The best and brightest Toronto Blue Jays were put through the paces at the team's rookie-development program at Rogers Centre this week. Close to 20 prospects were on hand, led by close-to-prime-time youngsters Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette.
They are the future. The present remains entrusted to a familiar group, led by third baseman Josh Donaldson, pitcher Marcus Stroman, catcher Russell Martin and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Last season, during an injury-plagued campaign, the Blue Jays stumbled and missed the playoffs for the first time in three years.
On Thursday, Blue Jays president and chief executive Mark Shapiro sat down with The Globe and Mail to talk about the 2018 season. Spring training begins on Feb. 14.
You would be hard-pressed to find any baseball executive at this time of year who is not optimistic about his team's chances in the coming season. Why do you think the Blue Jays will bounce back in 2018?
Well, I would tell you that this year's Blue Jays team is not complete. I still feel like we've got resources left to spend and work left to do. It's been a slow off-season and I feel there's meaningful moves left to make.
But, regardless of those moves, I think our success largely hinges on the same thing it's hinged on since 2016, our pitching staff. So if [Aaron] Sanchez is healthy; if Stro [Marcus Stroman] can continue to pitch at the high level he's pitched at; if J.A. Happ can continue to be the rock-solid top half of the rotation he's been; and Marco [Estrada] can continue to compete and give us innings; and somebody else can join that mix, whether it's [Joe] Biagini or someone from the outside; if that happens, I think we're going to be in the mix because our pitching's going to give us a chance every day. And we've got a couple of guys, two or three guys, that have a chance to dominate some lineups.
So, if we are successful, it will largely be driven by our pitching. And again, going back to even 2016, it wasn't our offence that drove us. It was largely our pitching."
The team's top prospects have been working out at Rogers Centre all week, led by the likes of Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The club believes that their arrival is still a year or so away. What impact has this had in determining the direction of the team in the short term?
It hasn't, not at all. They are two different focuses and two different aspects of our job – both vitally important. One highly visible and the other not so visible. One is essential for the sustainable long-term success, and that is the obsessive focus on the infusion of young talent and then the development of that talent and the articulation of what it means to be a Blue Jays player. So that's the piece that's being handled this week, not just with the 19 prospects that are here, but with the entire amateur-scouting staff that is here to meet to ramp up their scouting season over the next six months to another crucial draft in June.
And the other piece would be our major-league team, which is a relentless focus on trying to be as competitive as we can be. The fans in this city and this country are deserving of that based on the incredible passion and level of support that they offer.
So, the sustainable long-term model lies with those young players, but our obligation is to continue to try to play out the good core of major-league players that we've got and extend the competitive window we've got here as long as we can.
The core of the team returns pretty much intact from a year ago, an injury-ravaged season where the Blue Jays mostly underperformed and finished next-to-last in the always-tough American League East. The Blue Jays have been relatively quiet during the off-season, with the free-agent acquisition of Curtis Granderson, a veteran support player at the tail end of his career, the biggest signing. What makes you think this year will be different?
I think we feel like the talent at the minor-league level has a better chance to reinforce us, but not drive our success. But we certainly feel like we've got a stronger cast of reinforcements that are closer to the major-league level. And we feel like if we're healthy, that we have a good enough group of guys to play at a championship level on our major-league team. I don't think Granderson is the only thing we've done. [Yangervis] Solarte was an important move for us. I would say you're right in characterizing that largely what we've done is add complementary players. Solarte, [Aledmys] Diaz, Granderson are all complementary players. But, when healthy, we've got a group of players that we're not going to do much better than in free agency.
Last season, was it just the multitude of injuries that eventually took its toll?
I think if you look at our team and just say, 'Hey, maybe [if] just two of the 10 things don't go wrong, we might have been in the running.' The wild-card team won, what, 87 games? So we weren't far from that. We just had too many things go wrong and there were dips in performance.
No. 1, obviously, was Sanchez. Between Sanchez and [Roberto] Osuna – even if those two guys alone [had healthy seasons], we're in pretty good shape for the wild card.
The elephant in the room – Josh Donaldson, who can become a free agent at year's end. By signing him to a record-setting, one-year, $23-million deal for 2018, which avoided arbitration, does that give you a leg up on negotiating a long-term deal?
I don't know that. The long-term contracts are always about finding that sweet spot, the risk-sharing equation. And how do both sides feel about finding a level where they both compromise some, but both feel good about the length of the contract and the dollar amount on an annual basis?
I think our advantage lies in the fact that he's here, he's playing with this team, likes being here, he's appreciated here by both the organization and the fans.
