Shapiro speaks!: The state of the franchise
On a bitter ending, payroll growth, CBA negotiations, Semien, Springer, Dunedin and Buffalo, the bullpen, a new stadium, short term vs. long term, extension talk, minor league pay, and much more!
Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro had his end-of-season sit-down with the media on Monday via Zoom. So let’s talk about it!
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GM Ross Atkins had is annual post-mortem two weeks ago, and on Monday it was Mark Shapiro's turn. He took questions from several reporters on a variety of topics ranging from free agency, to long-term payroll, to the possibility of a new stadium, to roster management, and more. Before he began, however, he made an opening statement that was essentially an address to Blue Jays fans.
Thanks everybody for joining us today. I'm not one for opening statements, as I prefer to make sure to make sure I answer all your questions, which we will certainly take the time to do today. But I do think it's important to maybe preface the questions with a few off-the-top thoughts, because a lot of things have been on my mind since our season's ended. And I would hope that the bulk of the questions, or at least the bulk of my answers, are going to be extremely positive. So I want to make sure to preface the positive statements with this.
As I've reflected on almost every minute, certainly the minutes at the stadium here working since the season's ended, as I've reluctantly watched other teams play in postseason, while I'm incredibly proud of our team on and off the field, and while I do feel confident that we've experienced such tremendous progress and have a lot to build upon from this season, I'm left with one feeling and that's bitterness. I would say this though, to every team that's not the team that wins the last championship season game played it is bitter. And the fact that we're not playing right now leaves me more determined, and all of us here more determined, that we continue to get better.
We went from the last full season played losing 95 to winning 91 games this year. That's a lot of progress. But until we win that last game, until our players pig pile on the mound and champagne is being sprayed in the clubhouse, we're going to continue to remain committed to getting better, committed to improving, and committed to winning. Not just playing in the postseason, but winning. So many good things, so many things I am incredibly proud of that I'd like to talk about over the time that we have together today, but I want to make sure that each and every one of our fans is aware that we are, if anything, more committed, more resolved, and more determined to bring a world championship to Canada. And that's the overwhelming feeling I was left with having to go home on that Sunday instead of continuing to play our season. So, with that we'll turn it to questions and get into the specific questions you might have regarding the season.
Uh, “pig pile” is a new one to me. But otherwise a good note to start on and an entirely reasonably one. I think we're all a little bitter about how the season ended too, Mark.
Normally this is where I’d say that what follows are the highlights of the back-and-forth with reporters, but you’ll find no highlights here. Apart for a couple questions that I’ve removed because the answers were redundant or went nowhere, this is the whole darn thing. A transcript of each answer that Shapiro gave, with my commentary below.
How did the season go with respect to your initial revenue projections and how does that affect payroll?
I think initially the two (scenarios) we were most hopeful of were probably starting the season here or getting back here around the All-Star break. So we got back here a little bit later than that, and we were at reduced capacity when we did get back here. I think the one takeaway that we've learned is there is no predicting exactly what's going to happen, and we needed to be prepared an manage to some level of uncertainty. And I think where that leaves us going forward is incredibly appreciative of the support that we've had from ownership over the last two seasons, as we've endured extremely high losses but stayed on plan, and the continued commitment that we do that despite recognizing that there will probably be some continued impact next year.
I'm hopeful that we'll open, as has been the case over the last couple weeks with sporting events here, to full capacity next year. But who knows what lies ahead and who knows what impact it will still have on fans coming out. I think we've got a compelling product, a compelling team, so the hope is that we'll see Rogers Centre filled with fans all next season.
Well, it took about a decade-and-a-half longer than it should have, but the Blue Jays finally seem to be run by people who know how to actually work with the suits at Rogers. There clearly seems to be a level of trust there that you never got the sense existed back in the more adversarial Beeston days, and while everybody loves a cowboy like Beeston, and there's really no need to run back all that stuff at this point, I must say here that I can't help but be struck by how remarkable it is to hear a Blue Jays president talking about it being essentially business as usual coming off of two full years where the club sold a grand total of 805,901 tickets.
That probably speaks to just how much more valuable the Jays are as a TV property than either the team or Rogers ever lets on, but also to the relationships Shapiro has built with the executives at 1 Mount Pleasant. Now let's hope whatever weird Succession-like boardroom drama is going on between Ted Rogers, his mom, and Joe Natale, which the Globe and Mail reported on late last week, doesn't screw it all up!
Are you expecting a significant bump to your payroll?
