March 29, 2019 by Darren Clarke
“What are we doing here Mark? Is this business?”
Ex-Gwyneth Paltrow fiancee Brad Pitt as Billy Beane to Mark Shapiro in the middle of a failing trade negotiation in the movie Moneyball
Part 2 of 8 Reasons to Love Baseball in 2019 presents for your consideration the similarities and differences between the current editions of the San Diego Padres and Toronto Blue Jays. Numbers three and four of eight reasons to get into baseball this year.
As a Jays fan the Jays vs Padres story coming into this offseaon presented comparable junctures in team “rebuilds,” young talent pools flanked by iffy established players contrasted in terms of managements approach to treating their prospects and how actively they looked to acquire talent to support them over the course of the winter.
Let’s dig in. Starting with Freddy Galvis.
The six-degrees of separation in life and Kevin Bacon, the idea that everybody is just a few degrees way from everybody else in life, always appears even more intimate in the compressed world of professional baseball. One day the fate of the San Diego Padres is irrelevant to your existence as a Toronto Blue Jays fan, the next, former Padres shortstop Freddy Galvis is in your infield and ex-Padres starter Clayton Richard is in your rotation. And it makes you think- Is my team’s desire for 2019 to become the 66-96 2018 Padres? And, what, if any, is the connection between the Blue Jays and the Padres? What lay deeper in this Six-Degrees of Freddy Galvis?
The Padres and the Jays comparables begin with the fact that, over the past twenty years, they have both managed 90-win seasons exactly once. Once. They both made the playoffs twice. The Jays have won approximately 100 more games over that time span but it’s hard to ignore the similarities in terms of lack of overall success. But this offseason provided a stark contrast in perspectives that will be a compelling watch as both teams move forward. At the forefront of the sudden Jays-Padres zeitgeist of course would be the Jays taking two of San Diego’s more suspect contributors last year off their hands. If you are a Jays fan though your local sports media, much of it paid by the same people who own the ball club itself, weren’t keen on investigating the connection or simply providing objective reporting on the acquisitions. Witness Mike Wilner, of the Rogers Communication radio staton, The Fan 590, tweeting in the wake of the two acquisitions-Yes, Clayton Richard who is 35, who posted a combined ERA of 5.03 over the past two years in a fantastic pitching park, is portrayed only as an effective ground ball pitcher, “… and that’s a good thing.” Galvis is portrayed more accurately given he is the very definition of an average- good-glove-limited-hit-tool player but the positive framing of his uncanny ability to get his average-ness out to the field on a daily basis is a bit of a stretch, “… health is proving to be a skill.” (Try using that at your next job interview- “I’m not that great at what I do but I am skillfully healthy!”)
Galvis began his career with the same organization San Diego GM AJ Preller began his with- Philadelphia, birthplace of Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother Blythe Danner. In Philly Galvis was part of a largely underachieving Phillies team that spent the last five years of his time there treading water with win totals in the sixties and seventies. Upon his departure last year the team spent the bulk of the season surprisingly competing for the NL East crown with the Braves before faltering towards the end of the season and finishing third. Still, the Phillies managed to reach the 80-win plateau for the first time in six years.
The Jays and Padres spent last season adrift in mediocrity. The Clayton Richard and Galvis transactions, while providing a nice symbolic connection between the two teams and their current direction, isn’t really at the heart of what is compelling here though, instead, the intrigue lay in the dramatically different views taken by the two teams this offseason in terms of what to do and how to do it going forward.
Both teams ended last year with limited elements on their pre-existing team to get excited about juxtaposed to highly ranked farm systems (generally both left 2018 with, depending upon who was doing the ranking, Top-5 to Top-10 farm systems, Fangraphs for example had San Diego at #1 the Jays at #5).
