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Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins: examining their other Blue Jays moves

The new front office headed by Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins has now been in charge for three offseasons, and while that’s far too early for definitive judgments, it is enough to start making some reasonable evaluations. Thus over a series of posts, I want to comprehensively examine what they’ve done over the first three years of their tenure. Part 1 looked at free agent signings, part 2 their trades.

This third post will round up a bunch of areas that are either less significant than those covered in the first two areas, or where there’s less in the way of conclusions to draw. Again, the dominant perspective is value achieved with moves, not where they fit in a strategic framework.

Waivers

Over their first three years, the Jays made a dozen waiver claims, of whom three were still in the organization at the start of the offseason. Of those, there are really only two notables:

  1. 11/20/2016: Dominic Leone claimed from Arizona
    This went well under the radar coming on the date when Rule 5 additions are made, but proved to be quite the coup. Not only did Leone find the form of his 2014 rookie year and then some as a dominant force in the 2017 bullpen, but the Jays were then able to turn around and flip him as a principal part of the return to acquire the three arbitration years of Randal Grichuk. Not bad at all.
  2. 4/6/2017: Luke Maile claimed from Tampa Bay
    As the Jays desperately cast about for a competent back-up heading into and then during the 2017 season (entertaining options such as A.J. Jimenez, Juan Graterol, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and then Miguel Montero and Raffy Lopez), they grabbed Maile after Tampa DFA’d him to open needed roster spots leading into Opening Day. He had a most auspicious debut, having literally the worst 110 PA season in baseball history by July. He was much better coming back, and then went the other way with a crazy hot start to 2018. Overall, it’s a mediocre bat but he’s an absolute rock behind the plate, with an estimated +14 runs in 114 games with the Jays. That makes for a nice find.

I will drill into this at some point, but one can make the argument that in three years with a dozen claims, the current office has achieved more value on the waiver wire than their predecessors did in 6+ years with 68 claims.

Contract Extensions

Also something I want to examine further later this winter, but this is another area that has been far less active. In fact, an argument can be made that they haven’t really done any true contract extensions with players.

There are nominally three extensions to consider. The first is with Josh Donaldson in February 2016, buying out his second and third arbitration years and locking in the salaries. There was some displeasure about about guaranteeing the extra money without getting much in return, but given that he wasn’t going to be non-tendered in any circumstance, this just wasn’t a big deal. At most, it was going to save or cost no more than $5-million at the extreme,

The second is the July 2016 extension with Justin Smoak, a two year deal with the recently-exercised 2019 option that prevented a trip to the free agent market. This seemed very questionable at the time, but Smoak’s subsequent breakout has more than vindicated it. Finally, there’s the September 2017 one-year deal with Marco Estrada that preempted a trip to free agency for him. Given the circumstances, I considered it among the free agent deals since what he got would have based on what he could have expected on the market. A similar argument could be made to classify Smoak’s deal there too on the same basis.

In any event, there’s not much that really moves the dial in evaluating the Shapiro/Atkins regime. They saved perhaps a couple million on Donaldson. Smoak’s extension is a modest positive. If Estrada’s deal is counted here, it’s a small negative that would offset some of that.

Rule 4 Amateur Draft

There’s only so much that can be said about drafts so recently conducted. Five years is essentially the bare minimum to make a reasonable assessment, and upwards or 10 to make a really comprehensive assessment. But we can make some preliminary assessments.

2016 was a transition year, with a holdover scouting director before Shapiro/Atkins installed their own people. At this point, it looks pretty good. Nabbing Bo Bichette in the second round is a coup, more than offsetting the big whiff on J.B. Woodman. First rounder T.J. Zeuch is on track as a backend starter, and Cavan Biggio was been a pleasant surprise. Chavez Young is a potential late round gem with impact potential, and some other interesting high school picks.

The 2017 draft likewise looks pretty good. Nate Pearson’s pro debut and upside made him look like a steal, tempered by essentially missing 2018. I’ve never been the biggest Logan Warmoth fan, but the Jays managed to nab four or five consensus top 100 draftees, and Kevin Smith gives them a second bite at getting a MLB middle infielder. Beyond that, there’s a lot of draftees who are interesting and one can imagine one or two emerging to have big league impact.

2018 will be defined by the pair of high school teammates picked. Jordan Groshans was seen as an overdraft, but allowed the Jays to save money and land Adam Kloffenstein. Most importantly, he had a promising debut. They got the obligatory bloodline play with Griffin Conine, and again some really intriguing draftees further down the board.

Overall, if one is to be bullish on the current regime, this is probably where you would hang your hat even it’s pretty early. My worry was they were overly focussed on the college side, but 2018 went pretty far in dispelling that.

International Free Agents (IFAs)

If it’s very early to be trying to evaluate draft classes involving largely 18- to 21- year olds, it’s even moreso the case when talking about the acquisition of largely 16- to 18-year olds. Compounding that even further are the restrictions related to signing Vladimir Guerrero over their first full cycle that locked them out of signing any of the best talent — though as discussed in the free agent section, that might have enabled the signing of Lourdes Gurriel Jr, who received a $3-million signing bonus.

One hallmark of their international approach has been the sheer volume of signees. In the five IFA cycles from 2012 (the beginning of new regime with restrictions) through 2016, the Jays signed 133 international players, 10 of whom signed in early 2016 well after the transactions. That’s an average if about 25-27 per year, depending how one wants to parse it.

In the 2016-17 cycle, they signed a whopping 45 players despite not being able to give out bonuses larger than $300,000. One could have expected that was a one year blip due to the turnover and restrictions, but in the 2017-18 cycle they signed another 36 and thus far in the current cycle they’re already at 38. The increase in volume is an undeniable shift.

In terms of the allocating their bonus pools, they took two different approaches in the two years they had the ability to strategical allocate dollars. This year they essentially put all their eggs in one basket, using the majority of their pool to sign Orelvis Martinez with a $3.5-million bonus. The year before, they spread their dollars around, the highest bonus belonging to Eric Pardinho (who had a very promising professional debut in Bluefield). But they also gave out three other bonuses over $750,000 and another at $500,000.

Other

  • The 2016 Rule 5 pick of Joe Biagini appeared quite the coup. His star has dimmed with the failed attempt at starting, but let’s see what 2019 brings. In any event, they haven’t lost anyone in the Rule 5, and getting Biagini’s 2016 still counts as a win
  • Tender decisions — there haven’t really been any controversial tender/non-tender decisions. They could have saved a couple hundred thousand had they just outright non-tendered Ezequiel Carrera last year, but that’s peanuts.
  • Roster management — this has been a notable area of improvement, after some blunders by the previous regime (e.g. Sam Dyson, Jeremy Jeffress). In general, they’ve done at least a competent job managing both the 25- and 40-man roster
  • Personnel — this is been an interesting area. I’ve been glad to see that holdovers such as Tony LaCava and Andrew Tinnish have been retained. Adding Ben Cherington, who built the Red Sox farm system that became their core, as a VP overseeing player development was a great move in my books. They completely overhauled the player development personnel, but considering that Kevin Pillar is the only regular to come through the system since Aaron Hill almost 15 years ago, that was perhaps overdue. The jury is still out on the high performance team. Charlie Montoyo on paper is a great choice as manager.

In the last segment, I’ll look at the broader strategic decisions made by the Shapiro/Atkins regime over the last three years.

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