Inside Pitch: The Blue Jays Shapiro Story ... So Far

They say perception is reality. If you’re Mark Shapiro of the Blue Jays the reality of his current perception with the fan base is not a good one. If you’re one of the many fans lamenting what “Shatkins” has done to your beloved  Blue Jays, perhaps a little inside perspective into what’s been going on behind the scenes is in order. To do so, let’s look back as to as to why Rogers went out and got Shapiro in the first place.

Let’s be clear, Rogers does want to win. But they will not do so at all cost. Shapiro was brought in to get away from the boom, and bust cycle of pro sports. Rogers wants a perennial contender who keeps fans interest going and money flowing for most, if not all of the season. They also want this within set budget parameters. Rogers is a publicly owned corporation and not all shareholders see the Blue Jays as an asset worthy of a constant hefty investment. The other key pressing file for the organization was the handling of numerous renovations needed at Rogers Centre. So, let's start there. 

Rogers is not much interested in spending buckets of money on improving the fan experience at the ball park. With so much needing to be spent behind the scenes on aging infrastructure - the stuff the fan never sees – it’s hard to blame them. This was one of the reasons the lustre of previous president Paul Beeston and his dream of real grass was shot down and he was ultimately replaced.Shapiro being first and foremost a baseball guy saw with all the other renovations being planned an opportunity to make Rogers Centre into something much better from a fan’s perspective. He was willing to give on the grass field and was able to get dirt. Unfortunately, like his predecessor he butted heads with ownership on getting much support (money) for his other pet projects.Shapiro believes in making Rogers Centre a destination that not only complements the product on the field but makes it a star attraction on its own. You need a fan friendly stadium to get you through the seasons when the team on the field is not enough. Mark wants to charge top dollar for seats, but also wants to provide a top-drawer experience for fans.For Rogers, they are content doing all the necessary upgrades behind the scenes to the old Sky Dome, but not much else. They believe that in this market all that is needed to put bums in the seats is to put a winner on the field. They are not convinced that enough fans care enough about stadium experience and will come out to see a losing ball club and in an old, but nicely renovated Rogers Centre.

I think you already know who won this battle. Rogers has said no to most of Shapiro’s plans and told him to focus on the on-field product, which they’re not too thrilled with so far under his tenure.The one area Shapiro is happy with is the progress with Dunedin and his ability to work on that file without much interference from ownership. Of course, money for this was going to have to come from somewhere. Rogers, doesn’t separate dollars spent on the team’s payroll or facilities – it’s all part of the organization’s allocated budget. So, if you’re a fan whining about the team’s falling payroll, be happy the team is finally getting Spring Training facility worthy of major league team.Now onto the team. 

When Shapiro, first came to the Jays, he was eager for completing a successful speedy rebuild for the aging team. He let 2016 play itself out while providing solid short-term support to the team that added to the team’s competitive payroll. When the team lost in the ALCS for the second straight year, he was ready to begin the rebuild process and put his stamp on the team.

The re-signing of Edwin was not a priority, as he did not fit in with the re build process about to begin. Shapiro knew however, that he had to at least make an offer to the fan favourite, so he made one that was destined to fail. It was a take it or leave it deal with a timed deadline. They knew that Edwin really wanted to stay a Jay, but they also knew his camp would not accept the first serious offer without getting a sense of the market. A competitive deal was given, but certainly not one that would get Edwin to accept right away. Edwin’s agent believed the Jays were bluffing and let the timeline pass. The Jays of course, were not bluffing and took no time signing replacements for Edwin.Most teams with deep pockets who want their star back don’t operate like this. They encourage their stars to go and test the market and then come back with them to see if something can be agreed upon. If both the team and the player want each other they find a way. They don’t put the player off, by giving them a deadline for take it or leave it deal.The push back from fans was hard. The team turned their back on one of their favourites. Luckily for Jay’s management the market for sluggers changed dramatically in November 2016. The Jays initial offer turned out to be the best offer and Edwin’s agent was now blamed as much as the Jay’s front office for Edwin’s parrot landing in Cleveland. PR disaster averted, or so it was thought.When it became apparent, no big additions were coming the Blue Jays way for 2017, fans became well, fans. Frustration grew however, from Rogers as well. They now had a nice sports property in the Blue Jays and they were just learning how effective it was at leveraging all their other core products. Rogers wanted the enthusiasm to continue. With this in mind, Rogers pushed Shapiro to sign Joey Bats and keep the competitive window open. Reluctantly, Shapiro agreed and plans for the rebuild were put on hold.