But the rest of it, our best chance to sign him is to keep it [the negotiation process] as private as we possibly can. So that's how we're going to do it.
Have you entered into conversation yet with Donaldson on a long-term deal?
Any window where you negotiate you usually talk about a range of scenarios.
Is locking up Donaldson long term something that has to happen before the July 31 trade deadline?
I don't think in black-and-white terms. I don't live by deadlines. There's no reason to close doors. That's probably the best way to answer it.
What is your philosophy on long-term deals?
I don't have a black-and-white philosophy on contract parameters for position players, pitchers, ages. I think every situation is unique and the set of variables that need to be examined to come up with the right value are dictated by a comprehensive analysis of that situation. Some of that also doesn't involve the actual player, but the team around that player.
The more information you have, the better chance you have of making good decisions.
How critical is it for Toronto's success that Troy Tulowitzki bounces back from that ugly season-ending ankle injury and returns to the form that made him a perennial All-Star when he was playing in Colorado?
I think we've tried to off-set the risk a little bit by bringing in a couple of infielders – and we still might bring in another one. When Tulo is healthy and when he's performing at his peak level, he's one of the better players at his position in the game. It's hard to measure what that means. But the drop off from him to anyone else is going to be pretty big.
I don't look at any one player being healthy as the key. Maybe Sanchez is the highest leverage, but Troy is certainly a guy who could impact our fortunes if he started playing well.
So you might have to control his playing time a bit more this season in order to ensure he maintains his health?
I think if you're trying to help players perform at optimal levels, you're looking at what the optimal amount of playing time is. It's unique and individual for every guy, based on age, body composition, the position being played, how his body recovers, size – all those things. It's going to be a unique answer for every guy.
But if we're going to be successful, we're going to manage everyone's playing time.
Business is booming at Rogers Centre with more than three million fans streaming through the gates last season. How does that rabid following come into play in trying to determine if a team needs to go through a rebuild?
We've got one of the greatest situations in all of baseball. I don't want to be redundant. I've been pretty consistent, open and honest, saying that if this were an intellectual exercise conducted in a vacuum, and there were no fans, we would have probably started trading players over a year ago.
What we're doing right now, we're doing for our fans.
We're doing it because we care about our fans because we put an enormous amount of weight on the level of passion and support that we enjoy and feel obligated to try and return that.
The rotation would appear to be the team's strength, led by Marcus Stroman, who is coming off two quality seasons. Do you see him moving into more of a leadership role?
I think he's a leader already, but it's hard for a starting pitcher. They can lead the starting-pitcher group, but it's hard for a starting pitcher to be a leader on a team. But he certainly sets a tone. He's got a swagger, he's got an elite work ethic, an elite level of athleticism. His competitiveness is second to none.
So if you look at his competitiveness, his athleticism, his work ethic, his drive – I think that sets a tone. That's a standard that other players feel that they want to rise up to.
What about Rogers Centre itself? What plans are being considered for improvements there to improve the fan experience along with the long-discussed new spring-training facility in Dunedin, Fla.?
The largest change to the organization this year, I feel like we're barrelling down on the final steps on Dunedin and finally hope to have shovels in the ground there this year. I'd be very surprised if we don't begin the construction of that project before the year's end.
As far as Rogers Centre goes, we've done an extensive amount of research, bench-marked it against all the best stadiums, ballparks, arenas in the world, reimagined what it should be and could be to provide us a competitive team in the current entertainment and sports landscape.
We presented all that to our ownership. Now it's in their hands to determine what the balance of capital needs and concerns they have, where this fits in their priorities.
Certainly, what we have received is they understand the need. And when it fits the broader corporate time frame it will be addressed.
Can we put to rest any notion that there will be a natural-grass playing field at Rogers Centre?
Grass is possible at Rogers Centre. The building wasn't designed with an irrigation system in place.
We're not talking about thousands of dollars and we're not even talking about millions of dollars. We're talking about tens of millions of dollars into maybe the hundreds of millions if you were to retrofit the stadium to accommodate grass. It would be an unbelievably huge undertaking that would consume a large portion of our budget.
So the question is not whether we can have grass, the question is are you willing to have grass over and above every other thing that you possibly want to do?
Whenever you're running a business, you're left to make choices as to what's most important. I think when it comes to the grass question, it's, 'Is it grass and nothing else?' Or, do we instead look at providing the best fan experience with a product of AstroTurf now that doesn't garner complaints anywhere expect for historically?
This interview has been edited and condensed.