Toronto Star

Now the ‘bad guys’ are winning

Five years ago today, Ross Atkins replaced a fan favourite knowing the Jays would have to take an unpopular step backward before contending again. Now the GM’s vision is coming to life

- Laura Armstrong Twitter: @lauraarmy

Derek Falvey knew there would be some choppy waters for Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins as he watched his former colleagues take on the top roles in the Blue Jays organizati­on in 2015.

Falvey, then a newly promoted assistant general manager with the Cleveland Indians, watched from afar as outgoing Jays president Paul Beeston and GM Alex Anthopoulo­s wheeled and dealed that season to assemble an “incredible” veteran team, including Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista,

Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin. He saw the front office take the Jays to the postseason for the first time in 22 years. He saw how a playoff run invigorate­d Canadian baseball fans.

But the group Beeston and Anthopoulo­s assembled had a shelf life, despite the fans’ attachment to those players and the front office that brought them along. And the farm system had taken a hit to acquire them. Future success would likely mean taking a step back first, which almost immediatel­y made the new guys the bad guys.

“It’s really hard to take over an organizati­on when you know that it’s probably peaking to some degree right at that moment in time, and you know that it’s going to require a bit of a recharge and that you’re going to be the face of that recharge to some degree,” said Falvey, now president of baseball operations for the Minnesota Twins.

But Falvey knew Shapiro and Atkins didn’t fear change or difficult decisions. In fact, he said, those challenges might have offered some intrigue after decades in Cleveland.

That was exactly five years ago.

It was Dec. 3, 2015, that Atkins was announced as Blue Jays GM, about a month after Shapiro was officially in

troduced as president and CEO.

In that time, the pair have earned the unfavourab­le nickname Shatkins, been portrayed as villains after parted ways with the heroes of those recent glory days, and had fans and media calling for their heads in a three-year window that saw the team lose 270 games.

They have also remained steadfast in their approach. They tried to extend the existing core as long as possible, while also building a foundation that linked scouting to developmen­t to the majorleagu­e team. They focused on retooling the farm system and transition­ing a new young core to the major-league level. They prioritize­d a culture that empowers everyone to contribute, and got a commitment of resources from ownership — when the time was right.

Now, the Jays are a playoff contender once again. They’re linked to just about every free agent and trade candidate on the market. And fans are starting to get on board with what those in baseball believed five years ago: that Shapiro and Atkins might just be the men to deliver the Jays’ next championsh­ip.

“Today I think they’re reaping some of those rewards,” Falvey said.

Shapiro said this week that the circumstan­ces surroundin­g his arrival in 2015 probably weren’t ideal after 24 years in Cleveland, but he didn’t dwell on it. Instead, he got to work.

“There is no superhuman power that I have or no special skill, but the one thing I know is that I am determined. I will persevere,” he said. “Toughness will be what I rely upon.”

That initial goal — to push the 2015 and 2016 group as far as it could go, buying time for the next wave making its way through the minors — ran into an injury-laden 2017.

“I think we knew within the first five years there was probably some kind of pitfall coming … We knew there was a valley ahead of us at some point,” Atkins

recalled this week.

During that time, Shapiro and Atkins were “pouring their hearts” into building the foundation for what would be the next good Jays team, said Ben Cherington, hired as Jays vice-president of baseball operations in 2016 and is now GM of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The emphasis was on learning. Cherington said he must have heard that a thousand times in Toronto. One of Shapiro’s hallmarks, he said, is giving employees the space to learn and the room to make mistakes and figure things out.

“Mark is, in my mind, on a short list of the most respected and effective and influentia­l modern baseball executives,” Cherington said.

Arguably no one in the organizati­on has learned more over the past five years than Atkins. Shapiro himself said he couldn’t imagine how challengin­g it must be to operate as a first-time GM in a market such as Toronto, facing the scrutiny of an entire country. He said Atkins has grown into “among the best executives in the game.”

“It’s not a job, it’s an existence,” Atkins said. “I love it. I love the energy that comes from it. But I have learned a great

deal about how it impacts your stress levels, how it impacts your daily life, how it impacts your ability to manage all of the challenges that come with it.”

Josh Byrnes, the Dodgers senior vicepresid­ent of baseball operations who worked with Shapiro in the 1990s, is impressed by how quickly Shapiro and Atkins got the Jays back to the playoffs this past season.

“I think if you step back and look at what they walked into — a successful team that the window was probably closing on — then to have to reboot and start over to get to where they are now, with a pretty interestin­g team that’s poised to be good for the next several years, I think it’s a job well done,” he said.

Byrnes said the Jays are a bigger player in MLB than when Shapiro and Atkins arrived, and are probably weathering the impact of the pandemic better than most franchises. Money drives a lot of decisions, but free agents also look at a team’s chances of success, now and in the future.

“I think within the game people view the Jays as a team that’s pretty good now and on the rise. So for free agents, I think if you’re going to go somewhere and try to win, they’re certainly on that list,” Byrnes said.

Falvey and Cherington will also be looking out for the Jays in the coming years. How close they are to contending for a World Series championsh­ip is hard to say, Shapiro said. He believes it takes two to three years in the big leagues to see what a player will be, which means there’s still informatio­n to gain about core players such as Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

The developmen­t of major-league players isn’t linear. With 30-odd years in the game, Shapiro knows that better than most. But with a foundation in place, and ownership and fans on board, the Jays’ next five years look promising.

“We’re going to have an exciting, very good five to seven years ahead of us,” Shapiro said. “I can’t tell you exactly whether it happens right now or next year, but we’re on the verge of a very exciting period of baseball here.”

 ?? NATHAN DENETTE THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO ?? Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins arrived in Toronto from Cleveland with his eyes wide open: “We knew there was a valley ahead of us at some point.”
NATHAN DENETTE THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins arrived in Toronto from Cleveland with his eyes wide open: “We knew there was a valley ahead of us at some point.”
 ??  ?? Jays president Mark Shapiro ranks among MLB’s best according to some of his peers.
Jays president Mark Shapiro ranks among MLB’s best according to some of his peers.
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