TORONTO — There’s no lack of storylines surrounding the Toronto Blue Jays right now.
From signing George Springer to a franchise-record contract and the high expectations surrounding the ball club on the field to the pandemic-related storyline of when they’ll be able to return to Toronto, it’s a fascinating time for a franchise heading into its 45th season.
With less than a week to go until the Jays kick things off in the Bronx against the division-rival New York Yankees, president/CEO Mark Shapiro sat down for a 45-minute interview to tackle each and every subject pertaining to his team.
From what has happened over the past calendar year to what could happen in the coming months, here’s a wide-ranging Q&A with the soon-to-be 54-year-old executive who was recently handed a five-year contract extension that will run through the 2025 season.
What is your expectation on the timeline for vaccinations for your players?
“We don’t have any specific dates. Andrew Pipkin, our medical director, has been touching base with both the local county and the local health care facilities, as well as some other facilities within Florida that could potentially, once we become an approved population, so under 40 will kind of become that final leap when they just kind of release it to everyone, then we could have access. Then it’s a question of how do we best administer, offer to our players, staff, everybody else that’s in tier one and tier two? You can take the threshold that President Biden said, which is by May 1, but it feels like it could be a couple weeks before that maybe. So, I think sometime in the second half of April is probably most realistic. As it pertains to MLB, it’s going to be up to each team to figure out on their own in their own municipality, so it’s going to depend upon what the guidelines are. There are going to be teams that are probably going to get it right away when they get home and there will be teams that are further behind, just depending on where they are. But it sounds like it should be available to everyone by May 1."
How does that change your expectations for when the Jays can return to Toronto?
“I think first we have to see how widely taken it is. I think our hope is we can educate and alleviate fears and concerns and we can help people understand the vaccines and how safe they are, but we don’t want to take for granted that people are just going to jump and take it. There certainly is the incentive for our players that if we cross a certain threshold that has not been laid out yet that there will be significantly loosened protocols internally. Not externally but internally, which, I think, when you talk about getting back to the routines that are such a daily part of a Major League Baseball player’s life, which you know well and have obviously not just been deviated from but been non-existent. I think that is something that they will look forward to and welcome and that will be meaningful. The second part of that is we feel like that’s part of what we’d pitch in a proposal to return to Toronto. It’s kind of a three-pronged approach. The first piece being the evidence that we’ve had no positive cases through an entire season last year, albeit a shortened season, and through an entire spring training. The protocols have worked, and our players have taken them seriously. I think that’s a big of it. The second piece of it would be working with both provincial and city health, which we did a lot last year and had both of their support last year in the end. But we have not re-engaged them yet. And then the final piece would be the vaccines, not just by us but by the other players [league wide]. Once we have that material fact that players are getting shots in arms and staff are getting shots in arms, then we can put those three things together and we can make a formal proposal. I’m giving you kind of the laid-out plan. We haven’t done anything yet, but I am optimistic – more optimistic based upon those three things and I think the plan would be to make an ask once we have those three things lined up. One is already there and in place and that’s the tangible proof and evidence that we’re controlling it. Two would be the vaccines and then the numbers in the U.S., frankly.”
Do you get the sense that there are going to be players that say they don’t want the vaccine?
“I don’t want to forecast that. I think everything is so unknown right now. As Andrew [Pipkin] is talking to players, there are guys that have legitimate concerns that we need to satisfy, but I think we can answer those through both medicine and science, and we can provide the answers they need to feel more comfortable.”
Say all that happens, and you return to Toronto in July or August, is it at all realistic to think fans could return to Rogers Centre in 2021?
“The honest answer to that is I haven’t allowed myself to go there. I kind of feel like this is just a multi-step process and it will involve so much planning and heavy lifting just to develop a proposal, to make the proposal and to get an answer, that to begin to think about fans doesn’t make any sense. We need to get back first without fans and then we can start to attack what it would take for fans. At that point, also, we’re going to have so much to base best practice on from a ton of U.S. facilities that are going to have been operating at. Some at 20 per cent, some at 50 per cent, some at 100 per cent. We’ll be able to get a good idea of what’s going on and what work and what doesn’t work. By the time we admit fans, there’s going to be months of data and months of experiences in U.S. facilities that we can base it off of.”
When’s the last time you’ve had contact with the Canadian federal government on this subject? Is communication ongoing?
“In the formal sense, we sent a letter right before we came down here [in February for spring training], just informing them that we’re going to open here and we’re not going to make an ask right now, but we plan to make one at some point. That’s really it.”
It’s fair to assume you’ll be in Dunedin into the month of June even though you haven’t announced firm plans, but what’s the timeline for moving to Buffalo when the Florida heat becomes an issue?
