When Mark Shapiro talks about how tough it is to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox, he makes sure to say that he’s not making excuses.
Always gracious with his limited time, Shapiro gave us a half an hour last week to talk about the recent experience of a number of Blue Jays prospects at the US Army Ranger training camp in Georgia, the recent changes of titles among some of the team’s senior executives, and how the team prefers to invest in their minor league players.
In order to beat one or both of their main AL East rivals, the Blue Jays have been seeking out competitive advantages. The establishment of the high performance department has given the team a leg up over other teams, and has closed the gap between themselves and the Yankees farm systems. The next step in Shapiro’s plan is to develop a team culture, an approach that involves positivity, work ethic, and accountability that creates a team chemistry he feels could spell the difference between the Blue Jays and the competitors when all other competing factors are equal. “It’s a hard thing to teach a young player to do,” stated Shapiro, which is why the team sent a dozen of their top prospects – including Reese McGuire, Danny Jansen, Kevin Smith, Bo Bichette, and Ryan Borucki to the famed training program that trains military specialists to be deployed on short-notice special military operations around the world.
Using the Ranger program is not unique to the Blue Jays – the Braves, Red Sox, and several other teams have sent prospects there in the past few years. The Braves, according to Baseball America, have named their program Camp Tamahawkan, and team execs give the camp a great deal of credit for the rapid success of their player development program.
In addition to the players, the Blue Jays sent several of their staff to participate in what Shapiro described as a “four-day, immersive experience.” New bench coach Dave Hudgens, minor league strength and conditioning co-ordinator Jeremy Trach, and VP of Baseball Ops Ben Cherington joined the players. For Cherington, whose father was a four star army general, the program had personal significance. For the final day, Shapiro, director of player personnel Gil Kim, VP of High Performance Angus Mugford, and HP Assistant Director Clive Brewer joined them. At first, Shapiro said, the Rangers were a little leery of the Blue Jays players, who unlike prospects from other teams actually slept in the Fort Benning barracks. But the Blue Jays hopefuls won the admiration of the army personnel. “Word spread quickly around the base,” according to Shapiro, “that (the Blue Jays prospects) were great guys, high character guys who were very respectful, and before long (army staff) were coming forward, saying, ‘how can we help?’ with the program.”
The session at Fort Benning was designed to be a bit of a meet-and-greet for players who may not have played with each other before, but it was much more than that. “It got them (Players) out of their comfort zone,” claimed Shapiro, and through a series of physical and mental challenges, they learned how to problem solve and handle stressful situations more effectively – kind of like Outward Bound for pro athletes.
And the players involved were not just there to learn for themselves. There was an expectation that all of them would spread both the word and the message of the program in helping to build team culture. All of the participants gave a presentation to the Blue Jays staff involved at the program’s conclusion, and Shapiro said one in particular, “gave me goosebumps.” He didn’t mention the player’s name, but given the glowing things Shapiro has said about him recently, it almost certainly had to be Smith.
Shapiro also touched on some of the recent changes of title in the Blue Jays front office. Most noticeably, Tony LaCava was promoted from VP, Baseball/OPs/Assistant GM to Senior VP, Player Personnel. Andrew Tinnish was promoted from AGM to VP, International Scouting, and Mugford’s promotion to VP status as well. The moves were part of a trend in baseball to concentrate a number of experienced minds in the front office to consult on various decisions. And it’s not like each exec focuses on their own portfolios. “For example,” says Shapiro, “several of them will shift over hand help (Amateur Scouting Director) Steve Sanders with the draft.”
When asked about the hiring of longtime Toronto Star baseball columnist Richard Griffin as the team’s new head of baseball media, Shapiro pointed out Griffin’s past PR experience with the Expos, and “his in-depth knowledge of the local baseball media landscape.”
On the most recent MLB Executive Access podcast (a must listen for anyone seeking insight into how MLB front offices operate), Royals GM Dayton Moore, when reflecting on the areas of biggest change in his tenure, noted, “75% of our Major League front office has been hired in the last six years.”
If you want to know, in this day and age of soaring revenues and shrinking payrolls, where MLB teams have been sinking those profits, look no further than your average MLB staff directory. Teams have hired analysts, sport scientists, and in some (but not all) cases expanded scouting departments, or have upped their international presence. For those of us decrying the salaries paid to minor leaguers, MLB doesn’t feel the need to spread some of that largesse in that area. And while it’s a shame that the average minor leaguer needs to supplement their income in the off-season, until there’s a change of heart among the MLBPA, relief in the form of higher salaries for farmhands seems far away. Statistically speaking, the top draft choices and IFAs have the greatest chance of making it to the bigs, and that’s where teams want to spend their money. For the rest, teams obviously feel that the resources they are allocating to their minor league teams in terms of on-field, strength, and sport science staff are adequate investments in all of their players.
Shapiro often speaks of seeking competitive advantages, but when asked if paying MiLBers more would create one of those, choosing his words carefully, he doesn’t necessarily agree:
…I think it’s short-sighted to just say ‘pay them more,’….the amount of time and budget resources that have been spent on player development – that is, nutritionally, and in terms of supporting minor league players – has changed dramatically, and that’s why I wanted to bring in a management structure that over time integrated all of those aspects…….it’s just not about paying the players more money, it’s about providing them with the best resources possible, and then guiding them in how to use those resources……the player development budget is an area where a lot of teams are pouring huge amounts of money into.
So….short answer to the question is: no. The Blue Jays feel that they are providing the supports through their player development staff to help their players eat, train, and recover properly.
Finally, Shapiro sounded like someone very much at ease in Toronto, after rumours circulated in the off-season about him headed elsewhere, most likely the Mets. He advises Blue Jays fans (and ownership) to exercise some patience, and stay the course for the next few years. Shapiro spoke at a gathering of sports psychologists in Toronto last fall, and shared his philosophy of how to build an organization from the ground up. The video is almost an hour-long, and does lapse into corporate speak from time to time, but if you want a bit of entertainment, as well as some insight into Shapiro’s beliefs as the man who runs the team, fast forward to 39:33 to watch a ten-minute personal anecdote he tells about legendary NFL Coach/GM Bill Parcells, and how it shaped his own approach: