the same thing to happen to Shapiro and Atkins, at least not yet.

“Shapiro challenging Bernie Sanders – he’s making your job as Shapkins defender way harder!”

This was a message sent to me by a good friend of mine, along with a link to this piece. 

When it comes to defending Shapiro and Atkins, I primarily focus on the stuff I just outlined in the last section, which is steering the organization towards excelling at player development and analytics and yadda-yadda-whatever.

When it comes to the business side of things, I’m well aware Shapiro is a corporate stooge. And as a corporate stooge, he’s going to do stooge-y stuff like trying to find ways to cut costs or “find efficiencies” or whatever. None of us like it and I’m not going to defend it outright. And this is exactly why we need people like Bernie, to challenge rich people when they do rich people things. I don’t want people to lose jobs or towns to lose baseball teams. But when rich people want something done and a stooge doesn’t do their stooge-ly duties, they will quickly find themselves out of a job.

How do I know that? Look at what just happened to Dave Dombrowski. Now, I’m aware I just spent a lot of the last section trying to give Cherington all the credit for the recent success of the Red Sox. But Dombrowski is certainly owed at least a portion of the credit for finishing the job. However, right after winning the World Series, he was instructed by ownership to cut payroll. Dombrowski decided not to do that and found himself unemployed less than a year after taking a champagne shower. And who was he replaced with? Some guy from Tampa Bay, the cost cutting-est organization of them all!

So, basically, the moral of the story is that presidents, general managers, whoever, they work within parameters dictated by ownership. Step outside those parameters and you’ll be replaced by someone with more Quisling-y tendencies. So, the question you have to ask yourself as a baseball fan is if the stooge running your team is the right stooge for the job. Because if you’re holding out hope of having some non-stooge, I think you’re lining yourself for a lot of disappointment. (This is why it’s important to root for the players in all labour matters, by the way. Left to their own devices, the owners will always try to find a cheaper way of getting the same results.)

And with Mark Shapiro, stooge though he may be, he at least seems to be conscious of the inequities of the modern baseball game. It was the Toronto Blue Jays, after all, that gave all of their minor leaguers a 50% salary increase back in March. (Star link for those without Athletic subscriptions) So, he at least gives a little bit of a shit, it seems. And as far as I know, none of the other 29 organizations have followed suit on this, making the Blue Jays the industry leader in the category of… reducing exploitation? Here’s Cherington’s thoughts on the matter, quoted in the story from The Athletic. “We hope that it allows our players to have the freedom and comfort to make some good choices, whether it’s where to live, where to eat, etc. We just feel like it’s consistent with our values of trying to be a player-centered organization and give them every resource possible to be at their best.”

And that seems to be the same motivation for this minor league reduction plan. Here’s Shapiro, quoted in the Yahoo piece. “Player well-being as a matter of looking at the facility they play in as a resource. Not just a place but a resource. Looking at the schedule they play as either an impediment or an aid to help them recover, and have their performance the best they can be, and looking at what we pay them not as something that gives them wealth, but that gives them the ability to eat properly, that allows them to live in the type of house that allows them to rest and recover.” That quote seems pretty consistent with the Cherington quote, I think.

Is he just spouting a bunch of horseshit to cover over the fact that they’re trying to make cuts? That’s entirely possible! But that seems a rather simplistic interpretation, in light of the pay raise thing. It’s possible he genuinely believes it’s better to streamline the minor league system. After all, what percentage of these guys actually have a chance to make the majors? Maybe it is better to focus on a smaller number of guys who actually have the best odds instead of drafting a million jobbers every year and stringing them along for a life of bus rides and bunk beds? Fuck if I know. All the front office people in that Yahoo piece claim that the same amount of resources would be going into the minor leagues, just spread out in a more-focussed way. Could be bullshit but I don’t know. Shapiro seems to have steered the Blue Jays so directly towards player development, hiring guys like Cherington and Steve Sanders and Gil Kim and Charlie Montoyo who have also spent their careers looking at similar things. It seems odd that he would suddenly be so enthusiastically defending a plan like this if it was strictly a cost-saving measure.

Like I said, it’ll suck for anyone that loses their job or any town that loses a team. I’m not so callous as to ignore the human element of these things. But corporations do corporate things. They like bringing in more money, or spending less, or both. And if Shapiro was gone, they’d find someone even stooge-lier, like that guy Boston just hired out of Tampa. I personally don’t have any illusions of them suddenly operating like a charity.  At least the stooge we have now seems to put some thought into how his employees are living and focusing on helping them reach their full potential.

You don’t have to like Shapiro as a person. You don’t have to wanna be his dog. You don’t even have to want to be his friend. Hell, I don’t. (Could you be friends with someone who has a dry erase board full of slogans that say shit like “Teamwork is the work that teams do” or whatever?) But he at least seems to be smart enough to realize that if his corporate overlords aren’t going to give him the money to keep pace with the Yankees in terms of spending, the best thing he can do as a stooge is try to outsmart them on the farm. He won’t succeed at every turn and you don’t have to like every move he makes. And it is fun to take shots at the suits in the ivory tower once in a while. I will admit that I have liked some of the jokes on Twitter about “Flexibility”. But if you whine and moan every time he breathes, well, what this guy says:

If you want a new stooge, send your hot takes, diatribes, harangues, tirades and jeremiads to me at [email protected] or @darraghfilm on Twitter, or just leave a comment below.