TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays have yet to sign a free agent or trade for a player with big-league experience this off-season, preferring to lay the groundwork behind the scenes while other teams set the market.
According to team president and CEO Mark Shapiro, the moves are coming, but they might require even further patience. As a rebuilding team that’s still multiple pieces away from contending, the Blue Jays are disinclined to rush trades or free agent signings.
“There will still be activity for certain before we’re done,” Shapiro said in a conference room at Rogers Centre Wednesday. “But we can sit back and go ‘if we value our players more than other teams value our players as teammates, as competitors, as athletes and as a talent,’ then we don’t need to make any more trades.”
At some point before opening day, the Blue Jays must reinforce their bullpen and starting rotation. Yet they hope to remain patient and flexible the way they did last winter instead of pushing to complete a deal while asking prices are uncomfortably high.
“We’re not going to pace the market,” Shapiro said. “That’s just not where we are because there’s not that sense of urgency at one position that we feel like is so important for us to improve for next season’s ballclub.”
In theory, a patient approach can lead to bargains. Last winter, the Blue Jays signed relievers Seung-hwan Oh, Tyler Clippard and John Axford with late deals that paid off for the club. Of course, that same approach led to the failed Jaime Garcia deal and a reminder that all bargains are not created equal.
In the course of Shapiro’s meeting with Toronto-based writers, he also announced plans for the club’s new Dunedin facility and touched on a variety of topics related to the Blue Jays on and off the field…
MINOR RENOVATIONS AT ROGERS CENTRE
The Blue Jays are replacing the roof at Rogers Centre, completing maintenance work on the outside of the stadium and redoing some of the concessions inside, but the wholesale reimagining of the building that Shapiro has previously discussed hasn’t advanced to the point where the club has anything to announce.
“We’re continuing to upgrade this building and think about opportunities, but the large-scale project is still one that’s (ongoing),” he said.
While in Cleveland, Shapiro and Blue Jays executive vice president of business operations Andrew Miller oversaw renovations at Progressive Field. Earlier this year, Shapiro said he hoped to make similar upgrades in Toronto.
“It’s dungeon-ous in different places and dark,” he said of Rogers Centre at the time. “We have to open things up. We have to connect, we have to create different gathering spaces, we have to create a different set of experiences.”
At this point, ‘work is continuing to happen and progress is made,’ but the complete reimagining of Rogers Centre remains on hold. A large-scale renovation would likely cost hundreds of millions, so finalizing a commitment that big would be one potential obstacle.
Meanwhile, there’s no indication that the Blue Jays are close to adding indoor grass at Rogers Centre. As Shapiro acknowledged, “Grass is preferable. There’s no debate there.” At the same time, drainage, lighting and maintenance costs could run into the tens of millions, and conceivably detract from spending on payroll. As such, the Blue Jays will play on turf for the foreseeable future.
‘WE ARE GOING TO SPEND’
Team payroll will likely drop in 2019, but Shapiro said that GM Ross Atkins could theoretically match Toronto’s 2018 spending: $167,138,865, as reported by the Associated Press.
“That’d be a safe upside number,” Shapiro said, “but if the right players aren’t there to get, to say we’d spend it all right away, it’s not necessary that we do that.”
Chances are better that payroll will decrease to the $120-130 million range next year. Eventually, though, the Blue Jays’ market size and upcoming payroll flexibility will allow them to spend more aggressively.
“Probably one of our biggest advantages as we build the club moving forward is that we’ve got I think more (contractual) flexibility than any team in major-league baseball after next year,” Shapiro said. “That doesn’t mean we aren’t going to spend. We are going to spend. It just means Ross and our baseball ops group have a lot of flexibility.”
COMPARABLE ATTENDANCE EXPECTED
The Blue Jays ranked 13th in attendance with 2,325,281 fans last year, support Shapiro described as ‘incredible.’ In the Blue Jays’ internal projections for 2019, they’re anticipating similar numbers.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s down a little bit, but I’d expect it to not be down dramatically,” Shapiro said.
While the debut of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. could provide a short-term boost for a week or two, the Blue Jays aren’t counting on baseball’s top prospect to boost attendance single-handedly.
“Do I think that (expected boost) is sustainable? Probably not in a big way,” Shapiro said. “The history of the game would say that fans come to watch teams, not individual players.”
If the front office eventually surround Guerrero Jr. with enough talent to compete for the playoffs, the Blue Jays would expect Rogers Centre to be full on a nightly basis again.
As Shapiro said, “The real upside exists when we win.”
PROS AND CONS OF SHIFTS
Around baseball, there’s more and more discussion about the possibility of eliminating or controlling the use of infield shifts, and as a member of MLB’s competition committee, Shapiro’s uniquely positioned to impact that conversation. While he’s open to ways of improving the game, he’s not overly concerned about the impact of defensive shifts.
“I’m one of the few people in that room that doesn’t think we should legislate the shift,” he said. “I’m comfortable considering that (option). I’d like to see what the impact would be. I tend to think the game will self-correct.”
Banning the shift could lead to more singles, especially for left-handed hitters, but it wouldn’t change the fact that pitchers are throwing harder than ever with tons of break. Perhaps not surprisingly, big-league hitters combined to hit just .248 this year. Until that changes, the shift can only impact the game so much.
Shapiro suggested MLB could try eliminating shifts in the minors for a year or two before bringing such a big change to the big-leagues.
“I applaud the open-mindedness to discussing it,” Shapiro said. “I just don’t tend to feel like the shift is the best place to focus.”