The caveat here is money. The Jays payroll last season ran just north of 160-million while the Padres was 71-million. A substantial difference. This offseason the Jays front office elected to move large contracts like Troy Tulowitski, Russell Martin and Kendrys Morales while still retaining the bulk, if not all, of the remaining money attached to their contracts. In essence the Jays paid over 40-million in return for a few peripheral prospects. But this isn’t a league with a hard cap and the luxury tax/”Competitive Balance Tax,” penalty for 2019 doesn’t kick in until the threshold of 206-million (the Jays currently sit at 113+ million coming into the 2019 season according to spotrac). Moreover the Jays are owned by Canadian communications giant Rogers, with a whole country at their disposal as a fan base and should have no business acting like they aren’t a large market team. The reality is that money shouldn’t be an issue for the Jays and if it is it’s entirely the result of a terribly short sighted viewpoint.
So coming into this offseason we had two spotty MLB lineups with strong farm systems looking to the future. One, San Diego, reacted to the opportunities available this off season and provided their prospects with a real chance to make the team out of Spring Training, the other, Toronto, passively looked to play a long game, refusing to meaningfully engage with free agents, while placing future years of contractual control ahead of doing the right thing for their team, their fans, their player.
I would quote the Jays management commenting on electing to put the extra year of control ahead of serving their players talents honestly but the team will never come out and say it. Because they can’t. It would contravene the CBA. And here’s a good rule of thumb in life- If you can’t be honest about the reason you are doing something you are probably doing the wrong thing.
“Committed to carrying their best 25.”
Which brings us to first baseman Peter Alonso who at age twenty cracked the Mets roster. After it was announced he had made the team Alonso stood teary eyed in the clubhouse, clearly emotional about making the team. The argument for keeping players down in the minors for an extra month is to delay them accumulating the six-years service time required to become a free agent, in the process saving the team money and extending the team’s years of control over a player. Proponents of delaying prospects being brought up to the major leagues for this reason will say, “Who cares? Loyalty doesn’t mean anything anymore anyways. The player is going to try to get the most they can when they get the chance regardless of how well you treat them.”
The problem though is that these really are people. Peter Alonso clearly cares. It matters to him and he’s likely to remember how the Mets chose to treat him. And even if you can’t get the emotion, even if you don’t believe loyalty lives in this Trump-ian Age of the Grifter, maybe you can understand that there is a real lifting of the proverbial wallet going down, maybe you can get that any person might hold a grudge for the tens of thousands of dollars in the short term, millions in the long term, effectively being stolen from them by people who won’t admit to what they are doing. And there’s more. Even if you are still determined to be skeptical about the future impact of suppressing service time consider the extensions being signed right here, right now, by high profile players electing to forgo free agency. Not just any players, the very best players, inclusive of the greatest player in baseball Mike Trout in Los Angeles, Aaron Nola of the Phillies, Paul Goldschmidt with the Cardinals, just to name a few, not to mention 2018 Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom from those very same Mets whose GM happens to be former agent Brodie Van Wagenen (who was part of Creative Artists Agency whose clients included “Captain Dan,” Gary Sinise, John Tavares of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Willie Nelson who, in 2012, covered the song- The Scientist, originally done by the band Coldplay featuring Gwyneth Paltrow’s then husband Chris Martin). On the Mets Hot Stove Van Wagnenen followed up a statement about being willing to forgo that extra year of control on Alonso with, “To me if you are able to accumulate six years of service time without a hiccup, that’s a high class problem for an organization to have.”
Continuing the Six-Degrees of Freddy Galvis theme, coming into 2019 the two top prospects in baseball were generally viewed as- Vlad Guerrero Jr. from the Jays and Fernando Tatis Jr. from the Padres. In that order. Two young men born months apart in 1999 whose fathers played together with the Montreal Expos in the early 2000’s. As mentioned, the Jays elected, as they did at the end of last season when Vladdy in AAA Buffalo appeared more than ready for The Show (his line with the Bisons ending as .336/.414/.564 in 128 at bats) to delay his debut with the team in 2019. The Padres chose a different tact with Fernando Tatis Jr. electing to have him with the team for opening day in 2019.The Padres didn’t just do it with Tatis Jr., they also elevated 22-year-old starting pitcher Chris Paddack who has only pitched 37 innings above A ball. Why? Because like the Mets they were electing to field the most competitive team and Paddack has all the makings of a brilliant starter.