Well, "significant" is not a term I'm going to quantify, but I'm definitely expecting — the plan, again, would continue to be as the core continues to grow and as there's clarity for us in where we need to continue to supplement around our core, that the payroll would grow.
What's not happened on plan is that our revenues would grow along with the payroll, as you noted. And it's been what's happened here historically, right? As the team achieves a level of championship expectations the number of fans that have come out have increased correspondingly, and that's supported the payroll. So I think what we've seen is an incredible amount of trust and belief in the plan and support from ownership that's really been unprecedented, despite the fact that we're still suffering from the pandemic and its impact on our revenues.
It always seemed so obvious that if this team was ever actually going to be good, then fans and revenues would follow. For years and years maybe the biggest frustration Jays fans had was watching the club fail over and over to convince Rogers of this very simple fact about the market — and to get them to put payroll ahead of revenue. “If you build it they will come, and you’ll make an ass-load of money.”
That obviously wasn’t the original plan here, and we're certainly not beyond having to worry about Rogers one day tightening the purse strings anymore, but I think we're also a long way from the GM having to go hat in hand to his top players to get them to restructure their contracts so the team can try to sign a quality free agent.
I'm trying my best not to cheerlead here. Rogers being more on board won't necessarily lead to better outcomes on the field, and there's still plenty to criticize the organization about — the rising cost of going to games pricing huge segments of the population out of attending being one thing, for example — but this stuff right here? This is good stuff.
Is the payroll rise going to stay on plan or is it going to be rising at a lesser rate because of the loss of revenue the last two years?
I'd say two things to that. One, the choreography of our off-season leaves our final payroll meeting with ownership still about a month away. So, while I'd like to think that I'm making those decisions unilaterally, I'm certainly not. We've got to make our proposal. But every indication I've received, and I think every indication we've been shown — which is the demonstration of consistent and strong support, along with us fulfilling our end of that bargain, which is demonstrating that the team continues to improve and we continue to perform on the field, as well as a front office and on the business side — leads me to believe that we will stay on plan and the payroll will continue to rise, despite the fact that we're still behind it a little bit in revenues due to uncontrollable circumstances.
It's probably worth talking here about just what these numbers are. According to Cot's, the Jays had an opening day payroll of $135 million in 2021, and a payroll for competitive balance tax purposes of $153 million. To get the CBT number Cot's adds $15 million per club in estimated health and pension benefits for players, plus $2.25 million for salaries of players on the 40-man but not on the active roster. The CBT number also uses the average annual value of a player's contract, rather than his actual salary for that particular year. The highest CBT number the Jays have ever had was $167 million in 2018.
The Jays have Marcus Semien ($18 million), Tanner Roark ($12 million), Robbie Ray ($8 million), Kirby Yates ($5.5 million), Steven Matz ($5.2 million), Shun Yamaguchi ($3.175 million), Tyler Chatwood ($3 million), Joe Panik ($1.85 million), David Phelps ($1.75 million), and Rafael Dolis ($1.5 million) coming off the books. That totals to $60 million, but keep in mind that several players on the roster will be getting raises through the arbitration process this winter, plus there are newly acquired players José Berríos, Adam Cimber, and Trevor Richards to account for as well. Still, they should have a very healthy amount to work with this winter. Which is good, because they’ve got a lot of talent to either retain or replace!
Will it be possible down the line for the team to push payroll toward the CBT threshold?
That's not something I've thought a lot about. I'm not sure, with how we're currently constructed, we've got the revenues to support a team that goes over the CBT. That's not to say that ownership doesn't make the strategic decision at some point to go over. But I feel like we can continue to raise the payroll, as we already have done, to unprecedented levels. And that our team and our fans, and this city and this incredible market, which is a country, can support us continuing to raise it.
But those are things that we'd have to determine whether there are revenue sources outside that we have not currently tapped into or mined, if we're going to get those areas. Or a level of proactively deficit spending that our ownership deemed to be a strategic decision. But it's not something that we're planning for as we sit here and look at the payrolls moving out.
I don't want to get too disappointed with this, because it seemed like Shapiro answered the question as though it was about going over the CBT threshold, which wasn't what was asked. But if he's saying that they aren't even thinking about pushing to just below the limit? That's not good. Maybe mine some more revenue from all the money Rogers is making off of owning your TV rights! We’re starting to see pharmaceutical ads in Canada now — your value just went up!
But I don’t know. Payroll is healthy, the team is good, everything is in good shape for now. I can save my complaints about why they can’t push higher for later in the winter I guess.
What would need to happen to get payroll to approach the CBT and how much of a factor is currency?
