Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro recently welcomed Future Blue Jays to his surprisingly compact 3rd floor office for what was going to be an overview of the team’s minor league system. As the last warm rays of Indian Summer danced off of the Lake Ontario waves outside his south-facing window, the half-hour conversation turned into a general discussion about the 2017 Blue Jays, the Rogers Centre, and where the organization is heading.
Construction on Southbound Highway 400 and delays on the TTC tried to conspire to keep a guy from the north from arriving at the appointed time, but a good sprint from St Andrew Station allowed me to make it with seconds to spare.
With the regular season over, and the winter meetings still over a month away, this is something of a down time in the front offices of non-postseason teams. Still, the Blue Jays suite was a hive of activity. Assistant General Manager Andrew Tinnish was in this morning, fresh from trips to the Dominican and Japan earlier this month. General Manager Ross Atkins said hello as he was stirring his coffee at a counter just outside of Shapiro’s office.
Shapiro has acknowledged that while the 2017 season was a disappointment, it was not unexpected, terming the club “fragile” because of the age of the 25-man roster, and a lack of upper level minor league talent. Shapiro has an eye of the future, stating that, “We’re trying to construct a development system that maximizes the potential of our players,” and he says that he’s encouraged by this year’s draft, the work of Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish (who heads up international scouting and player development), and by the development being done at the minor league level. “That building effort is a long-term play,” he added for good measure. Shapiro does not believe in taking short cuts when it comes to building a winner.
As far as progress toward building a new stadium in Dunedin and vastly upgrading the minor league complex, Shapiro feels that Dunedin is, “Making significant progress – we’re really close to pushing across the goal line.” Negotiations have been lengthy, and Shapiro has received some intense grilling at some meetings, but he feels that’s part and parcel of dealing with three levels of government to obtain financing for the project. Despite the lengthy time it has taken to secure funding to move the projects ahead, Shapiro is excited about the possibilities:
We are close to getting a significant renovation that I think has a chance to be a game-changer on both resources and culture for our player development system…ultimately, it’s shifting Dunedin away from just being a spring training site, where we prepare our players for the season, to a 365 days of the year, state-of-the-art training and rehabilitation centre, and a base for our US operations.
While some optimistic estimates suggested that shovels at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium might have been in the ground this past September, Shapiro is hesitant to forecast a date, but he says he is, “confident it will happen in the next calendar year.” When asked where the Florida State League’s Dunedin Blue Jays will play during stadium reconstruction, he wouldn’t commit to a location, but did say that it will depend on how the demolition/construction is staged, and that the club has thoroughly discussed contigency plans, and has one firmly in place.
As far as the Rogers Centre renovations are concerned, Shapiro states that they are still in, “the design phase,” but the actual implementation of any upgrades is, “up to Rogers – where it fits in the hierarchy of their capital needs.” He does promise that it will be a more fan-friendly remodelling:
The general theme is – let’s change this from a multi-purpose stadium to a baseball ballpark as best you can within four walls and a roof…..in fairness to our owners, we’re the only team that’s asked to do it without any public subsidies.
He did add that the Rogers Centre is the last non-renovated stadium of its generation. To those of us who grew up with the old makeshift facility that was Exhibition Stadium, that was a bit of a revelation, but it does speak to the need to bring the Dome up to modern standards.
As far as grass is concerned in any Rogers Centre renovations, it’s not a priority for Shapiro, mainly because of the cost (again, which would not be subsidized by the public) – the Rogers Centre has no drainage, and as one of the lowest-lying points on Toronto’s waterfront would mean huge costs just to install proper drainage systems. Shapiro puts the price of that installation at around 30% of any potential Rogers Centre overhaul. Factor into that a huge chunk of the annual operating budget, and the fact that the roof is closed for over 5 months of the year, and it makes grass a very costly upgrade. Outgoing Blue Jays President Paul Beeston, of course, threw this out to an eager public after a number of disappointing seaons several years ago. As Andrew Stoeten said at Blue Jays Nation, “what was an olive branch became a landmine to his eventual successor.”
Shapiro pointed out that huge advances have been made in artificial turf design, and the dirt portion of the infield has led to a significant elimination of the former artificial turf bounce. In an ideal world, he added, the Blue Jays would be playing on grass, but in the real world, it’s a very low priority. Many have suggested that the turf might dissuade free agents from coming to Toronto, but that’s not how Shapiro and Atkins prefer to construct a roster, anyway.
