By: Dan Grant
With the news that the Blue Jays have made some relatively major front office changes this past week, firing amateur scouting director Brian Parker, national crosschecker Blake Davis and minor league field co-ordinator Doug Davis, the Mark Shapiro/Ross Atkins imprint on the Toronto organization is becoming more and more visible.
Not that it wasn’t already, despite what many fans seem to believe.
It strikes me as really weird that you have to defend the front office decisions made by a team in first place on August 19th, but here we are. To far too many, Shapiro and Atkins are nothing but ill-suited shepherds, cast-offs from Cleveland steering a team that was handed to them, with anyone/everyone waiting for them to make an ill-advised move that will disrupt the winning course Alex Anthopoulos charted for a success-starved Blue Jays franchise. This narrative has cooled from its idiotic zenith this past off-season, but is still lurking, and spills out into the public eye from time to time.
This is patently unfair, but such things can and should be expected when a popular figure such as AA leaves town. However, in the nine and a half months since it was announced that Anthopoulos wouldn’t return, Shapiro and Atkins have not only acted as stewards for his creation, but have actively made it better at every turn. Dismissing those contributions isn’t just unfair, it’s ignorant of the facts.
Take a look.
Marco & the Happster
Even the most jaded Blue Jays fan has to chalk the signings of J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada up in the win column. For all the uproar about Shapiro not extending a contract offer to 217 million dollar man David Price, he inked two free agent starting pitchers that are likely going to receive as many or more Cy Young votes than Price, and he did it for a combined salary of only 25 million dollars per season (versus the 31 million Price is getting on his own). The term of the deals is even better — Happ has two more left after this season, while Estrada and his wonky back have just one.
When you look at the money and term given to Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Leake and Jeff Samardzija, you realize that these were not just the best free agent pitcher signings of the off-season, they may have been the best signings period. Many still view Estrada as an Anthopoulos acquisition, and while that was how he initially came to Toronto, he was completely unrestricted last off-season and could have gone anywhere. Shapiro’s retention of him and his targeted acquisition of Happ have both served as masterstrokes that have helped shape the identity of the 2016 Blue Jays.
Grilli Me Up Some Cheese
The Jason Grilli trade is proof that Shapiro/Atkins strategy of targeting devalued assets is a sound one. It’s not like they invented it, but it’s something we’ve seen them deploy with aplomb. They’re playing a numbers game. All throughout camp, the Jays signed any and all available veteran arms that might have just a little something left in the tank. Remember Rafael Soriano, Brad Penny and Roberto Hernandez? Two retired, one released! But the 39 year old Grilli fits the same profile, an aging veteran who had success far more recently than that crop of duds, and who has a no-brainer 3 million dollar team option for 2017. After struggling with his control in Atlanta, Grilli has pitched to a 1.69 ERA with a 2.70 FIP so far in Toronto, whiffing 39 batters in 26 innings pitched, with only 8 free passes issued. This has generated a minuscule 0.79 WHIP, and has given the Jays a reliable bridge to Roberto Osuna, something they desperately needed.
Keeping Donnie In His Element
The Josh Donaldson contract extension gets overlooked because even though it was an incredibly reasonable 2 year/28.65 million dollar deal for the reigning AL MVP, the Jays have team control over him for another season following the contracts expiration. Still, it was a savvy move. Donaldson was projected to receive a massive raise via arbitration, with MLB Trade Rumors projecting a 12 million dollar salary for 2016, versus the 3.158 million he made in 2015.
If we take that as close to gospel, and then look at how Donaldson has performed again this season, how much of a raise would he have received in arbitration for 2017? Would he have made 18 million? 20 million? We don’t know — it’s actually uncharted water, because of Donaldson’s relatively late ascension to the Majors and his MVP status. Regardless, Donaldson’s continued elite production looks like the contract probably saved them some money in 2017, while still rewarding a player who vastly outperformed his compensation the year prior. Beyond that, it also gives them some cost certainty in a year when names like Bautista and Encarnacion are free agents, and is quite simply, one less thing to worry about.