It is a definite factor. I'm comfortable with how I answered the (previous questions), and I'm happy to sit down with you one-on-one and talk about that in the future, but now is not the time for me to get into a macroeconomic conversation about the Blue Jays revenues and what that may look like moving forward. I think it's time to reflect upon the season that we just had and reflect upon the off-season coming up. But you and I can certainly sit and talk macroeconomics from a history major's perspective at any point that you want.
No! Let's have the macroeconomic conversation now!!
Was playing in Dunedin and Buffalo the main reason the Jays underperformed their run differential this season?
Yeah, I'm not sure I'd say we underperformed. It's hard to consider 91 wins underperforming. But the number of wins not corresponding to the run differential? There are a multitude of reasons for that. Certainly bullpen was one of those reasons that caused some disconnect from run differential at times. When you miss the playoffs you tend to reflect on a lot of different things that occur. It's hard for me not to think we would have been in the playoffs had we been home all year long, because we got to see the impact of our fans, we got to see the impact of our players being in a place that they feel truly is a home, and operating under those circumstances. And we were able to reflect a little bit on, despite the fact that we endured incredible support from the communities in Dunedin and Buffalo, and the front offices, and the governments — local governments — we really got to see how challenging it was to play in those facilities and to play in those environments rather than being back in Canada, back in Toronto.
So, we endured a lot. If anything our players this year showed just what perseverance, determination, just what ‘no excuses’ actually looks like. I couldn't be more proud and couldn't think of a better representation of the attributes and values and characteristics and traits that we're looking to have our players demonstrate day in and day out. I really think we'll be able to build upon that in seasons to come.
I love the little Freudian slip about how the "endured incredible support from the communities in Dunedin and Buffalo." As for the question itself, when you come so painfully close to making the playoffs there are a ton of things that could have made the difference, many of which probably overlap — the bullpen, the manager, George Springer being hurt, playing in Dunedin and Buffalo, the manager running the bad bullpen in Dunedin and Buffalo while George Springer was out. We'll never get an answer to this question because it isn't just one thing. But playing in Dunedin and Buffalo while every other team had a relatively normal home schedule sure as hell couldn't have helped! And I think Shapiro and the rest of the organization are right to be incredibly impressed by what those players did in those circumstances.
Does the expiration of the effectively CBA put your off-season on hold until the new one is in place?
No. I mean, listen, right now we've so much off-season planning to do, that has not impacted it. Very little impacted by what shape the CBA takes. The things that I think could be impacted by this CBA, and we're obviously aware of what those things could be, are probably less what might happen in free agency and trades, so it's other areas of our operation that may be impacted, and we can certainly maintain agility. Right now I'm feeling pretty good about the commissioner feeling so confident that a deal will get done by December 1st, and more aware that we've got a tremendous amount of work to get done to prepare for a very important offseason. And it's business as usual for us right now.
That's all easy to say right now, and I'm sure no representative of MLB at the ownership level is going to go out of his way to set off any alarms about the CBA negotiations while we're still in the middle of the playoffs, but the negativity about these negotiations and the potential for it to lead to a work stoppage really does seem to have abated over the last year or so. At least publicly. I'd like to think that's a good thing.
I definitely think — though I may be misremembering — that in the lead-up to other sports work stoppages you could really feel it coming for a long time beforehand. There definitely has been a lingering fear of this one for a while, but maybe the league is smarter than I give them credit for and aware of the damage that would be caused by some gigantic contentious public standoff. Of course, I say this selfishly because I don't want to spend the whole winter writing about this stuff, and if the players want to play hardball, I say go for it. But hopefully it doesn't come to that and this would seem to be a very good sign that it might not.
Then again, it might just be setting up the narrative that the league is willing to be reasonable and any hiccups in the process are therefore the players' fault. Ugh. Though, more likely, it probably just means not a whole lot is going to change.
Any lessons to be learned from the failure to upgrade the bullpen sooner?
No, not really. I mean, I'm not sure I've seen a better season of work from a collective baseball operation. From Ross, and Mike (Murov), and Joe (Sheehan), and Andrew (Tinnish), and our entire front office. You think about the free agents that we've signed, the trade for Steven Matz. You think about adjusting the bullpen with Trevor Richards and Cimber. Trying to make trades early in a season? There's just not a precedent for that. You can't give me more than a handful over a decade of those trades that are done.
So those are times when you'd like to have more internal alternatives that are maybe ready to come up and contribute. But it is tough. The bullpen is a tough area. It's mercurial. There are almost no teams that, year in and year out, build dominant bullpens. It is almost certain that you're going to have to adapt and adjust as the season goes along.
