Toronto Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro did two full tear-downs during his tenure in Cleveland. He calls those times the “blank-stare period.”
“You believe in what you’re doing, but everybody around you gives you the blank stare.”
After a year and a fifth of holding the course, Shapiro’s team may not yet be in that new territory, but the Jays wagon train is headed there. Many of the wagons are old and in very poor condition, necessitating the use of many second-rate wagons from the triple-A wagon affiliate. As metaphoric journeys go, this season could be turning into the Donner Party.
Like most sports executives, Shapiro is a student of the ‘specific ideas, very non-specific answers’ school. He’ll tell you a lot about where he wants to be. He won’t tell you anything about how he’s planning to get there.
On Friday, he was discussing the optimal makeup of a major-league team – an equal mix of younger, in-their-prime and veteran players. He works to the theory that the young ones are just happy to be there, the late-twenty-somethings are thinking about money and the older guys just want to win.
“If you’re skewed one way or the other, it’s trouble. At some point, to have a sustainable championship team, you need that balanced roster.”
Is this team balanced?
“I don’t have to answer that,” Shapiro said, momentarily non-plussed. “You can answer that for yourself. For me to come out and say that would be disrespectful and not constructive.”
As well as true. The Jays were the oldest team in the majors on opening day.
In order to reinforce the point, Shapiro called the age of the roster “playing with fire” and said “no one should be shocked” by the number of injuries.
“It’s a similar level of risk that we had last year, but it’s one year further along.”
It does leave one wondering why the Jays chose to address that problem by signing Jose Bautista (36), Kendrys Morales (33) and Steve Pearce (34) in the off-season.
This club does analytics on the quality of its analytics. It is hard to believe the Blue Jays failed to notice that they were constructing a roster designed to dominate baseball’s Senior Tour, if such a thing existed.
The only plausible rationale is that the team was, on some level, designed to fail. Success was always a possibility, but a long way from likely, unless everything broke perfectly. Currently, it’s just breaking, period. The fans wanted more of the same. And you know what they say about getting what you want.
The planned self-destruction template exists locally. The Toronto Maple Leafs used the disastrous first few months of the 2014-15 season to make the case for a total restart. That’s worked out pretty well.
Baseball is not hockey, but the same principles apply. In order to sow the field, you must occasionally burn it. Before you commit arson, it’s probably a good idea to get as many villagers on side as possible.
Shapiro did not say that’s the plan on Friday. Instead, he left it to be read between the lines.
“There are no decisions to make yet. It’s not a time to give up,” he said. “Come talk to me in 20 more games, after we’ve got all [our injured players] back. We’ll either have enough to feel like they can piece it together – though I realize that defies some logic – and if not, as we get into July, [trading away players] will be more of a conversation. Not to say that there aren’t some people here thinking about that and preparing for that possibility.”
When the president is telling you that the idea that his team is a contender “defies logic,” that’s probably a good time to begin considering the end. I also have a hard time believing “some people” at the New York Yankees are preparing for a clear-out at the trade deadline. They’re planning on heading the other way.
Since arriving here, Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins have preached youth and done the opposite thing. They’ve talked about building up depth in the minor-league system, which is still a desert. They’ve made no substantive new roster commitments to a team that’s made the postseason two years running. Quite the opposite. Whenever possible, they’ve let the most expensive high-end talent leave.
This is the rare professional sports outfit in an extended period of complete stasis.
Winning obscured the curious lack of commitment to either the right now or the near future. Losing highlights it. It would be very hard to believe this wasn’t the plan all along – win or bust. Literally.
Speaking in hypothetical terms, Shapiro had some non-hypothetical suggestions for the path forward.
“In our situation here, you need to do [a complete tear-down] – if we ever did it – it would be reluctantly. It’s only been a short period of time that we’ve had this level of success. We don’t have the same level of history as the Leafs.
“We would not enter into it lightly. Only as a last case, if we didn’t see any other potential course back. I’m not thinking that that’s in the offing.”
So this won’t be an ‘Everything Must Go!” job. How about a limited tear-down?
“It’s possible,” Shapiro said brightly and let it go.
Whenever a sports executive answers a question without bracketing it with a couple of dozen caveats, it’s a good bet that’s what he means.
So, barring a comeback for the ages, the real question for the next three months isn’t ‘Should you do it?’ It’s ‘How far do you go?’ That must be up to and including Josh Donaldson.
Trading an MVP-calibre player would be Shapiro’s first blank-stare moment in Toronto. But everything he’s done up to this point – both in Cleveland and here – suggests that’s where he’s headed.
Once it happens, it won’t be management blowing up the team. The team will already have detonated itself, with Shapiro & Co. left to sweep out the creakiest bits of roster rubble.Report Typo/Error
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