Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro sees big things for maturing team

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As much as anyone in a similar position, Mark Shapiro understands the agony and ecstasy of professional sport.

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He also comprehends the randomness of Major League Baseball, a pursuit that can see dominant teams through the 162-game grind of a regular season exit the playoffs with inexplicable swiftness.

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But most of all, the Blue Jays president and CEO believes that the pursuit of championships leaves no room for lament of losses and that paralysis after being vanquished is abjectly counter-productive.

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So beyond living in the moment of his team’s gut-wrenching collapse this past October, that blown 8-1 lead to get swept away by the Seattle Mariners in an American League wildcard series, Shapiro and the decision makers under him have pressed forward.

“I just don’t find any solace in grieving,” Shapiro said, comfortable and confident during a wide-ranging interview with the Toronto Sun at his Rogers Centre office. “I find solace in getting back to work and moving forward.

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“It was a bitter, disappointing end, but the season was not a disappointment. We’ll use that bitterness as fuel to build our expectations this year and we’ll be better prepared for the postseason.”

With that in mind, the makeover of a credible team in pursuit of something more began almost immediately after elimination. Within days, the transformation of the Rogers Centre from an aging, multi-use stadium to a semblance of a modern day ballpark began.

But equally important as phase one of the stadium reboot was renovating the look of the big league players who will patrol the updated confines.

To that end, Shapiro feels significant changes to a roster that won 92 games in 2022 have the potential to hasten the arrival of the Jays being perennial World Series contenders.

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The latest iteration will begin to crystallize next week when pitchers and catchers report to Dunedin, Fla. for the early strides of spring training 2023. The goal, in the mind of Shapiro, is clear and direct.

“I think the next step for us is going from a young talented team to a team that figures out how to be a championship team,” Shapiro said.

“I think ultimately what we’re hopeful of is that we’ve built a team culture where our players take ownership of their fate, are holding each other accountable for high standards and expectations and they are responsible for the outcomes.”

To his credit, Shapiro favours insight and incisiveness rather than sweeping generalities and cliches. There is a business to run, a stadium to renovate and a mostly generous budget to work around.  But top of mind — always —  is building a winning team to make it all work.

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Yes, the Jays have had back-to-back 90-plus win seasons for the first time in 30 years, but that only heightens the focus on elevating what in reality has been modest success.

So there is a clear change in personality to the team, one orchestrated by a front office commanded by Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins.

“In any championship environment, regardless of sport, regardless of business, the highest performers set the standards for the preparation being done and the desire to improve and to better support their teammates,” Shapiro said.  “And that happens in two ways: One, the maturation of our incredibly talented core, and also adding players like (Brandon) Belt, who has won two World Series to go along with players like George (Springer), who has a strong voice at the highest level.

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“What we’ve got right now, as far as the time we’ve been here, is the best balance from the segments of those populations.

“We’ve got veteran players who have won and want to win. We’ve got players in their prime, who have probably the most dependable performance that we can expect. And then we have young players who are transitioning, who have some volatility and upside.”

With that recalibrated mix of personality and talent, the Jays are doing anything but standing pat. But with those changes come different challenges.

Will there be enough offence in the absence of Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez? Will the defensive upgrades pay game-changing dividends? And with the addition of Chris Bassitt (and a return to form of Jose Berrios) give the Jays a more stout rotation?

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We’ll see soon enough, but in one winter, the Jays have added layers of veteran experience and accomplishment without completely demolishing what has been a vibrant and promising core.

“I think it’s less a reaction to the identity or makeup of ’22 and more the reality that we need to get better,” Shapiro said of the moves. “It’s not necessarily saying we need to change, but it is saying we need to get better.”

Naturally, Shapiro’s voice has been heard in those winter machinations, moves that have brought in position players such as Belt, Daulton Varsho, and Kevin Kiermaier.

While the blueprint for the stadium is to enhance the fan experience, the layout for the team is to continue on an upward track, doing so with experienced additions.

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“The arc has been steady,” Shapiro said, speaking to the last two seasons. “And the experiences that you gain all contribute to what you ultimately will accomplish. It is part of our maturation as a group of our core players.

“They’re just now moving into the prime of their careers. Two or three of our best players are still rising. But the experiences including the disappointment (of the playoff ouster), including the magnitude of how one game feels is part of what will we will ultimately build a world champion upon.”

Without slighting any young Jays, or those on the way out, Shapiro also made it clear that the most recent additions have the potential of bringing a heightened seriousness that was at times wanting.

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“One, they model in terms of preparation,” Shapiro said. “They model the attributes that are necessary to be a championship-winning team over an entire season – the behaviour, the discipline, the focus. They show what it takes to move beyond saying you want to win and actually handling the adversity and challenges of being a winning team.

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“They have the wisdom of having seen what works and what doesn’t and they’re willing and generous enough to be able to pass that wisdom down.”

Shapiro is a believer that the dynamic of a clubhouse is a critical component of success. There is a new managerial voice in John Schneider, albeit one familiar to most on the team. But the hope is that with the changes,  accountability will be heightened.

“The strongest (influences)  comes from peer, to peer, to peer not from coach or front office down,” Shapiro said. “And that’s what (Atkins) and our baseball ops team has done. They provided that balance of a group of experienced players, a group of guys who are solely focused on winning, along with an incredibly talented core of players who are still growing and still maturing into what they will ultimately be.”

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Appearances aside, Shapiro says the Jays moves weren’t made as an attempt to wipe out fun. With Gurriel and Hernandez specifically, publicly the Jays front office rationale was rooted in a strong determination that the team needed to be dramatically better in its outfield defence.

Quietly, though, there is a clear shift towards a more mature approach.

“Part of our strength as a team over the last few years, not just last year, was our ability to have fun and that’s extremely important,” Shapiro said.  “I think there is, though, a line between fun and joy and I think our guys exuded that joy.”

As an example, Shapiro likes to refer to the late Minnesota Twins great, Kirby Puckett, who was as fun-loving as they come between the white lines and outside of them.

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“(Puckett) made it better for everyone to come to the ballpark,” Shapiro said. “He just played the game with an incredible sense of joy. But when it came down to it, he also put the team on his back. He competed and he wanted to win. I feel like we’re still establishing what our identity is as a team and last year was just part of that process.

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“We’re still maturing. We’re still growing. But joy and fun will still be part of it. It’s not just going to go away.”

So there will be room for Vlad Guerrero Jr. and others to keep things light. But the hope is that it will be enhanced by an even deeper level of competitiveness. Winning enhances the fun factor, after all.

When it comes to that, Shapiro is confident of a leap forward in the win column.

“I think that we expect this team to win more games than it won last year,” Shapiro said. “I’m not going to limit us.  I would hope and expect we will be one of those teams that the sum of the people together is greater than just the objective expectation of how many games they can win.”

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