The 2017 season turned out to be a bust, but attendance/ratings remained solid so Rogers was happy. Shapiro was not. He began feeling the criticism, for misreading his team and so he let his feelings be known, The rebuild was put on hold and the competition window was kept open for one more year. Management figured it would be best to gut the team during a disappointing season, then in the off season as they tried previously. Shapiro did his best to suck and blow at the same time. He signed a bunch of one-year, stop gap free agents to satisfy ownership and the fans, but also keep his roster clean for 2019, when he could finally turn it over. 2019 is also the year a number of players come off the books, including Josh Donaldson.Unfortunately for the Blue Jays the 2018 season was a bust. But unlike 2017, the top teams in the league played like it and the season from a competitive basis was over early. 

A losing season is never easy and this one was no exception.The disconnect between ownership and management was brought up again with the Osuna affair. Management believed Osuna was one of the few pieces they had that they could bridge in their rebuild process. Bullpen arms were becoming a treasured commodity in the game today, and it was thought the Jays may have a generational closer on their hands.So, when Osuna was suspended on assault charges, it left the team with a tough decision. Management believed in keeping him and that his case merited a second chance with the team. Atkins even went on record supporting Osuna’s return  Rogers would have none of that. As Osuna’s reinstatement to the team got closer and negative media attention grew, Rogers saw a PR battle in the making, that it did want to fight. So again, management took ownership’s directive and tried to make the best of it. Osuna was moved and for a decent return, under the circumstances.

As 2018 began to unravel, more unfortunate events plagued management. Josh Donaldson, their biggest trade asset was hurt most of the season and now not much could be expected to be returned in a trade. Management was left with few options for their once coveted asset. They could sign him to a big one-year offer sheet in the off season, hope he declines it and get a compensation draft pick. Or they could try and trade him at the deadline and get something for him now. Both options had their own complications. In order to trade Josh, he had to be healthy enough to play. Donaldson was doing a slow recovery, not wanting to take any chances on his health and jeopardize an expected significant multi-year pay day. In investigating what Donaldson's camp was thinking, it was discovered that they were open to accepting the offer sheet and resetting the process for another year.That was a bridge too far for Shapiro. Already annoyed that his rebuild had been delayed by ownership for two years, he wasn’t about to waste another one. He had to get Donaldson on the field and moved before the deadline. How he was able to do that?

It was argued that the Blue Jays over paid Donaldson in his most recent arbitration case. So perhaps that $23 million came with god father clause. In any event, Donaldson got healthy enough to play in the nick of time and was dealt.Trading Donaldson under such pressing and desperate circumstances was never going to deliver much in return (although again, they could get lucky with acquiring a major league arm in Merryweather). 

Fan reaction again turned against Shapiro. Smart executives don’t get too caught up with the reaction from fans. Winning is all that matters. But when you are being skewered in the local press for following a plan and time line that was never your first choice - it gets a little difficult. 

It’s even worse when you constantly have to stretch the truth about your star in waiting.Muzzled by the MLB from confessing that Vlad Jr. is not on the roster because of the current CBA, Shapiro was left doing truth gymnastics in the media. It’s no wonder that once Jr. Was sent to the fall league, Shapiro kept a low profile.That didn’t stop the local sports writers from clearly noting Shapiro’s absence during the unpopular announcement that fan favourite Gibby was being let go. 

Shapiro must find it strange that in this championship starved market, Gibbons is more popular now after managing two losing seasons than he was during the playoff runs of 2015 and 16. It was expected that Gibbons would have been axed when Shapiro was going to hit the reset after the 2016 season. Now Shapiro had to wait to fire Gibbons until the manager had a cult of personality hold over the fan base.

With all this, it should be of no surprise that he has let a story that he is linked to a Mets job gain a little traction in the local market. It feels good to remind your employer and fans that you’re in demand.I don’t suspect Shapiro will walk at this point. He made a huge personal investment when he made the move to Toronto. That said you can understand if he’s having second thoughts.After sitting in neutral on Rogers behalf for two seasons he can now finally get the car moving down his road. 

Fans will give him time, what choice do they have. Attendance will go down as expected, but his decision to raise ticket prices will minimize the impact on total revenue and keep ownership off his back.He has a stock pile of young talent, a potential super star and a team that can play .500 ball again sooner than later. But most importantly, he has some freedom. 

He will now use the money he’s saving on the payroll to develop Dunedin into a top-notch spring training facility. He will find out what he has in terms of major league talent this upcoming season and then he and Ross will begin to fill in the gaps as fast as possible.He’s given up trying to convince Rogers to turn their Centre into a ballpark. That will be for the next guy and next owner. There will be no president emeritus for him. But when he does exit, he will leave the Blue Jays in a good place – shaped in his reality.

Gregory Cawsey