The Shapkins Defender – Looking Back to Look Forward

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.)

Spring training is finally arriving this week. (Well, the part with the stretching and jogging and whatnot.  The actual games are still a ways away.)  And as the players show up and start tossing the ball around, our focus will shift away from the front office and towards the players, with stories about position battles and which guys are in the best shape of their lives and all that. The team has already tweeted out video of their big offseason prize, Hyun-Jin Ryu, half-assedly getting loose on the grass down in Dunedin. 

But just before we do that, this seems like a good time to take a moment to reflect on what has transpired over the past few months, while the suits in the front office were the ones in the spotlight. The reason I started doing this whole Shapkins Defender thing is because my own positive feelings about the Blue Jays and the direction of the organization as a whole seemed to be in such stark contrast to the rest of the fan base and members of the media.

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And I’m not just talking about people raging on Twitter or in various comment sections. Take a look at the tone of this piece by Shi Davidi from December 10th, on the website of the Rogers-owned Sportsnet, no less. 

“Let’s not do this until the conclusion that feels inevitable arrives in mid-January, and the Toronto Blue Jays make some underwhelming mid-to-lower tier starter signings and pat themselves on the back for staying disciplined and true to their valuations.”

That is the opening paragraph. So fatalistic! So deflated! The piece goes on to wearily lay out a scenario wherein the front office lets every free agent slip through their fingers, which Davidi says “will suck for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and the rest of the group if they have to score seven runs every day to cover for an opener and a guy like they did last summer.” I don’t read a ton of Sportsnet, but using a colloquialism like “suck”, along with the generally bitter tone of the article, feels like an aberration to me, something more likely to be found in The Toronto Sun or an article by the annoyingly-disgruntled and Bunsen-Honeydew-resembling Cathal Kelly.

But contrast that with Davidi’s latest piece, published just this past Sunday. Now having the benefit of hindsight, he’s able to return to his measured and even-handed wheelhouse for a long piece that tracks through the entire narrative of the Blue Jays’ offseason. In the piece, which is a great read, he tracks the front office through “eight roller-coaster weeks” as they encountered a whirlwind free agent market that Atkins says they were “prepared for” but “didn’t actually expect”. Of course, as you now know, the Blue Jays adjusted to the market and “changed drastically”, something that Davidi didn’t seem to expect them to do, judging by that earlier, more jaded piece I quoted.

And so, here we are now, at the beginning of spring training, which almost always leads to hope flowering up out of the sour sludge of winter. But this year, the hope seems a bit more earned. It’s not just that there’s the fresh blank slate of a baseball season ahead of us, upon which we can pin our wild fantasies. Rather, it does feel like a page has been turned this winter. The 67-win season of 2019 really does feel like the bottom of the proverbial barrel. And the toxic atmosphere around the team does seem to have been cleared out for an optimism of what’s around the corner.

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And what exactly is around the corner that should leave us feeling so rosy? Well, I don’t think it has to be a 90-win season in 2020 in order to keep that rosy feeling going. The larger point is that the front office has shown that they will be continually building this team, both through the farm and the market.

In terms of the farm, we’ve already seen them construct a core of talented youngsters, whose names are surely familiar to you by now. Next on the docket is Nate Pearson, who will hopefully join the squad this year. After him will be another wave of guys, perhaps including Simeon Woods Richardson, Alek Manoah, Alejandro Kirk and Jordan Groshans. After that will hopefully be another wave, potentially with guys like Orelvis Martinez and Miguel Hiraldo. It’s even reasonable to expect another after that, if Baseball America is to be believed. They recently ranked the top 100 prospects of the 2019 international signing class. The Blue Jays were well represented, with seven players on the list, more than every team except the Padres, who had eight. And then the Jays will be able to add to that with a strong draft pool this June, starting with the fifth overall pick and maintaining all of their allotted picks by not signing any of the QO’d free agents.

And now that the front office has shelled out some money this winter, it no longer feels like the only avenue for optimism is squinting at the boxscores of the Lansing Lugnuts. (Although I will still be doing that.) The idea of them spending big money on free agents in order to supplement the homegrown core has shifted from fanciful to downright reasonable.

In Shi Davidi’s words, “The Blue Jays wanted Ryu to be their ace and to bring in other arms to lengthen their staff, and accomplished it all. This off-season signalled the beginning of a buildup, not the end, with the work done this winter sure to benefit them when they go calling on free agents next winter.” Certainly a sunnier outlook than he had during the dreary days of December. It’s somewhat fitting that the news of the Jays signing Ryu came out on December 22nd, the day after the winter solstice. It was a symbol that, for the Blue Jays and us fans, the darkest days were behind us and that the daylight was going to slowly chip away at the night. Up over the horizon are the long, hot, gorgeous days of summer, both literally and figuratively.

If you have a beef, hot take, diatribe, harangue, tirade or jeremiad, send it to me at [email protected] or @darraghfilm on Twitter, or just leave a comment below.