“That’s a safe assumption. Our goal is to provide the alternative to move to Buffalo the first week in June. We’re doing significant renovations there and the goal is to have that construction work done and have the option of moving to Buffalo the first week in June. The honest answer is we’re going to meet with our players. We’re going to kind of see what they’re thinking, how do they feel? We’re also going to gauge where we are with a potential move to Toronto and factor that in. In other words, if there’s any potential to move to Toronto and have it only be one move, we could probably endure a little longer in Dunedin. If Toronto is not even on the radar at that point and is still just very up in the air, then, again, we’ll engage the players, get a sense what they want, how they’re feeling about the heat, how they’re feeling about the rain interruption. They know that Buffalo is an option they’re familiar with, even though the facility would be more permanently kind of addressed, and we’ll have fans there so we wouldn’t be able to do what we did last year on the concourse. That would probably be the timing. The earliest would probably be early June to whenever we decide.”
I know you’ve talked about this before and ownership has stayed the course and given baseball operations the blessing to continue on with what the original plan was, but how do you expect the pandemic to impact the business side in terms of budgets down the road?
“There’s no surprises. We’ve already budgeted this year for the worse-case scenario and the biggest possible loss. Anything we do better than that, yeah, would be great. We obviously still planned to stay on course with our major-league payroll and our major-league team. None of us have ever looked at it on a one-year basis even though we only plan on a one-year basis financially. We’ve always kind of planned strategically on a multi-year basis. The support that I’ve heard at the ownership level, particularly from Edward Rogers but also from key executives there, has been ‘We want to keep moving it forward.’ I think the results this year are going to be an important part of that. There’s never been anything but strong support and encouragement to keep moving the plan forward.”
When you say results there, just to clarify, you mean on-field results and not business-side results? It’s important to win ball games this year in order to convince ownership to continue on with the plan?
“Yeah, it is.”
Let’s move to a baseball subject for a minute. When you go back to the chase of George Springer, was there a turning point in those negotiations where you really convinced him that Toronto was the place to be?
“We were getting feedback from day one, even before we talked to him, that he legitimately viewed Toronto as a desirable location, and it was a real alternative for him. Every single interaction we had, there was good connection and good feedback. When you’re in those situations where you’re trying to win a player or win a negotiation, the only anxiety we had was just how long it took and what they meant. Was someone else entering into it? Was he looking for an alternative? But all the direct feedback, from the agent, from hearsay, and directly from him was that ‘Hey, if not No. 1, this is among my top choices.’ And that was consistent from day one. How long it took for him to make a decision, and that’s his prerogative, that’s a lot of time to sit and worry and be anxious.”
How close were you to another splashy move this winter?
“We were playing on multiple fronts as was well-chronicled. But George was always No. 1 on our list. I do feel like if George had gone away earlier, we would have done, I don’t know if splashy would be a word I’d use, but another impactful move.”
When you look at the upcoming off-season and the progression of what you guys have done over the last two winters, it looks like it has the chance to be another very active and impactful off-season. Are you in a position to make another Springer-type addition next December or January?
“I hope so. One of the things we’ve been cognizant of, even as we went through the end of this off-season on smaller deals, was not having too many commitments for next year. Some of the length our deals, some of the resistance of staying away from some of the later free-agent pursuits weren’t about this year but maintaining some flexibility for next year. I feel like there are two more big opportunities to continue to supplement and build around this team. I still feel like we need to learn more about our team. There’s still a lot of unknowns about positions and young players that we can depend upon or not. We’re still going to learn some things over the next season. People need to remember where we were two years ago and how many games we lost and the jumps that we’re making. It’s not like an instant powder, just add water and we’re a 95-win team. We’ve got a climb to make and that climb started with adding Hyun-Jin Ryu, it progressed last season, it progressed this off-season with Springer, Marcus Semien, David Phelps, the other bullpen guys, and then the trade deadline will be our next opportunity and then next off-season. I still look at it like we’re preparing our team for a multiple-year run and the additions we make were not going to be done all in one off-season.”
You just recently exercised Charlie Montoyo’s contract option for 2022 and Ross Atkins has a deal that runs through this year. What is the status of your general manager past this season?
“I would just say I could not be happier — and ownership feels the same way — with the work he’s done. He’s built out infrastructure, he’s added a lot of key resources, and most importantly he’s added a ton of talent up and down our entire system and transitioned talent to the major-league team, built out a core of young players and added some impactful free agents. You could not find a better body of work that a general manager’s done, and so Ross is part of the long-term plan here.”
You’ve been at the forefront of pre-arbitration extensions in your career. Do you think it’s a possibility in the next calendar year that one of those comes to fruition for one or more of your young, core players here?