Which brings us to free agency and the contrast in how each team elected to view 26-year olds. This latest instalment of Free Agency featured two prominent 26-year olds- Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. With the league deeply embroiled in pretending they aren’t colluding again there were limited teams involved in bidding on the two players. Nonetheless, one of the teams that definitely was in was the mid-market Padres. One of the teams that definitely wasn’t was the Jays.
In the end the Padres missed out on Harper but secured a high-end third baseman in Manny Machado, who, despite his concerted efforts in the 2018 World Series to spike as many first baseman as possible is a insanely talented young ball player. Machado signed for 300-million dollars over 10 years with San Diego. (Harper elected to go to Freddy Galvis’s original team, the Phillies)
Though Toronto management was coy about their interest in the two big fish of Free Agency there was little doubt they were not in the mix on either Harper or Machado. Beyond that, the management note passers in the Toronto media were floating out stories of Aaron Sanchez along with Marcus Stroman being moved over the course of this season as part of the ongoing rebuild. Now, Stroman is 29 so the idea of moving him isn’t exactly crazy but Sanchez is 26. Begging the question- How long exactly is this rebuild going to be? Sanchez is the same age as Machado and Harper, players the Padres were actively interested in as young players to lead them into the future. If you can’t rebuild with an elite 26-year old starter what exactly are you doing?
“What are we doing here Mark?”
(Again, the quote is from Brad Pitt as Billy Beane to the Mark Shapiro character in the movie Moneyball. The same Brad Pitt who wore a San Diego Padres hat in the movie Spygame with Robert Redford, Redford of course starred in the great baseball movie- The Natural, filmed at War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, Buffalo being the current home to the Jays’ AAA farm team, the Buffalo Bisons)
And while some might balk at the idea of mentioning Sanchez in the same breath as Machado and Harper you have to remember this is pitching, you have to recalibrate when it comes to evaluating the value of pitchers. Pitching is by its’ nature a far more fragile, far more volatile, commodity than position players. But it’s a commodity you have to deal in successfully if you ultimately want to win. Remember too that Sanchez’s injury issues have been, while wild and whacky, blisters and nebulous finger/nail issues, they haven’t been of the ten-foot pole variety- shoulder and elbow. Everything that made Sanchez so great in 2016 that he was selected for the All-Star Game held in San Diego is in theory still there waiting to bust out. What should make you want to look at retaining Sanchez is this- He’s a big body that has shown the ability to be dominant over a full season. That’s extremely rare. Sanchez is so good that despite being pretty much limited to throwing two pitches last year (lingering blister/finger issues limiting the use of his outstanding curve ball) he still outpitched Clayton Richard. Sanchez’s fastball is so electric, so elusive, that he could function as a decent starter with just his fastball. That’s how damned good he is.
You want to a good reason to watch Jays games this year? Aaron Sanchez. He could be a top-5, top-10, starter in the AL this year. If he’s healthy it’s as much a certainty as you find in pitching beyond Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer being awesome.
The Jays though will tell you over and over they have a process. That where the Padres are now they will soon be. Padres GM AJ Preller took over his position in San Diego one year prior to Shapiro taking over his in Toronto, so Shapiro being behind in terms of aggressiveness would appear to make a kind of sense. The idea being that once the lingering dollars attached to the large contracts of jettisoned players are in the rear view mirror they will be able to supplement their young stars- Vladdy, shortstop Bo Bichette, catcher Danny Jansen, pitcher Nate Pearson, as they ascend to the big leagues.
In fairness there’s no doubt that the Blue Jays have talent in their system and that they will have a lower payroll to work with beyond this season. Debates of this type always become caricatures rendered in absolutes and they really don’t have to. I don’t have to think everything Mark Shapiro has done since endeavouring in baseball management beginning in 1991 is bad in order to be discriminatingly critical of his overall efforts in Toronto. Similarly, I also don’t have to think former GM Alex Anthopolous was entirely perfect during his tenure in the Big Smoke.