Shapiro was also asked about the recent group of employees who were let go, which has garnered a fair amount of attention (much of it negative) in the media. Included in the cuts were several long time employees who also happened to be Canadian. It was obvious to see that he was understandably tiring of the subject, or at least the attention it was receiving. He did point out that many of the job losses were on the business side of the operation, and he credited VP of Business Ops Andrew Miller with not making wholesale changes when he took over that portfolio two years ago. Not to drag this issue out any further, but times change, and when a new regime takes over the management of any business, personnel changes are almost to be expected. Shapiro has taken heat for bringing in three former Cleveland employees (Atkins, Miller, Eric Wedge) shortly after coming to Toronto, but he has hired a number of people on the baseball side from other organizations (Gil Kim, Steve Sanders, Mike Murov), and has kept quite a few on (Tony LaCava, Dana Brown, Tinnish – a Canadian). It’s unfortunate to see people out of work, and a cynic might suggest that some Toronto media outlets looking for clicks thought they would capitalize on that. The business side decided to go in a new direction, and the skill sets of some of the now former employees didn’t align with that. Shapiro is aware of the sensitivity of the topic, however, and says hiring and developing local talent at all levels of the organization is a priority.
Our talk shifted to the Blue Jays minor league system at this point, and it was clear that this was an area of extreme comfort for the former farm director. When I told him how I preferred to watch minor league games on my laptop on nights where the big club wasn’t doing so well, Shapiro admitted that he sometimes does the same thing. The Blue Jays are very pleased with the Player Development Contracts they have with their minor league affiliates. All of those agreements are up for renewal after next season, but Shapiro expects that they all will be renewed. We discussed the possibility of Ottawa becoming an Eastern League affiliate – Shapiro was not aware of the details involving a possible move of an existing EL franchise to the nation’s capital a few years ago, which died for lack of desire on City Council’s part (in an election year) to fund upgrades to their ballpark to bring it up to MiLB standards. It certainly is not a direction to move towards for the Blue Jays at the moment, but it was obvious that the idea of a team in the nation’s capital piqued his interest.
The crown jewel of the Blue Jays organization, and perhaps his greatest accomplishment to date, is the establishment of the High Performance department, and if not for another appointment coming up, I suspect he would have talked about it for some time. Shapiro believes that the HP group gives the Blue Jays a huge competitive advantage, and the improvements at Dunedin will be a huge part of that.
We talked next about the futures of Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette. Vladdy Jr has said that he wants to be in the majors before he’s 20, and with the rapid ascent of Rafael Devers, who was promoted to the Red Sox this summer at that age, I asked if such a plan was possible for Guerrero. Not one to be pinned down on the subject, Shapiro noted that there was an opening for Devers in Boston this year (implying that he already has a pretty decent 3rd Baseman), and said that it was unlikely that we would see Jr in Toronto next year, but:
If we find ourselves in the middle of a pennant race next summer, and Vladdy had been successful in the minors up to that point, there’s always a possibility that we could promote him.
Finally, with our time almost up, I asked what the chances were of the Blue Jays landing prized Japanese star Shohei Otani, who the team has been extensively courting and scouting for some time. Shapiro acknowleged that the team has put in their work on the future star, but admitted that he wasn’t sure if Toronto was a good fit for a Japanese player, with the implication being that markets like L.A, Chicago, or New York would have the inside track. This is not surprising, but is disappointing, because with the new CBA rules, it appeared at least that the Blue Jays had a fighting chance this time around, unlike with previous Japanese players.
Shaprio is upbeat about the future in Toronto, pointing out that the Blue Jays have the youngest and most diverse fan base in all of MLB. How things pan out in the future for the Blue Jays may come down to the head office of Rogers: how badly do they want to produce a winner? Will they make the investments necessary to keep the team competitive? The Blue Jays are only one of two MLB teams owned by corporations, and recent rumblings suggest that they are looking to shed themselves of at least part of their ownership of the team. Inferring from his body language and comments about dealing with the folks at 333 Bloor St East, that might be a welcome development for Shapiro. For further reading on the subject, take a look at the excellent article Jon Shell wrote for BP Toronto earlier this summer.
A personal note: Shapiro has taken more than his fair share of lumps from the local media (not that he cares at this point in his career, as he noted). He has always been a stand-up guy to me. He returns emails, and is more than willing to deal with those in the non-traditional media. Compared to the former face of the franchise, Alex Anthopoulos, he may not be as affable in public, but in conversation, he is warm, genuine, and sincere. A strong believer in positivity, grit, and resilience, the conference table in his office has a pile of books on that topic in the middle of it. The white board behind it is full of points on the subject, as well as a note from his 13 year old daughter, a reminder that no matter how he is portrayed in the media, he is a family man, going through the challenge of helping to raise two teenagers in a foreign country.