Columnist image
Steve Phillips

TSN Baseball Insider


For the Toronto Blue Jays, the disappointments of the 2018 baseball season have been overshadowed by the positive transition numerous young players made at the major league level, general manager Ross Atkins said at his end-of-season media conference on Tuesday.

Atkins, whose excitement was overflowing in his address to reporters, specifically identified the young pitchers who made a stronger first impression than the Blue Jays’ front office expected. 

Every end-of-season press conference sets the tone for the off-season and the direction the organization will take. The click word in Atkins’ media session was “transition.”

Jays executives don’t look at themselves as being in a rebuilding situation. Per Atkins, a rebuild means an organization has a depleted farm system and has to start building it from the ground up.

The Jays prefer the word “transition.” 

The GM noted the organization has plenty of exciting young talent that should transition to the major leagues in multiple waves. Transition means growing and developing talent through the minor leagues and feeding the major league roster. 

In their current state, the Jays will not be big players in free agency. They will limit their pursuits to short-term plugs for any needs. Atkins said they will primarily focus on trades.

When an organization moves from a rebuilding phase to the transition phase the timing doesn’t always work out. Sometimes the pitchers are ahead of the hitters and sometimes the hitters are ahead of the pitchers. In the Jays case, they have more major league-ready or soon-to-be-ready position players than pitchers and therefore will have to reconfigure the talent in the organization. They will look for trades to acquire young controllable pitching for either major league or minor league talent.

It was clear from his answers that Atkins and his staff have spent a lot of time talking about Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki. The aging veterans have significant contracts ($20 million for Martin in 2019; also $20 million for Tulowitzki next season) that the team would prefer not to have on the books. But they are unmovable contracts because of health and diminishing performance. 

Interestingly, the organization is going to ask Martin what his goals are to determine how much he wants to catch or play in the infield. Atkins said that Martin has earned the right to dictate his own playing time and in effect the playing time for Danny Jansen, Luke Maile and Reese McGuire as well.

Personally, I would tell Martin that we are going to start to transition the kids into starting roles; his playing time will be diminished and he will be used as a utility man.

At the end of the season, Tulowitzki said he was a starting shortstop and if he wasn’t going to be used that way, he might walk away completely.

Atkins acknowledged the veteran shortstop’s desires and said the organization honours and values them. But he didn’t say that Tulowitzki would be the starting shortstop. I think they will call his bluff next spring. 

Atkins praised Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ for what they have given the Jays. He cited Estrada as an innings-eater. He also raved about the impact that J.A. Happ had on many in the organization and the closeness of the lefty’s relationship with pitching coach Pete Walker. He certainly sounded interested in bring Happ back in free agency. He even went as far to talk about what Happ loved about his time in Toronto and why coming back made sense for the current New York Yankee. Atkins seemed so overeager that the Yankees might consider it tampering. 

Sense of urgency in hunt for new manager

The Jays’ managerial search is a top priority of the off-season. 

There are several other managing jobs available in the majors, so there is a sense of urgency for the organization. The Texas Rangers, Cincinnati Reds, Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels are in the market for a new skipper as well.

When asked about what he was looking for in a manager, Atkins didn’t hesitate, “Someone tough, smart and passionate.” 

He added that humility was a likely trait as well because that’s what made it so easy to get along with John Gibbons. He elaborated that he’s looking for someone who understands the rigours of the job and has the perseverance to handle it. He said the new manager will need to be open to new information and have a collaborative approach. This means a willingness to implement the new analytics into the game after working with the number-crunchers in the organization.

Atkins wants Gibbons’ successor to be consumed by the process; someone who is constantly thinking about the team and the environment of the clubhouse. 

When asked about the necessity of the manager being bilingual, Atkins said the new manager didn’t have to be bilingual, but added that he wanted a staff that reflected the diversity of the game and specifically this team. That was an excellent answer to an important question, but he then continued. He added how great it would be to have a Canadian manager.

I understood that to mean that the front office has already discussed Canadian candidates. I fully expect that the Jays will interview Stubby Clapp, the Triple-A manager of the St Louis Cardinals and a native of Windsor, Ont. He is a two-time Pacific Coast League champion and Manager of the Year (2017-18). Clapp is now managing in the Arizona Fall League. He has to be on the Jays’ list as he’s the top Triple-A managerial candidate in the game.

Prepare to hear the word “transition” over and over this winter: the roster will be referred to this way; managerial candidates will be considered by their ability to lead a club in this phase; trades will be explained by using the term. And, finally, the club’s limitations in free agency will be excused by using this as a disclaimer: ‘A team in transition does this, but not that.’

There will likely be plenty of rumours about trades this winter involving the Blue Jays. Some will come out of nowhere and be under-the-radar deals because they will be minor leaguer for minor leaguer deals. The Jays won’t become active in free agency until January and February when the leftovers are motivated to take a one-year deal. 

It will feel like a dull off-season other than the excitement of the team hiring a new manager. It is hard to get too excited about prospects not named Vladimir Guerrero Jr. that haven’t played the major leagues.

Just know that these prospects are coming and most experts agree they are going to be quite good.