I'd like to think that we'll have a better bullpen next year, and that will probably end up showing that we have some other weakness that we're unaware of right now. And what I can tell you and what I can guarantee you is that there will be some area of adjustment that we need to make during the season next year. It will not be a perfect season where the team is kind of pushing play and there's nothing to do. We're going to have to make adjustments, and I think our guys did not only a good job of building a strong team at the outset, but then adjusting as the season went along. Again, 91 wins with playing in three different places? I'd say we would have won a lot more games if we had been here all year long.
I guess I've already said I agree with the notion that the team would have been better had they played in Toronto all season, and I do think Shapiro's right about the mercurial nature of relievers, but the bullpen really was a mess all season long! It's polite of him to kind of just say "oh well, that's relievers for ya," but there were some bad choices that helped create this situation. I'm not talking about David Phelps, who unfortunately got hurt, or Joakim Soria, who was having a decent season but then showed up, immediately got hurt, and then completely fell apart. Even Rafael Dolis, though they stuck with him too long, was a fine enough idea. But Kirby Yates, Tyler Chatwood, and Brad Hand? There were red flags on those guys that the Jays ignored to their detriment.
That happens sometimes, I guess. But what compounded it all is something Shapiro hit on here that doesn't get talked about enough: the total lack of help from the farm.
When Tayler Saucedo is the most reliable reliever your farm system can produce over the course of a year, that's a problem. Sure, Julian Merryweather had his moments early, Nate Pearson had his late, and Anthony Castro — a waiver pick-up — pitched some alright innings. But for a team that spent three or four years in asset-collection mode, got the taxpayers of Florida to pay for to pay for a brand new player development complex with a high tech pitching lab, and that employs a supposed pitching whisperer in Pete Walker, you've got to do better.
It's not just that Borucki, Kay, Thornton, and Hatch were bad, but there wasn't a single good story out of Jacob Barnes, Travis Bergen, Patrick Murphy, Jeremy Beasley, Kirby Snead, Ty Tice, Connor Overton, Bryan Baker, and Nick Allgeyer either. Like, I'm not asking for that entire pile to be made into chicken salad, but seriously... not a-one?
Was it the sticky stuff crackdown maybe? Because coupled with all the failure farther up the roster it was kinda disastrous. Worth looking into at least! (And despite Shapiro's attempt to not be too hard on anyone in public here, I'd have to believe that they will.)
How on earth do you match the incredible acquisitions of Semien, Ray, and Matz that the team made last year?
I guess what I would say is, I'm confident in the body of work and confident in the approach. Obviously we would love to sign all three of those guys back. I can talk about each of them and how strongly we feel about them as teammates, as performers, as players, and as people. They're guys that we're going to go into the market and compete for.
But I'm not a believer that you have to sign anyone back, I'm a believer that you have to get better. And as I sit down with Ross, and sit in on our meetings of preparation, there are multiple ways for that to happen. We'll have the resources to do it, both in young talent that we can trade, and in payroll. So I guess what I would say is I'm confident. It may not be in the exact same shape and form, but we're going to get better, we'll find a way to do it.
I mean, this doesn't exactly make me feel like I was off the mark when I was writing about this kind of stuff in the mail bag that went up on Monday. This is an organization that values agility tremendously. That's going to make it really hard to run it back with the guys who were on the roster in 2021. Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me if part of the reason the Jays are more willing than you might expect to trade from their farm system, which is good but a little thinned out by graduations and the Berríos trade, is precisely because they see two nice compensation picks coming back to them next summer after Ray and Semien sign elsewhere.
What do you see in the teams still playing that you think your team is missing?
Nothing. What I see is what I've always felt: just get in. Just get in, because if you're hot at the right time and you're playing your best baseball at the right time, your record during the season doesn't necessarily matter, you can win a World Series. So, while I did open by saying we'll be bitter until we win the final game played, the continued pursuit is going to be getting into the playoffs. Just get into the playoffs, because anything can happen.
I do feel like, when I watch these teams play, not (Boston and Atlanta) in particular, but all of them, that if we had found a way to get in that we were going to be a team that would have been very tough in the postseason. So we need to find a way to get better next year, build off 91 wins and get 92 or 93 wins at least and get in.
Yeah, getting in would have been a good idea!
Is 92 or 93 wins enough in the AL East?
I hope so. I hope so. You know, people talk to me about winning 91 and not getting in, I, unfortunately, experienced in 2005, winning 92 games and not getting in, and I'd like to say that I was able to turn the page quickly — and listen, I can turn the page quickly and just lose myself work, which is easy to do — but the fact that I can recall that feeling so clearly of winning 92 and not getting in in 2005, that leads me to believe that I'm going to remember this year for a long time as well, just because the team was so good, and believed so strongly in the group of guys that we had.