Here’s a Different Kind of Darwin Award
Beyond those major moves, Shapiro and Atkins have simply done a good job of being active — they’re continually adding depth to the organization, particularly at the Triple A level. For a team that’s suffered through a litany of injuries this year, having a guy like Darwin Barney to
fill in for replace Ryan Goins and spell Troy Tulowitzki and Donaldson has been invaluable. Again, people think of Barney as an Anthopoulos acquisition, but he was another free agent retained by the new regime. Rule 5 pick Joe Biagini has worked out better than anyone could have hoped, and appears destined to stick around. Other minor moves like claiming Junior Lake off waivers from Baltimore, trading for Darrell Ceciliani or signing Gavin Floyd to a relatively inexpensive contract, have all worked out in a relative sense. It’s a volume game; you hope to get a few of these sprinkled in among the Pat Venditte’s and Franklin Morales’ of the world.
None of these players has been a star, but none was expected to be — they’ve served their purpose, spelling the core contributors and helping the team through the 162 game grind.
The New Pollution
Say hello to Mel and Frank
It’s too early on in their Blue Jays tenures to go deep on Melvin Upton Jr. and Francisco Liriano, but once again, they follow the same formula. The Jays gave up relatively little (Drew Hutchison, plus single A pitcher Hansel Rodriguez) and receive back distressed assets on short term contracts at a very reasonable term.
The Jay are only paying Upton five million dollars through the end of 2017, an incredible deal, even if he winds up as their fourth outfielder. Liriano is getting five million from Toronto this year and 13 million next year, which isn’t nothing, but is reasonable for a starter who’s been as effective as he has in the recent past. Couple that with the fact that Toronto was able to add two bona fide prospects in outfielder Harold Ramirez and defensive catcher Reese McGuire from Pittsburgh in the same deal, and the moves are already completely solid, even before any results are achieved on the field. Need further assurances? Pirates fans hated the trade. Even if Liriano never returns to form, the Jays can try him in the bullpen and/or attempt to deal his expiring contract next season. Low risk, high reward. See a pattern yet?
The Jesse Chavez & Drew Storen story
The final thing I’ve been impressed by is that the Shapiro/Atkins front seems to lack any ego when it comes to cutting bait on a bad decision. Jesse Chavez had a couple effective stretches for the team, but was struggling mightily though late June and July. Chavez was a semi-controversial acquisition in the first place, as the Jays gave up the seemingly blossoming Liam Hendriks (with four years of team control left) for Chavez, a pending free agent. While the move did make some sense at the time, as Chavez was versatile and could potentially fill a spot in the starting rotation (Toronto hadn’t re-signed Estrada at the time of the move, and didn’t know that Aaron Sanchez would be in the rotation), it still rankled onlookers, myself included.
The fact that Shapiro/Atkins were then able to flip Chavez, with only two months of team control left, for Mike Bolsinger, a Dodgers swingman who is under team control until 2022, was a real boon. The 28 year old Bolsinger has struggled in the big leagues this season, but was decent in relief at Triple A (10.55 K/9) and made 21 big league starts in 2015 with a 3.62 ERA and 3.91 FIP — the Jays essentially turned nothing into something.
Ditto goes for the Drew Storen trade. I wrote about it when it happened, but even though Storen was a disaster, the Jays won that trade. They freed up a spot in the line-up for Michael Saunders, and avoided paying a guy in Ben Revere that didn’t add a whole lot of value to the lineup. They also somehow turned Storen into Joaquin Benoit, who has been reasonably effective (his 0.00 ERA looks a lot better than his 3.78 FIP), again turning nothing into something.
Beyond just the logistics of the moves, look at the performance of both Hendriks and Revere this season — Hendriks has reverted back towards being the pitcher he was before his breakout with Toronto last season, and Revere has been one of the worst hitters in baseball. There’s no way to predict these things perfectly, but consider those developments the cherries on a good-decision making flavoured sundae.
All in all, the Shapiro/Atkins regime could hardly have started off on a better foot, at least on the field. Off it is a different story. Many fans are still waiting to use the Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion (not to mention Michael Saunders) free agencies as a referendum on whether or not to put their trust in these guys. I get that. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it.
If those free agencies don’t turn out the way you’d hoped, just take a look at all these moves. Remember how you felt when they didn’t go after David Price. Remember how you felt from 1998-2012, when this team was mediocre-to-bad for so long, and the playoffs were never anything more than a daydream.
Remember to settle the hell down, and just enjoy yourselves. The core of this team is intact. There’s nary an albatross contract to be seen. There are young stars on the roster and in the (distant) wings. The front office is doing not just a good job, but a hell of a job.
The Jays are in first place on August 19th and you should be happy.