DUNEDIN, Fla.—In many ways, Toronto has returned to its Pat Gillick glory days these last two years. They made the playoffs for the first time since the world championship team9 in 1993. They won 11 more games in 2015-16 than any other A.L. East team, attracted 6.1M fans into Rogers Centre, on most nights had more than a million people watching them on televisions across Canada, and their post-season crowds were reminiscent of the Premier League.
When Mark Shapiro came to Toronto to replace Paul Beeston from Cleveland, where the Indians organization was one of the most respected in the sport despite the shrinking rust belt city’s downtown aging, his mission statement was to change the culture. Former general manager Alex Anthopolous had passionately done what he could to replicate ’93, which meant trading a number of their best young players to try to win in this window. When they lost to the eventual world champion Royals in the ALCS he left, and the modernization of the infrastructure, development and, above all, the culture, was left to the new President of Baseball Operations.
Shapiro brought in his Indians farm director, Ross Atkins, as general manger. Subsequently he brought on former Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington to oversee development and scouting, Eric Wedge as field coordinator, a rising scouting star named Steve Sanders from Cherington’s regime to run that department. Then came an overhaul of the analytics, intern and medical programs.
And most of all, the building of a connecting respect between uniformed and non-uniformed personnel. He knew from Atkins’ work as Minor League Director of the Indians he has a remarkable ability to connect and communicate with everyone he touched. The same is true of Cherington. The same is true of holdover Tony LaCava, who worked for Shapiro in Cleveland, and player development director Gil Kim.
“To build an organization that can sustain its culture and build accountability and values in developing players is essential,” says Shapiro. “The game is more than raw, simple talent, or numbers. So we’re trying to build, develop and win simultaneously.”
There are organizations that have accomplished this kind of multi-tasking that is so different from the 1980s and ‘90s. Theo Epstein accomplished it in Boston and Chicago. Dayton Moore has done it in Kansas City, although market size cannot hold the Royals window open. So, too, has Neal Huntington in Pittsburgh and Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff in Cleveland. Sandy Alderson is doing it with the Mets, Brian Sabean has with the Giants, Mike Hazen has already made a major impact on the Diamondbacks. So will Derek Falvey in Minnesota. “These are people who understand that the game today requires a culture that understands that players are people, people who require respect,” says one young National League executive. “What worked twenty years ago does not work with the people who play today.”
This year’s Blue Jays team has a legitimate chance of winning the division and going on in the playoffs. Their extraordinary center fielder Kevin Pillar says last year’s post-season loss “hurt more than the previous year,” which speaks volume about how repeated success breeds expectations. They did not re-sign Edwin Encarnacion, but they replaced him with Kendrys Morales, and the drive of veterans like Jose Bautista, Martin, Troy Tulowitzki and Josh Donaldson is ever in 0-to-60 mode.
And if David Price’s elbow issue lasts two or three months—or longer—into the season, the Jays think they have the best starting pitching. Aaron Sanchez’s sinker makes him, as Gibbons says, “an elite number one starter.” J.A. Happ is a 20 game winner. Marco Estrada healthy is a two ticks above reliable. They hope Marcus Stroman matures. And if you talk to scouts here, they’ll tell you Francisco Liriano is throwing as well as anyone in Florida.
Their starters led the league in quality starts and wins in 2016, in an offensive park. “They’re good, and they’re reliable,” says Gibbons. They know Boston has the star power, but David Ortiz has left, and if Price and Drew Pomeranz have elbow problems, there is little depth. Baltimore has starting pitching issues, but their lineup hits a lot of homers. And the way Buck Showalter uses the bullpen, they will be as good as anyone. The Yankee starting pitchers are to be determined, but Masahiro Tanaka is a dominator, they have the first wave of exceptional young players (Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Didi Gregorius) in place with platoons on the way and with their bullpen can be a huge surprise.
So Shapiro, Atkins, Cherington, et al have to focus on the now, and devote themselves to the building of the longterm, sustainable organization. They understand that after this year or next, there are going to be leaner times as Bautista and Martin continue to age. As one National League General Manager says, “by 2019 the Yankees are going to be beginning another run like it’s 1996 all over again. They have the most talent in the minor leagues of anyone in the game, they can trade for whomever they choose, they are whittling down the payroll so they can sign Bryce Harper or Nolan Arenado or Manny Machado after 2018. Brian Cashman has done an incredible job.”
By then, the Orioles will be relying on a lessened farm system to live year-to-year. The Red Sox plan to take the Epstein/Cherington/Hazen system, trade off young players to try to win in their 2016-19 window, try to keep Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, et al from the free agent market then try to figure out how to rebuild their pitching with a fraction of their pre-2016 minor league talent pool to trade.
When Boston begins the beguine, no one knows how many of the organizational builders will still be around. By then, the Blue Jays will have had four years of building their culture, one that can be sustained when they can draw 3.5M fans each year and a million sets of eyes watch across an entire country every night.