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Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins: examining their strategic decision making

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, part 3 a variety of other areas. This last part is far more belated than intended, but to tie together the bigger picture.

Thus far, the first three posts in this series have focused on evaluating pure exchanges of value — how much production was bought in free agency, were trades won or lost? These are questions of execution at what I would the tactical level, getting the most out of the resources available. Today I want to zoom out and take a high level look at the broader strategic level and framework.

For strategic decisions often dominate lower level decisions. We see this in, for example, the tenure of J.P. Riccardi. For all he did well — a quick and effective teardown, finding a lot of diamonds in the rough, some good trades — his overall strategic plan of college heavy drafts to build an eventual core failed. When the time came, there was no internally built foundation and the expensive additions couldn’t put the 2006-08 Jays over the top.

It’s safe to say that the Shapiro era started with a significant curveball that likely required a shift in the plans relative to what he was expecting. Though the hire was only announced on August 31st after the Jays had stormed to the division lead, the recruitment would have started much earlier. It seems likely that Shapiro was either recruited with, or pitched, a reset at some level.

And then the situation flipped almost 180 degrees overnight. To be clear, this wasn’t a negative, it’s about as good a “problem” as one can walk into. But it almost certainly required wholesale change to the broad plans Shapiro had: the Blue Jays were committed to contending in the near term after the electrifying three month run to end 2015.

The playbook for those first two offseasons was almost identical: use relatively high payrolls to plug holes by striking early with short-to-medium term deals (max. three years), no trading of future assets for current production and (further) depleting the prospect pool, maintaining payroll room to make in-season acquisitions.

The 2016 Jays were not the juggernaut the 2015 team was, but it was enough to return to the post-season and return to the ALCS. But where the front office benefited from good fortune in 2016 — unprecedented pitching health, Aaron Sanchez breaking out — the bottom fell out in 2017 as almost all the top contributors went backwards significantly.

About the only question that can be raised strategically over this time is whether the front office should have been more aggressive in reinforcing the foundation they inherited with significant upgrades to potentially extend the competitive window rather than working around the periphery. They were committed to a course of contending, but were they too cautious and not sufficiently committed?

The most obvious area to second guess is the approach to free agency. The biggest guarantee they made in both years and guaranteed dollars was J.A. Happ’s deal at three years and $36-million, locking them out out of the top free agents. It’s probably the case they could handed out bigger deals, but there was already quite a bit of future money committed at that point, and we don’t know exactly how what kind of framework and limits Rogers has for that.

But looking back at the big contracts handed out three winters ago, and they almost all range from bad to awful. The best ones are arguably Zack Greinke and Justin Upton’s deals, with few other players really even producing much across 2016 and 2017. There weren’t as many options two years ago, but Dexter Fowler was widely considered a strong fit and that hasn’t worked out. With perfect hindsight, there’s a few larger deals that have worked out that could have been fits for the Jays — Josh Reddick, or Lorenzo Cain last winter — but they’re the distinct minority and that would be a hell of standard to which to hold any front office.

Likewise, on the trade front, I don’t think there’s much more that could have been done those first two winters in terms of big additions. After all the trades at the 2015 deadline, especially of the upper level talent, they didn’t really had the ammunition to make big acquisitions that offseason. And really, that extends to the 2016-17 offseason as well. They didn’t have the prospect firepower to get a Chris Sale or Adam Eaton. It was really only last winter that that kind of a deal would be on the table.

All of this to say, I don’t really see anything significant to fault in the first two years in terms of the broad strategy. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t see any course of action they could have pursued that would have saved the 2017 collapse, or made the 2016 team significantly better.

That brings us of course to last offseason, when the front office was faced with a real strategic fork. This was hotly debated at the time, and obviously in hindsight they would be better off today had they decided to rebuild and traded in particular Josh Donaldson but also Happ at the time. Maybe listened on Marcus Stroman. The question is, was one last kick at the can in 2018 a strategic blunder?

In large part, this will be in the eye of the beholder, and it’s been debated ad nauseam already. One critical piece of information in assessing this that we don’t have is whether the front office was preempted by higher ups at Rogers. If they were told starting a rebuild wasn’t an option even if they wanted to (and there was some public commentary hinting that may have been the case), it’s hardly fair to blame them.

Otherwise, it really comes down to balancing how the team realistically projected, the competitive landscape of the AL, and the soft market for sellers last winter. In my view, they were basically playing for a wild card spot, and with what the Yankees and Angels did in December the path was narrow (of course in the end the Athletics and Rays were the 5th and 6th finishers). But neither were they totally deluding themselves, and I don’t think that the fanbase would have been satisfied with what Donaldson (in particular) would have brought back.

One strategic element that the front office does deserve credit for is limiting future payroll commitments and preserving flexibility. In doing so, they have been able to pivot from contending to rebuilding without piles of dead money that have to be first cleared and result in an extended rebuilding cycle. The flip side to this is the criticism this came at a cost of not truly trying to contend, but as discussed above, I simply don’t see a credible case that the course of the last couple years could have materially altered.

One thing to touch on is the handling of Donaldson, and the decision to move him in August versus extending a qualifying offer. Again, this has been much discussed. It’s clear they first and foremost wanted to turn the page and move on, but not extending a qualifying offer may prove to be a significant mistake. Especially to the extent that the cash is not spent elsewhere this winter.

Turning briefly to off-the-field stuff, I think to some extent some of the decision making around ticketing has been mishandled. It was one thing to push through big increases after 2015 and 2016. It was quite another to raise prices ~10% after the dreadful 2017. Likewise, rolling back value from flex packs alienated a lot of fans. We’ve yet to see any plans on stadium renovations.

In the end, how one feels about what they did last winter likely frames how one views the overall strategic decision making under Shapiro and Atkins. They inherited an aging core, rode it while they could, perhaps a little too long. Now they have carte blanche to really leave their mark.

Poll

The grade for the big picture under Shapiro/Atkins should be:

  • 3%

    A

    (11 votes)

  • 17%

    high-B

    (51 votes)

  • 39%

    low-B

    (116 votes)

  • 21%

    C

    (63 votes)

  • 11%

    D

    (34 votes)

  • 6%

    F

    (18 votes)



293 votes total

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