So as it turns out, the first five years of the Mark Shapiro era were a bit of a fake-out. That wasn’t an era at all. It was the prep work for an era that starts now. Which is pretty good work if you can get it.
The Toronto Blue Jays regime begins its first real campaign Thursday afternoon in the Bronx.
We’re not counting the 2016 season, which was a playoff year, because Shapiro & Co. spent a lot of it moaning about how bare their predecessor left the cupboards. Or the 2017 or 2018 campaigns, which were great right up until they started playing games. Or the 2019 and 2020 campaigns, which were all about youth and its difficulties.
This, this right here, this is the real thing.
In the off-season, the Jays procured the best free agent on the market in George Springer. Their young core is entering its third season together. They’ve had forever and a day to fix the pitching.
Don’t even mention all the tidying up beforehand. Five sports years is 20 human years. It’s a generation.
Surely, the Jays have reached whatever roster goal it was they set for themselves back when that’s all they ever talked about?
“We’re either there or really close to there,” Shapiro told the Toronto Sun a few days ago.
Apparently, the new motto is a lot like the old motto – everything takes time, even time, because everyone knows that taking time takes time.
The real brilliance of the Shapiro/Atkins era hasn’t been roster construction. It’s the constant delaying of expectations.
That’s not meant ironically. They are brilliant at it. They haven’t managed anything of consequence yet, and everyone at the top has signed or is negotiating contract extensions.
If the audience is gullible enough, this game within the game can be played forever. The Washington Generals have been “really close to there” for 70 years.
You can’t blame Shapiro for playing things this way because it works. It wouldn’t work in New York or Boston, which is why those organizations are world class. But it works here, where people are more easily confused by process arguments (e.g. “we have a plan,” “this is part of the plan,” “we’re so close”).
In Boston, the only process argument you can get away with is declarative – “I promise to be good within X window of time.” The penalty for not reaching your stated goal is getting marched down to the Charles River and set adrift.
Rather than begin another year of discovery, of figuring out how things work, of getting to know each other, it might help to think of this in real-world terms.
When you get a job at a hedge fund, I’m assuming they don’t say, “Suzie, great to have you. The important thing is that you take your time and figure out how everything works. If you lose a million dollars an hour for the first six months, that’s all part of it.”
I assume they expect you to produce now. That’s why they scouted you so hard. That’s why they paid you so much. That’s why kids want your name on their jerseys.
At some point, the conversation around the Jays must shift from “they might be pretty good” to “they better be pretty good.” Why not now? This isn’t a punishment. It’s for their own benefit. No great work gets done without expectations.
“Really close to there” is not an expectation. It’s an excuse delivered six months in advance.
It won’t kill someone to say, “This team is built to win now and that’s what we expect it to do.” If things don’t turn out the way you hoped, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “We’re disappointed. We thought we’d be better, and we fully expect to make up for that mistake next year.”
That used to be the normal way of things. You were paid now, so you were expected to produce now. Any executive can spend years sitting on his hands, accruing picks, spending no money, making promises that are more like wishes and delaying expectations. If you have a passing knowledge of baseball, you could do it, too.
It takes a special one to go all in and risk his employment on one or two rolls. Former Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos did it. He is remembered fondly in Toronto for a bunch of reasons, but none moreso than that. He took a risk that half-paid off and, functionally, got him fired. It’s a rare breed in pro sports that takes that chance any more.
So can the Jays win this year? On paper, yes. With that young murderer’s row they have at the top of the order, they’ll score a ton of runs. And with that casualty list they call a pitching staff, they will allow a ton, as well. The trick will be managing the margin.
The real weakness of this team isn’t positional or tactical. It’s philosophical. It hasn’t one. The team doesn’t worry about what it all means. It’s just drifting along, hoping for everything and expecting nothing.
Talking moonily about the best-case scenario isn’t enough. Everyone wants to do well. We’re talking about genuine fear of failure and the consequences of losing. The Yankees have that baked in, always. The Jays had it in 2015 and then it drifted away.
It’s time for that fear to return.
They may not win. You’re not going to fire everyone if they fail. But until then, the idea of failing should haunt them. They should see winning as a necessary condition of the roster that’s been built. They should feel like they are all at risk if they don’t deliver.
Until that sense of responsibility is established, the Jays aren’t going to get “there,” or anywhere else.