But I do think, yeah, we need to continue to build. I'm encouraged by that improvement from 95 losses to 91 wins. I feel like we've still got players on the rise and still have players coming that are left to contribute, and the ability to add players from the outside that can complement this team as well. So, what the right number is, I don't know, but building off 91 means you're going to win 92 or 93, and I guess I'm confident that almost every year those are numbers that are going to get you into the playoffs.
The last AL East time to win 92 or more games and miss the playoffs were the 2002 Red Sox, so I guess he's done his research. Or just has an exceptionally good memory.
Is there more of an urgency this off-season than in previous years?
Yeah, man. That word, urgency, for me is a core one. I felt urgency the first day on the job here in late 2015, and I feel it waking up this morning. We've got an incredibly talented young core that now has some experience playing meaningful games late in the season over the last two years, that are hungry to win, that want to win — and probably that means more than anything to them right now — that benefitted by being around some elite veteran players like Marcus Semien and George Springer, that have postseason experience, that have impacted our players. So we're at a really good point, where we're talking about making a one- or two-game, or a three-game improvement, not a 10-game, or a 15- or a 20-game leap. Some of that I think can come organically from the players that are here, and some will continue to come from the work done by Ross and our group to add players that continue to improve the probability of that happening.
I'm not saying this is wrong, and I certainly think that internal improvement can be a big factor here, but... uh... the 91 win team had Marcus Semien and Robbie Ray on it! The Jays don't have to have as great a winter as they did last year to still be a very, very good team, but they've really got to add some big time talent. It's going to test fans’ patience a whole lot, I think.
What did you see out of Springer off the field, and what does a 150 game season of him bring to the team as opposed to an 81 game one?
Maybe those two or three wins. You know, he's clearly one of the best players in the game when he's on the field. We saw that when he was healthy and playing, certainly when he did come back and had time to get in the rhythm and the timing of the game. And he's a player that's performed on the biggest stages, as we talked about last year when we signed him. So, sure like to give him that ability to be on that stage again, on those biggest stages. But I think what he brings is some similar things to Vladdy in that he brings a joy for playing the game. He has fun playing, which is really important for a game when you play 162 times — there are so many ups and downs. That little bit of ability to have fun and joy despite the rollercoaster ride you're going to be on is so important, and can be a differentiator in this game. So the experience, the joy, the fun, and the elite athleticism and talent. Those are the things I saw from him this year and am excited to see over a full season next year.
That certainly would be nice, because it's absolutely true that not having Springer for half the year is one of those things, like playing in Dunedin in Buffalo, that could have made a difference. Thing is, Springer has only played 150 games once in his career! He's played 140 a couple times, the last of which was 2018.
You gotta love Springer. Clearly when he signed it was obvious that he was going to be incredibly fun to follow, but I had no idea the degree to which he’d be a blast to watch. And yet the biggest red flag on him when he signed is still a red flag a year later. Not ideal! I doubt the Jays’ internal projections are actually counting on him for "a full season next year," unfortunately.
What did you learn from the unique challenges of 2021?
I think what I learned is what we'd been hoping to build, which is — you know, the realities of sports in general, really life, and leadership, and high pressure environments are that you are going to be given a hosts of reasons — and they're going to probably be real, they're going to be objective — why you shouldn't perform. Why you shouldn't achieve. This year we were handed layouts. 'Just take a pass on this season.' You can just accept the fact that you were dealt a hand that no one else was dealt. Everybody had challenges, but you had challenges — you played as the visiting team, booed loudly in Dunedin for every game down there, faced a hostile Yankee crowd and Red Sox crowd in Buffalo, living out of hotels and temporary housing, never really knowing where the next 20 games were going to be played. Our players and staff and front office had every reason to say, 'Hey, let's just wait until next year, we still have a young core, a lot of good things are happening, there's no reason to panic.' And I even heard industry experts saying that. 'Don't worry about these Blue Jays, they're so talented, they're going to be fine next year. They had to deal with this.'
Our guys didn't accept that. They didn't take the excuses. They took the attitude of, 'It is what it is, not what it should be, and we just have to find a way to get better.'
