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Steve Phillips

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The relationship between a team’s fan base and front office is a complicated one. Outsiders need to earn respect and first impressions matter.

Winning creates a level of trust and acceptance that can endure during challenging times. Fans aren’t very patient to begin with, and they have even less patience for those they don’t trust. How executives treat the most beloved players matters to the fans. Like I said, it’s complicated.

It has become very clear to me is that the perception of the Blue Jays’ front office is starkly different in Toronto than it is around baseball. It seems Jays’ fans are dubious when it comes to general manager Ross Atkins and team president Mark Shapiro. It is not a surprise as they came in as outsiders and their predecessors, Alex Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston, were very well-liked. 

Plus, when Shapiro took over as president of the Jays, the club had just come off of a dramatic playoff run, losing in the ALCS to the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals in six games.

Anthopoulos, the very popular general manager, decided to leave the organization rather than work under Shapiro in a different structure than he had operated under Beeston. Reports surfaced that Anthopoulos had been scolded by Shapiro for trading away prospects to acquire starting pitcher David Price and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki at the trade deadline in 2015.  These were very popular trades in the eyes of Jays’ fans as they helped the club return to the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

To be fair, Shapiro denied that he “scolded” Anthopoulos, but the fans believed that the new guys had somehow mistreated Anthopoulos, which caused him to leave. 

Perception becomes reality.

The Jays returned to the playoffs in 2016 but came up short again, losing to the Cleveland Indians in five games in the ALCS. After the 2016 season, Atkins and Shapiro started the methodical transition to the rebuilding process by dismantling the veteran roster.

First, Edwin Encarnacion left for Cleveland. Then Jose Bautista wasn’t signed back after the 2017 season. Josh Donaldson was injured most of 2018 and was finally traded to Cleveland last August. The three key cogs of the Blue Jays’ playoff runs were gone and Atkins and Shapiro were the guys in charge when it happened. So, fans blame them. It’s what happens to club executives.

The majority of fans don’t like rebuilding because it is synonymous with losing. Trades get made where household names leave and a bunch of no-name kids are brought back. The fans lose that emotional connection they formed when the team was winning and there is no one to blame but the front office. The teams that trade away major-league players for minor-league players always seem like they lose the deals, but it takes time to grade out trades when prospects are the return. 

Fans don’t always understand what a fair expectation is in a trade. If a club trades a star, it’s fair to expect a blue-chip prospect in return, along with a couple of mid-level prospects. The Jays haven’t traded any healthy, productive stars under the Atkins-Shapiro leadership. One can argue that they should have traded Donaldson after the 2017 season to maximize his value, but then one can’t argue against rebuilding.

The vast majority of the deals made by Atkins and Shapiro have been for role players, so it’s only fair to expect fringy role-player-type of prospects in return. It would help their image with fans if one or two of those prospects blossom into stars, but it probably won’t happen. Every deal they make is looked at through the lens of mistrust. They never get enough in a deal.

The fans’ perceptions have been reinforced by the media’s view that the Jays aren’t honest about players’ health issues. There have been a number of times this season when the Jays’ words didn’t match their actions when dealing with injuries. Most recently, the Ken Giles elbow issues have led to mixed messages. Manager Charlie Montoyo said Giles was working through his elbow inflammation while at the same time there was an MRI scheduled, which seemed to indicate there was something more significant going on.

There is clearly a hole in the communication chain between the front office, medical staff and manager. I don’t believe Atkins or Shapiro ever think to lie about players’ health issues. They would have no reason to. There are times when it is appropriate to delay the release of information for negotiating purposes, but never lie.

Among the fans and media, the perception of the Jays front office isn’t very good. It is an amazing situation when you consider that Shapiro is one of the most respected baseball executives in the game, held in the highest regard by his peers for his integrity, intelligence and honesty.

One executive said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Mark was the commissioner of baseball someday.”  Another said, “If I could pick one person to run my team, it would be Mark Shapiro.”

Atkins is perceived as a protégé of Shapiro; a Mini-Me. He isn’t quite as polished or socially adept as his boss, but he is considered prepared, hardworking, intelligent and honest.

The key for Atkins and Shapiro to change the view of fans is the minor-league system. They need to draft well and develop players to play the ‘Blue Jays way.’ They need to be prudent and targeted in the international market to sign impactful prospects. Winning, their way, will elevate their reputation and credibility. They need to turn the doubters into believers.

The Blue Jays rebuilding process is well on its way. Just about any executive in baseball would love to be the president or general manager of this club with its exciting core of young players. They are highly coveted positions because the franchise is headed in the right direction. The Jays will be a playoff team in 2022.

The fans don’t know it yet, but they will be grateful for the leadership of Shapiro and Atkins at some point. As hard as that may be to believe, there will be a time when Jays fans admit that these guys do actually know what they’re doing.