“It’s hard to forecast. I do. I know you and I have had the conversation and I know I’ve been a little redundant, but it is about sharing risk and it is about trying to find that sweet spot where a player feels comfortable giving up some upside, what could happen if he just goes year to year through the process, and then the club feels comfortable guaranteeing salary regardless of injury or dip in performance or anything else unknown that may come up. There’s advantages to both. I think to fans, as well, kind of knowing. The reality is the players are under control for the foreseeable future and you can rest assured we will explore multi-year contracts and extensions for any player we deem to be part of a core, so I think that’s going to happen.”
Going back to what you said before about learning about this team and some of the players this season, how much of that is factoring into those decisions for long-term deals?
“What is universal is you look for dependability and reliability. That’s not just dependable, reliable performance, but that’s a dependable, reliable person. You’re looking for someone that when you go to bed every night you know how much they care, you know how hard they work, you know what kind of teammate they are. And then you look for the most predictable track record you can look for. So you look at their body of work, you look at their minor-league performance, what they’ve done so far at the major-league level. You put all those things together and you do the best you can to kind of say, ‘Okay, this is a good multi-year contract pursuit for us.’ That’s the best answer I can give you. I’ve given you very openly the variables we look at before we make a decision of who to pursue that with.”
When you look at the situation of the CBA expiring at the end of this season, knowing how long you’ve been around this game and your influence in what goes on behind the scenes, what do you think the likelihood is of a work stoppage at this point?
“I draw from the history of having been through this multiple times in a 30-year career. I know how it feels leading up to it and how the language kind of plays out, but I know that, in the end, the game wins and your hope is, as someone who’s involved in it — you, me, our fans — is that everyone realizes that the game is so important, and the pie is plenty big, and we can figure out how to divide it so that everybody wins. So, I guess I would say I’m optimistic that a work stoppage could be averted. I do think that we’ve got ground to make up in building greater trust and alignment with our players. We need to create an environment where the players feel like they’re stakeholders in the game. Not just their careers, not just this year, but they’re stakeholders in the game. I guess my biggest hope of a new CBA would be that we can figure out a way to make them feel that they’re more stakeholders in the game.”
You’ve seen the battles over the years, so how would you describe the current relationship between owners and the players association?
“It’s funny because our relationship with our players, I think, is good. There is definitely a different dynamic with the players association than I’ve seen in the past. Different people creates a different dynamic. Different leadership. We just have to see what that looks like when we get into a negotiating environment and, again, my hope would be that it’ll be constructive and working towards a solution rather than combative. There’s a certain amount of lead up that always feels combative, but I hope that transitions to more constructive.”
All CBAs are obviously important but when you look at where the game is and where this world is in terms of uncertainty and priorities, do you feel like this one is particularly important?
“I think each time you go through it you feel like it’s the most important thing. But I think coming off of the adversity that we’re coming off of, which is historic and unprecedented, the challenges each organization and franchise has felt, regardless of level of impact because everyone’s felt it to some extent, and the stress and strain that’s created on sports and entertainment, media, all those things, it’s hard to say that people are engaged that they were pre-pandemic. There’s reason to believe it could easily build back when the world moves towards more normalcy, but I guess I would answer that at the moment it feels like it’s incredibly important that we create that continuity and stability.”
You’ve torn down the roster, you’ve built up the player development system, you’ve rebuilt the player development complex and redone the spring training stadium. What’s the next big priority on your list in terms of the future health of this franchise?
“I guess I’d say the biggest opportunity is pretty obvious. The biggest opportunity for us, the largest-scale opportunity is with Rogers Centre at some point. But as I’ve been pretty clear about, I’m not driving that alone. That’s a project that we certainly need to get back to a more normal business world and greater continuity before we can even begin to address that. There’s nothing going on on that matter right now. As far as non-Rogers Centre stadium focus, it is more incremental and less large scale. It’s continuing to think about how do we more effectively coach and maximize the potential of our players. It’s learning and understanding how we can best utilize and maximize the impact of this building and this facility [in Dunedin]. We built it with one vision and the thought was that we would take the first year and kind of understand and learn how to program it. What programs do we want to run and how do we use the technology that exists? I still think there’s a lot of opportunity there that we’re not going to realize. And then continuing to supplement around the core of young talent and ensure that we still transition young players to the big leagues regardless of the mode that we’re in so that we can balance the roster. Those will be the things that we’ll focus on. The only other thing I’ll say is: There will need to be a relentless focus on continuing to acquire talent. We still need to make sure we have good drafts. Andrew Tinnish and our international department have done so incredibly well. We need to keep executing on the international level and we still need to be strategic on trades. There is no little trade. David Phelps for Thomas Hatch looks little the moment you do it, and I know he’s hurt right now, but Thomas Hatch has a chance to be a heck of a starting pitcher for us, or a pitcher for us moving forward. We need to think about every one of those opportunities to bring in talent and we need to keep bringing in talent.”