So I do think that we will build upon that perseverance, we'll build upon that resilience, that that will be a trademark of this team moving forward. That we endured things that no one else had to endure. That we're not going to make excuses. If someone gets hurt next year, something unexpected will happen — it's inevitable something unexpected is going to happen when you play 162 games — they're ready for whatever could happen. So I think that you're going to see a group of battle-tested players that are prepared for any uncertainty that might come, and maybe tougher than every other team, maybe more determined than any other team. And more thankful for being home for a whole season.
It’s a nice thought, for sure. I guess we’ll see. For me, just normal year would be nice!
Do extension talks with guys like Vlad and Bo have to wait until the CBA talks are done because of potential changes to the service time structure, etc.?
Not necessarily, I think it's more a question of us managing the amount of work we have to do and where the different priorities of the season fit in from a timing perspective. There's only so much bandwidth that a front office has that has to think about preffing out a free agent class, exploring trades, and extending multi-year offers to your own internal players. So there's more urgency to the things that have an expiration date, and a little less urgency — the end end of spring training is kind of the expiration date (because) you'd rather talks not bleed into a season. So, again, I think it's more about balancing workload and looking at timeframes than it is about anything having to do with the CBA.
Yeah, I definitely wouldn't expect any movement on extensions with Vlad and Bo until the spring, if at all. But my ears certainly perked up when Shapiro mentioned "extending multi-year offers to your own internal players" as one of the things there's a little more urgency on, because clearly I think that means José Berríos. And while I don't think it's much of a secret that the Jays will want to re-sign Berríos, uh, the Jays should definitely re-sign Berríos!!
What might that contract look like? That's a pretty interesting question, I think. There have really only been a couple examples over the years of top pitchers who were into or heading into their final arbitration seasons at age-28 that ended up extending instead of going to free agency.
In one, the Phillies waited all the way until August 2012 to extend Cole Hamels, signing him to a six-year, $144 million deal while he was in the midst of a 4.6 fWAR year, which had followed a 5.1 fWAR year in 2011 (Berríos was worth 4.1 fWAR this season; his career high is 4.4 fWAR in 2019).
In another, Homer Bailey was coming of a 4.1 fWAR year in February 2014, and it seemed like he was finally ready to deliver on all his promise after taking a long time to establish himself as a top level big leaguer. The Reds signed him to a six-year, $105 million extension.
The first one was the second highest contract ever given out to a pitcher at the time, and it's probably best not to think about that second one too much. Either way, yikes! But getting Berríos from age 28 to 32? Do it.
Now that it's been reported that MLB teams will finally provide housing for their minor leaguers, what do you expect that to look like?
It's something we talked about at the last owners meeting, And I'm sure you're aware, we've talked about it. That is something that we're happy to hear. It's something that we were proactively already thinking about. Every possible way to support our minor league players, to help them be the best they can be — mentally, physically, and fundamentally. And (we) certainly understand the challenges that the economic system presents for minor league players. We proactively increased minor league salaries ahead of every other team in major league baseball, and we not only welcome but embrace the opportunity to provide them with housing as well.
What that looks like logistically, I'm the wrong person to ask for that. I'm not spending my time thinking about finding apartments for players in Dunedin. But I can tell you that we have Charlie Wilson and Joe Sclafani and the rest of our minor league staff actively working on that. It's something that we're excited about and we feel happy to embrace.
This is an interesting one, because I do get the sense that Shapiro is sincere about this stuff, and not even just because, practically, it is the smart thing to do for developing players — and humans. His dad is an agent who counted Cal Ripken Jr., Jim Palmer, Kirby Puckett, Brooks Robinson, and Eddie Murray as his clients, and was a pioneer as a real advocate for players. Mark is clearly well acquainted with the other side of MLB's labour issues, and you can tell from listening to him over the years that he wants this to be a player-first organization. I wonder sometimes if the Jays would like to do even more for their minor leaguers but can't unilaterally do things because of the precedent it would set for other teams who may be less inclined. And yet the Jays did act unilaterally in increasing minor leaguers' salaries, so maybe I'm being a bit too credulous here.
How do the protests from minor leaguers affect your perspective on this and how should the minors grow from here?
I think it has progressed. When I think back to when I came into the game, how minor league players were supported and treated, it's remarkable that they were able to survive those standards. So it's continued to progress. The understanding of the challenges that exist within the framework of both minor league salaries and resources — those things have dramatically increased, and the changes to the minor league system were largely meant to help us to continue to grow those things. So I think we're on the right trajectory, but we still have a ways to go to ensure that those players the capability and ability to provide for their families in a way that doesn't put a strain outside of the game.
Yeah, I mean, whatever are these billion dollar sports teams with multi-billionaire owners supposed to do here???
Should 2021 be considered the baseline for what this team should be expected to do in the next few years?