If we’re going to really talk about Mark Shapiro though we have to be honest about the reality of his career particularly his nine-year tenure as GM for Cleveland from 2002-10 . In nine years he won Executive of the Year in both 2005 and 2007 and made the playoffs three times. The flipside of those positives though is disturbing- Cleveland won less than 70-games three times, and only managed to finish above .500 on three occasions. This willingness to accept a ratio of three bad-to-mediocre seasons for one decent-to-good season/playoff appearance, like all actions has its’ consequences, one of which would be fan interest. When you compound that with the challenges the Jays appear to have in communicating to fans and players alike (how many times are disenchanted players concerns to be dismissed before we are allowed to recognize the common denominator?) you can see how that would likely play a part in diminishing fan attachment to their team. Further, Shapiro’s time in Toronto began with him losing a creative GM in Alex Anthopolous (who began his career with the Expos at the same time Vlad Guerrero Sr and Fernando Tatis Sr were playing there) and replacing him with former Cleveland Indian minor leaguer and executive, Ross Atkins who took immediate steps towards providing the kind of passive neglect that leads to feeling the need for a rebuild.
“What are we doing here Mark? Is this business?”
“This is how we do business in Cleveland.”
Was there a crazy amount of injuries for the Jays? Absolutely. But if, the year after your rotation stayed healthy all season, your only real depth starter beyond your top five is Matt Latos, the Matt Latos, you aren’t giving yourself a chance to be successful.
So what do we have in Mark Shapiro? Is he terrible. Of course not. Is he good? Generally? No, no he isn’t. More to the point, is he exceptional? Has he ever been exceptional? Exceptional in terms of being an executive can only be defined by World Series rings. In his time as a Major League executive, stretching back to 1991 Shapiro has yet to be part of a Championship organization. Why? Maybe he wasn’t lucky enough, like really lucky enough. We can all name not-so-great-players, managers, GM’s who have a ring. But, after almost thirty years, Mark Shapiro doesn’t have a ring. And yeah, maybe there’s a little luck involved but maybe it’s really something more than that- His Process.
They talk about Process all the time in Toronto, The Process. Like a God. The problem is though that a rigid, unmovable, process set against an ever-changing context in terms of player availability and opportunities to improve your team is doomed to the kind of limited results you see in Shapiro’s resume. And there’s zero reason why the Jays should work in such a tired, uncreative, manner. Look at another big market team- The Yankees.
In mid-2016, after repeated years of good-but-not-great, mid-80’s, wins totals, the Yankees traded elite closer Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs for a package that included 19 year-old uber-prospect Gleyber Torres. It was a brilliant pickup in and of itself. Months later though the Yankees made sure that deal was ten touchdowns in ten minutes great as they re-acquired Chapman as a free agent. In 2017 the Yankees won 91 games, in 2018 100 games. It is worthy of noting that the 2018 Yankees featured Gleyber Torres who finished 3rd in Rookie of the Year voting and Chapman who save 32 games and posted a 2.45 ERA.
Similarly there is the old story of former Jays GM Alex Anthopolous calling Billy Beane incessantly inquiring about the then thought untouchable Josh Donaldson until one day, for whatever reason, Bean was open to talking about a deal. The Jays got an MVP and a huge contributor to two meaningful playoff runs. There’s no process that suggests that kind of behaviour. You get what you can get when you can get it. You create, you at times contradict, you find a way. Opportunity is fleeting, great opportunities are not a constant.
Subsequent Anthopolous’s departure Donaldson was one of the many Jays who struggled to stay healthy despite the presence of Shapiro’s much vaunted Sports Science Team. Donaldson, like Aaron Sanchez this past season, elected to seek help outside the Jays organization in an apparent show of frustration with the Jays staff. These kind of challenges which have seemed to plague the Jays organization have to be concerning given the success of a rebuild takes much more than simply good draft position.
Take the Astros.
