History as we know it is defined in eras. Sports history is no different. When we think back to dynasties in baseball’s past, they’re asssociated with something specific. First, it was managers as the face of teams; like the Connie Mack A’s or the John McGraw Giants. That eventually gave way to the player era: the Babe Ruth Yankees, the Stan Musial Cardinals, and the George Brett Royals.
In each of those cases, the team was defined by the most influential guy in the clubhouse. He was the one that fans saw driving the success of their beloved franchise, and therefore the one that they admired. However, we have now moved into the third age, where the clubhouse is no longer where baseball fans look to evaluate team success. Franchises are now defined by the executives that built the team. One need look no further than one half of the current World Series matchup. It’s not Arrieta’s Cubs or Rizzo’s Cubs; it’s the Team that Theo Built. For the Blue Jays, the same was true of Alex Anthopoulos. Josh Donaldson was the Blue Jays’ star talent and Jose Bautista was the soul, but it was Anthopoulos’ team.
Our perception of Alex changed over time, and it followed along with changes in his demeanour. He came to us young, baby-faced, and as a memory of the previous generation. But he left us older, bearded, and as the man who brought playoff baseball back to Toronto. Things weren’t always as rosy as the reaction to Anthopoulos’ exit seemed, but he will be remembered for how he finished: (nearly) on top.
As the new Blue Jays decision makers, Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins have made additions to this team, but the core of the roster is entirely Alex Anthopoulos’. As such, that creates an attachment between the Jays and the Anthopoulos’ era that isn’t easy to break. Shapiro has learned that the hard way while the fanbase has gone thought the Kübler-Ross model’s five stages of grief.
The first four stages came in fairly quick succession. Fans denied the possibility that AA could truly be gone. Then they angrily criticized the replacement, Mark Shapiro. But Shapiro didn’t care, he knew what was really at stake.
Mark Shapiro is more concerned with winning than being well-liked, writes John Lott. https://t.co/OmWv4ODIUG
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 30, 2015
When you think about it, it’s actually kind of remarkable how well Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins transitioned in to the helm of the Blue Jays. Regardless of how hard they tried, the fanbase as a whole was still opposed. There were instances in which they got some credit, as Jays fans bargained with themselves on whether or not to believe. But, there were always others trying to find something to protest. We were sad.
Anthopoulos leaving the Jays. https://t.co/dKLcO8d6At
— Gruber's Mullet (@GrubersMullet) February 4, 2016
In general, each of the five stages in the Kübler-Ross model comes one after another, but a particular time period is not stipulated for each. Above, we’ve run through the first four, but that leaves the last stage: acceptance.
As you might imagine, Jays fans have been reluctant to accept the Shapiro-Atkins (or Shapatkins) duo, and there are a few different reasons behind this. For starters, the transition could not have come at a worse time. When he left, Alex Anthopoulos was at the peak of his popularity. Not only had he taken the team to the playoffs for the first time in two decades, but, more importantly, he finally made Toronto feel like a big market team. In David Price and Troy Tulowitzki, the Blue Jays had acquired the two biggest pieces on the midseason trade market. If Canadians like anything, it’s feeling important. Alex made that happen.
Mark Shapiro on the other hand is the American whose first major Blue Jays headline was a report that he staunchly opposed those very same trades that reinvigorated the fan base. He may end up being right, that the Jays’ 2015 deadline trades won’t end up being worth the prospects they cost, but being right isn’t the only thing that matters. Public perception is important too, and Shapiro’s lack of public relations perceptiveness has only made the transition of leadership worse.
Things started with the opposition to the trades–a report that Shapiro has since denied– and further continued throughout his first year as President and CEO. In the first month of the offseason, with David Price, the symbol of the Blue Jays’ big-marketedness, set to sign, Shapiro kept the team firmly out of strong negotiations. In a vacuum, that’s a pragmatic decision. David Price is unlikely to be worth the $217 million that he’ll be paid over seven years, and with three big sluggers set to hit free agency over the following three years, the Jays could use the financial flexibility. However, Price wasn’t just any other pitcher to Toronto. Not only was he the crown jewel of the trade deadline, but he repeatedly iterated how much he loved the team and the city. For a Toronto sports market that has historically been told that American sports stars aren’t jumping to sign north of the border, Price was the messiah. If it doesn’t make good baseball sense, you don’t sign David Price. But, you can at least make it look like you tried.
The issues continued through the end of the offseason, as Shapiro once again rejected something that fans held dear: real grass at the Rogers Centre. He didn’t say that it wouldn’t happen, just that it wasn’t one of his priorities. However, he didn’t need to say anything at all.
Later yet, a similar situation occurred in-season, this time from the mouth of his right hand man Ross Atkins. For what seemed like months, the Blue Jays pondered whether or not to place Aaron Sanchez in the bullpen. Again, pondering is good. It’s an important decision that the team needs to consider as there are implications for both the present and the future. That discussion didn’t need to happen in public, however. The result was a flip-flopping front office that ultimately handled Sanchez well, but made no friends along the way.
This isn’t to say that Mark Shapiro’s first year has been a disaster, in fact it’s been anything but. Here are all of his major transactions:
- Signed Marco Estrada for two years, $26 million
- Traded Liam Hendriks to Oakland for Jesse Chavez
- Signed J.A. Happ for three years, $36 million
- Drafted Joe Biagini from San Francisco in the Rule V Draft
- Traded Ben Revere to Washington for Drew Storen
- Traded Sean Ratcliffe to Atlanta for Jason Grilli
- Extended Justin Smoak for two years, $8.25 million
- Traded Drew Storen to Seattle for Joaquin Benoit
- Traded Hansel Rodriguez to San Diego for Melvin Upton Jr. and cash considerations
- Traded Jesse Chavez to the Dodgers for Mike Bolsinger
- Traded Lupe Chavez to Houston for Scott Feldman
- Traded Drew Hutchison to Pittsburgh for Francisco Liriano, Reese McGuire, and Harold Ramirez
- Traded Colton Turner to the White Sox for Dioner Navarro
That’s thirteen relatively significant transactions. If you evaluate them to this point, you could argue there’s only one bad one in the bunch: the Justin Smoak extension. There would be those who’d argue against the Revere, Upton, Feldman, and Hendriks trades, but each of the four have mitigating circumstances of their own. Drew Storen, while very bad, actually finished with a higher WARP than Ben Revere. Melvin Upton and Scott Feldman had troubles of their own, but each cost very little to acquire, and one could therefore argue that their upside was worth it. The Liam Hendriks trade is the next closest to being given a thumbs down, but the Jays’ turned Jesse Chavez into Mike Bolsinger, who at least has a shot at being the best value of the three.
If we were partying like it was 1999 and executives weren’t in the media spotlight, we’d probably have evaluated 2016 as a good first year for the new Blue Jays’ front office. Unfortunately for Mark and the gang, that isn’t the case. It’s the Executive Era and a passionate Jays fanbase that has a thirst for knowledge is something that they’ll have to learn to adjust to. The fanbase seems to have accepted the fact that Shapiro and Atkins are the new normal, but doesn’t yet approve of all their methods. Is that fair? Empirically, probably not. This doesn’t mean that we should let the new front office off the hook, but they deserve time to do their work. After two full seasons, they will have made their impression on the team, and it’s direction. They’ve made the task of wooing the fanbase as hard for themselves as possible, but that’s nothing that a successful 2017 season can’t fix.
Over the next week or so, other writers at BP Toronto will be sharing their thoughts on the 2016 season in our series “The Season that Was.” You can read them all here. Look for a new one every day.
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