I don't tend to think that way. I know when we're sitting down and thinking about projecting the number of wins we've got organically on our roster, the number of wins we've got to add from external and supplementing around our team, the expectation is that we're going to build a championship calibre team. The expectation will be we build a team capable of winning the World Series next year. I think that kind of answers your question, right? We're not looking at zoning in on a certain number, but we're looking at getting better, and getting better means improving on 91 wins. Getting better means having the ability to not just win those games but play deep into postseason or all the way through postseason. So, again, I'm not fixated on a number, I'm fixated on us getting better.
It's almost like Shapiro knows that putting a number on it could very easily become something he never hears the end of as soon as the team hits a rough patch. The money quote here, of course, is "the expectation will be we build a team capable of winning the World Series next year." That's good enough for me!
Marcus Semien was spoken about incredibly positively by his teammates, particularly with respect to the behind the scenes stuff. How much do you factor that into what you might offer him or how hard you push to bring him back?
So, two things. One, I'll just comment on Marcus and just say that, as I've sat and talked with Ross and thought about our collective decades of experience of watching players, that he's one of the more unique guys that we've been able to observe and experience. I've seldom seen a tougher guy that plays every single day, that works harder than him, that's more committed to being a consistent, dependable, reliable player and teammate. He is certainly a role model for all of us in the way we approach our jobs and for our players in the way they approach their jobs as well. It was a pleasure to watch him work, compete, and play this year, and exist in our environment as well. And yes, I think we've always placed a premium — not on character, on the teammate that a player is. We will continue to do that.
Marcus isn't the only player — we've got some great guys in our clubhouse that demonstrate a lot of those qualities and attributes already here. And either through bringing Marcus back or finding other players that will be a part of the equation for us. It will be part of what we factor in.
It's impossible not to love Marcus Semien, and clearly that’s felt up and down the Jays organization. Unfortunately, the stuff that sticks out here is the way Shapiro sort of brushes off the notion that Semien may be such a strong teammate as to have that sway a major financial commitment in a significant way. It’s part what he brings, for sure, but “Marcus isn’t the only player.” Projected production, salary, term, fit — those things are all going to have to be there as well. And don’t forget, they made the fit work by getting Semien to agree to shift positions, but he was the guy the Jays turned to after the Michael Brantley thing fell apart. Their preference was for a lefty hitter, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that’s what they’re thinking again this year, even knowing how great Semien is and how much production he can provide.
Any thoughts on what we're seeing with NHL clubs not selling out games now that fans are allowed back?
There's no question that there is some lag effect on people's comfort in coming out in a sold out stadium environment. There's no question that it's going to take time for the demand to fully recover. I think we'll be able to speed that timeframe up because of how exciting and compelling our team is to watch, and what the expectations are going to be for us next year. What I would caution is looking at anything now and saying that has any relevance in April. What we've learned is we could be a world away from this in April, or something surprising could happen in April that's an unanticipated challenge. I can tell you one thing, I'm not going to forecast what April looks like, I just hope that things continue to improve, and if they do I expect us to — may not be right back to 2016 and '15 levels, but I expect us to be quickly growing towards those levels here.
Seems about right.
How do you balance the now versus the future with respect to payroll?
That's a great question, but that's core part of the job that Ross and his entire group are going to be thinking about on a daily basis. That is the definition of roster management. That's what roster management is. It's thinking about how you maintain a balanced roster, not just from an economic perspective, from a talent perspective, so that we don't age all at once — so that we've got young players continuing to transition in that balance out both the upside in performance, and their volatility is balanced off by the dependability and reliability of players in their prime, or veteran players — as well as economically, so that we can afford the payroll.
We're never thinking about any move we make, other than a one-year deal, in isolation. We're always thinking about, 'OK, what will this mean for our younger players as they progress through the economic system? What will it mean for players coming off the books in the years ahead?' And as we consider additions to the roster, what you describe is exactly what we'll be thinking about. We'll be thinking about managing a roster so that we don't reach any inflection point where things are dictated to us — where we still have the ability to make some decisions and have some flexibility and adjust to the things that we're not certain of yet that will certainly occur in the future.
I'm probably sounding like a broken record on this by now, but it’s not hard to see where this is going. The Jays are going to look quite a bit different next year.
Are there any things specific to the Blue Jays and their unique challenges that you've asked to be addressed in the next CBA?
We were given an opportunity over the last year to make specific asks as they pertain to rules, economic guidelines, and market-specific conditions and circumstances. We've had consistent input and dialogue. Part of my job is to continue to lobby for the Toronto Blue Jays while also being an active member of MLB, so that's always a balance. Not going to get into specifics there, but tell you that we've had every opportunity to provide that feedback and input.
