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Blue Jays Build New Culture

[caption id="attachment_195010" align="alignnone" width="640"]
Aaron Sanchez has true No. 1 starter upside with his turbo sinker (Photo by Cliff Welch)[/caption]

DUNEDIN, Fla.—In many ways, the Blue Jays these past two years have returned to the glory days of the Pat Gillick era. Toronto in 2015 made the playoffs for the first time since the World Series championship team of 1993. Over the past two seasons the Blue Jays won 11 more games than any other American League East team, attracted 6.1 million fans to Rogers Centre and on most nights had more than a million people watching on television.

When the Blue Jays hired Mark Shapiro away from the Indians in August 2015 to serve as president of baseball operations, his mission statement was to change the culture.

Shapiro hired Ross Atkins, his farm director in Cleveland, as general manger. Subsequently he brought on former Red Sox GM Ben Cherington to oversee scouting and player development and Eric Wedge, the former Indians manager, as field coordinator. He hired a rising scouting star named Steve Sanders from Cherington’s regime to run the scouting department.

Most important of all, Shapiro built respect between uniformed and non-uniformed personnel. He knew from Atkins’ work with the Indians that he has a remarkable ability to connect and communicate with everyone. The same is true of Cherington. The same is true of holdover assistant GM Tony LaCava, who also worked for Shapiro in Cleveland, and farm director Gil Kim.

"To build an organization that can sustain its culture and build accountability and values in developing players is essential,” Shapiro said. "The game is more than raw talent or numbers. So we’re trying to build, develop and win simultaneously.”

Several organizations have accomplished this kind of multi-tasking that is so different from the 1980s and ’90s. Theo Epstein accomplished it with the Red Sox and Cubs by building, developing and winning simultaneously. Other examples include Dayton Moore (Royals), Neal Huntington (Pirates), Chris Antonetti (Indians), Sandy Alderson (Mets) and Brian Sabean (Giants).

Mike Hazen has already made a major impact on the Diamondbacks. So will Derek Falvey with the Twins.

"These are people who understand that the game today requires a culture that understands that players are people who require respect,” said one young National League executive. "What worked 20 years ago does not work with the people who play today.”

Window Remains Open

This year’s Blue Jays team has a legitimate chance to win the division. Their center fielder Kevin Pillar said last year’s postseason loss to the Indians in the AL Championship Series "hurt more than the previous year,” which speaks volumes about how repeated success breeds expectations. Toronto did not re-sign Edwin Encarnacion, but it replaced him with Kendrys Morales, and veterans such as Jose Bautista, Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki and Josh Donaldson are driven to succeed.

Do the Blue Jays need Devon Travis to be healthy? Yes. Can Justin Smoak and Steve Pearce produce? They think so.

And if David Price’s elbow issue lasts two or three months—or longer—into the season, then the Blue Jays think they have a better rotation than the Red Sox. Aaron Sanchez’s sinker makes him, as Gibbons said, "an elite No. 1 starter.” He is supported by J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman and Francisco Liriano, who if you talk to scouts in Florida, is throwing as well as anyone here.

The Blue Jays know Boston has star power, but David Ortiz has left, and if Price and Drew Pomeranz have elbow problems, the Red Sox have little rotation depth. The Orioles have a suspect rotation but hit a lot of homers. The Yankee rotation is to be determined, but Masahiro Tanaka is a dominator.

So Shapiro and his front office have to focus on the now and devote themselves to building a sustainable organization. They understand that after this year or 2018 that Bautista and Martin could face leaner times in their mid- to late 30s.

As one National League GM said: "By 2019 the Yankees (and their No. 2 farm system) are going to be beginning another run like it’s 1996 all over again . . . They can trade for whomever they choose, and 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 might be relying on a weak farm system to live year to year. The Red Sox plan to continue trading off young players to try to win in their 2016-19 window, while trying to extend Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. Then they must figure out how to rebuild their pitching staff with a fraction of their former minor league talent pool to trade.

But by 2020, the Blue Jays will have had four years of building their culture, one that can be sustained when they can draw 3.5 million fans each year and when a million sets of eyes watch across Canada every night.


Astros, Blue Jays Complete Puzzling Deadline Day Trade

In exchange, the Toronto Blue Jays will receive just Derek Fisher, a puzzling return considering the haul.

— Read more from Peter Gammons at

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