The modern benchmark for rebuilds is Houston. Everybody who is rebuilding (and there’s a lot teams doing that) mentions the Houston model of absolutely burning the house down for four to five seasons while somehow not mentioning the Yankees reboot on the fly or Boston’s rapid rejuvenations in the recent past. We also fail to mention that having to rebuild is an admission of categorical failure. Still the cult of the sexy, tear it all the way down and slowly build it back up, drones on, always talking about Houston, not the long, wasted decades in Kansas City before they stumbled into a World Series, not the never-endingly lost Islanders, Panthers, Hurricanes or Oilers in hockey (hockey clearly struggles with rebuilding), nor the Bills or Browns (once coached by Shapiro’s brother-in-law Eric Mangini) in football, it’s always Houston. But here’s what Houston did- Jeff Luhnow followed up Ed Wade’s 100 loss season in 2011 with 107 and 111 loss seasons, then a 92 loss season, utter and complete crap for the fans to see for four seasons. A World Series was to come later but it bears mentioning that by that point the Astros were doing far more than simply reaping the rewards of solid draft position, they were transforming players into better versions of themselves- Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock, Collin McHugh, even Justin Verlander, tapped into some magic beyond their former incarnations to play pivotal roles in a World Series where a tuned in AJ Hinch (who, as a player, was traded to Billy Beane’s A’s in the deal that brought Johnny Damon to Oakland and was vice president of professional scouting for San Diego until he resigned the day before AJ Preller was hired) masterfully pulled the strings on his pitchers, recognizing who had it and who didn’t, completely out managing former Padres player and first base coach, Dave Roberts of the Dodgers, who kept reading off the same tired, not working, script unwilling to adjust to the fumbling lines, i.e. Yu Darvish serving up pizza after pizza in Game 7 (as I’m sure he was warming up in front of coaches) in exactly the same fashion he did earlier in the series when he couldn’t make it through the second inning by which point it was already too late.
The point is, there was more to the Houston World Series than simply tanking season after season and making fans watch hundreds of games of awful baseball.
At some point a team needs another gear than passive accumulation which brings us back to San Diego GM AJ Preller (who once worked in the Commisioners office rubbing elbows with former Blue Jays President Paul Beeston) pouncing on Manny Machado this offseason, electing to forgo an extra year of control on Paddack and Tatis Jr. and instead have them contributing to the team from Day One of the season. Preller chose to compete. The Jays have chosen not to.
San Diego and Toronto. Two teams with clear similarities and clear differences. Two teams who, one year apart, had Freddy Galvis as their starting shortstop on Opening Day. Two teams with different approaches to treating their prospects and young stars. In a way it’s almost a morality play as much as it is functional one.
Which brings us to Gwyneth Paltrow.
Maybe you remember the movie Sliding Doors starring the lovely, albeit, according to my wife, not-good-at-naming-children, Gwyneth Paltrow (she has a point, see: Apple and Moses). The movie featured two separate narratives, two separate possibilities, that bloom at an early juncture in the film, after she’d just lost her job and was trying to catch a subway train home. One story followed her fate after she caught the train, the other story observed her after a small child playing on the subway stairs caused her to miss the train. Paltrow’s character has both very different and very similar events unfold (relaying the imminence of certain junctures in life) leading her to two decidedly contrasting endings.
Sliding Doors is actually based on a movie called Blind Chance by the brilliant Polish director Krysztof Kieslowski. In Blind Chance the protagonist, Witek, chases a train and is faced with three different outcomes as he makes varying choices along the way.
In both movies though there is no moral massaging of the possibilities of fate. In both cases the most tragic twists of fate are attached to the timelines wherein the character largely appeared to behave best (word to the wise- If you find your life broken up into multiple timelines, do not take an airplane flight or run blindly out into the street).
So what am I trying to say? That anything could happen. San Diego’s altruistic competitive decisions might end up with the team chewed up by the high quality of National League competition or Fernando Tatis Jr running out into traffic and being hit by a truck, while Toronto’s blatant manipulation of their players salaries and reluctant competitive choices might still somehow lead to them make some hay against lousy American league competition or drop an earring in an elevator that will be picked up by a charming, Monty Python quoting, man, who they will end up falling deeply in love with.
It’s kind of about destiny, it’s kind of not.
Kevin Bacon turned down the role of Captain Dan in the movie Forrest Gump and instead the role ended up being magnificently played by Brodie Van Wagenen’s Creative Artists Agency client Gary Sinise. As movie ends Forrest Gump considers Captain Dan, human industry and destiny as he waxes philosophical, “I don’t know if Momma was right or if, if it’s Lieutenant Dan. I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.”
All we can do is watch.
All we can do is root for the good guy, root for the good choices. Regardless of how it ends.