 

Thoughts on the Stroman trade

The Blue Jays traded Marcus Stroman to the New York Mets on Sunday in a bit of a surprise move. The Mets came out of nowhere, deciding to be a buyer despite being out of contention. The response in Toronto to the return the Jays got from the Mets has been lukewarm to say the least.

Toronto did get what they set out to accomplish, receiving the two top pitching prospects in the Mets organization. Anthony Kay is a 24-year-old lefty who dominated at Double-A before his promotion mid-season to Triple-A. Kay has struggled a bit at Triple-A but he is thought to be a near major-league-ready starter who projects as a potential No. 3 starter.

They also got 18-year-old Simeon Woods Richardson, a long lanky right-hander with a power arm who is still a more of a thrower than a pitcher. He has tremendous upside but is still a bit green. He projects as a possible No. 2 starter, but is further away in low Class-A.

Unnamed executives have criticized what the Jays received in the deal. Understand that those unnamed execs are very likely from the teams that lost out on getting the former Jays starter and believe that their offer was better. Usually that is sour grapes. It isn’t fair to evaluate until the prospects get a chance to develop.

Let me explain likely how the deal ended up with the Mets and not with other teams. It’s not a defence of the trade, but rather an effort to show how deals get done.

Blue Jays’ goals in a Stroman deal:

The Jays were looking to return the best package of pitching prospects in the deal to match the timing of their position player prospect core. Atkins and Shapiro made calls to gauge the level of interest that teams had in Stroman and to confirm what they would consider giving back in return. It’s during those conversations a general manager gains an understanding of how well he matches up with the other clubs.

Teams that were looking for starting pitching at the deadline:

New York Yankees: GM Brian Cashman liked Stroman, but didn’t see him more than a middle-of-the-rotation starter. He made it clear he wouldn’t trade his best pitching prospect, Deivi Garcia.  The Yankees have position player depth but not a pitching prospect like Kay at Double-A.

Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays could use a starter, but they didn’t want to trade their better pitching prospects because they’re needed at the major-league level now or they are at the lower levels of the minors. They ended up making a deal with the Marlins to add a starter and reliever and the lead prospect in the deal was an outfielder. 

Minnesota Twins: The Twins definitely have a need for a guy like Stroman but their best prospects are position players. Their best pitching prospect, Brusdar Graterol, was off limits to the Jays in a Stroman conversation. They ended up not getting a starting pitcher at the deadline.

Houston Astros: Stroman would have been a good fit in the Houston rotation with Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and Wade Miley. But the Astros went big, landing veteran ace Zack Greinke from the Arizona Diamondbacks. They included two minor-league pitchers in the deal, along with a first baseman and an infielder. This group included their third, fourth, fifth and 22nd-ranked prospects.

Atlanta Braves: General manager Alex Anthopoulos likes Stroman as he drafted him when he was in Toronto. But he didn’t like him enough to make him a priority over his needs in the outfield and bullpen. The Braves focused on adding bullpen help, trading for three relievers.

Philadelphia Phillies: They traded for lefty Jason Vargas from the Mets after having acquired left-handed pitcher Drew Smyly earlier in the season. Their best pitching prospects aren’t as good as the Mets.

Milwaukee Brewers: They could definitely have used Stroman but the upper-level pitchers who might have been a fit for the Jays are all needed in Milwaukee because of the number of injuries they’ve had. Milwaukee used first baseman Jesus Aguilar to get a pitcher from Tampa Bay and shortstop prospect Mauricio Dubon to get two relievers from the San Francisco Giants. The Brewers just weren’t a match for the Blue Jays.

Atkins made the deal with the Mets after realizing it was his only real fit to accomplish his goals. Stroman was at peak value, so waiting until November made no sense. People can say they should have gotten this or that, but the market tells you what a player is worth. The seller doesn’t determine that – it’s the demand in the market and the fit that determines the value of the return. Saying that a team should have gotten more value doesn’t make sense as long as the club utilizes an exhaustive process.

We will know in three or four years whether the deal was a good one or not. 

 

Sanchez, Biagini shipped to the Astros

Pitchers Aaron Sanchez and Joe Biagini were traded to the Houston Astros for outfielder Derek Fisher just ahead of the deadline on Wednesday. This was another trade that seemed to generate a ton of negative emotions among Blue Jays fans.

Fisher is 25 and has had less than a year of major-league service time. He just hasn’t gotten his opportunity in the deep Astros organization. He has shown the ability to hit for average and power, plus he has functional speed. He can play all three outfield positions. Toronto believes he is a starting outfielder if he gets regular playing time. He will now get a chance to show what he can do.

The negativity stems from the perception of what Sanchez and Biagini are as pitchers. Fans remember that Sanchez once won an ERA title, but he hasn’t pitched like that guy in years. He has had a horrible 2019 season, despite pitching better over the past couple of games. It was likely he would move on in the off-season and look for a new home. Biagini has three years of control remaining. He is a solid middle reliever but not really more than that.

So, effectively, the Jays believe they are potentially getting a starting outfielder for a setup man and a pitcher they were likely to move on from this off-season.