Hopefully one of these was getting the Jays a damn competitive balance pick in the draft. The Cardinals get one, and absolutely should not. Meanwhile the team that takes in Canadian dollars while paying out their players in US dollars gets nothing. Come on!
Are you just looking to compile projected wins, or how do you factor in things like handedness, age, a pitcher's specific arsenal, etc.?
I think there are things that, when you watch us play every day, when you look at the analysis that our research and development group does at the end of the year, there are things that you say right now they would improve us, right? We could have more balance in our lineup, both with handedness and approach. We could have more experience and reliability in our bullpen. We could replace some of the production that's coming off the books in our free agents.
But I would caution that just solving those problems will usually result in another set of problems coming up that we're unaware of right now. When you sit and talk to Ross in six months or eight months, there will be things that come up that we are not considering right now. So some ability to adjust on the fly is really important — through either players in your system, through trades, through some financial flexibility. There will be things that we have to do that we're not expecting right now, but what we will do is continue to take the information that we have, the information that we can project, and continue to look to find ways to get better. Some of that will be through those things I mentioned.
We love flexibility, don’t we?
Are there any infrastructure priorities this winter?
We continue to know that the stadium that I'm sitting in right now is a long-term issue that's been put on hold due to the pandemic. But we continue to invest short-term in the stadium. So we will have a new scoreboard next year — that's news, we have not announced that prior. There will be a brand new scoreboard. Last year we did the sound system and the turf, as well as numerous other smaller things. But the big one next year will be the scoreboard, along with continuing to look at ways to improve the concourse experience and look for any opportunity we can to increase fan experience.
But at some point we've got a bigger issue that we've got to address. At this point we've taken care of Dunedin, we've got a new hitting lab on board in Dunedin that will not have been in place until this season coming up. It's being built right now. That's the final piece of our Dunedin project — until we think about what the next thing we can do down there is, which won't take long. But the biggest capital project that's left for the Blue Jays to consider how do we either address Rogers Centre through a significant renovation or a new stadium at some point. That's not immediate, but it's one when you think about the long-term horizon of the Blue Jays we're going to need to address that at some point.
A new scoreboard! Neato! But, of course, the new stadium thing is the juiciest tidbit here. It’s not new news, of course, but that the Jays are back to thinking about this stuff is good — or at least something of the post-pandemic world that we can actually dream on. The Jays wouldn’t be installing new scoreboards or sound systems if anything was actually imminent on the stadium front, but baby steps, I guess.
Hopefully some of the progress that was made prior to COVID will be relatively easily revived. You may recall, for a long time the stadium issue was on the backburner for Shapiro because the scope of the project had grown beyond being simply a Blue Jays thing. Based on the whispers I’d heard, and educated guesses I’d made, my sense at the time was that Rogers was eyeing Maple Leaf Square down the road and hoping to replicate that, or what the Braves have at done in surrounding Truist Park with office and condo towers, retail and restaurants — then in November 2020, the Globe and Mail reported that the plans were pretty much exactly that.
It would be an enormous cash cow for Rogers, but making it all work on the existing SkyDome site (and whatever adjacent property they can wrangle) would be a logistical nightmare. Maybe even impossible — hence, I assume, the lobbying required and the long delay even before the pandemic, and also the fact that a significant renovation to the current building. But that’s the dream! That is, if you aren’t too attached to the ol’ Dome, don’t mind Rogers making even more obscene amounts of money, and try not to think about the carbon footprint of all the concrete they be turning to rubble when they knock the old building down.
Lastly, what have you learned about how to maximize what you can get out of the new player development complex in Dunedin?
I hope to be able to answer that more a year from now, because in all candor we've been limited in how we've been able to use that building because of health and safety and respecting the conditions of the pandemic and how we had to use it from a spacing perspective. We are running programs right now for our player development system, which I think will allow us over the next three months to use it as we've never used it before. But what I did see when we were in there is that combination of technology, space, resources, coaching, all converging through an environment and design that was constructed for the purpose of best in class development that maximizes our talent.
What I haven't seen is an offseason that's a normal offseason where we'll be able to have our players move there and have 100 guys in January. So, my hope is that what you see in January — that you see 100, 120, 115 players all down in Dunedin training, taking advantage of our coaching, resources, technology, like we've never had before.
Hey, maybe once they get the facility really running at full steam they’ll actually figure out a way turn some guys in to actually useful big league relievers!