OK, Mark Shapiro fanbois– you will finally have a chance to prove me wrong.
I’ve written, almost since his promotion to GM (since he signed 37-year-old Brady Anderson to play centerfield in December of 2001, to be precise) that Mark Shapiro was an incompetent. I have never changed that opinion substantively. My argument is:
- Shapiro falsely believes that pitching has more value than hitting, and believed, for a very long time, that control pitchers had as much value as power pitchers.
- He believes (again falsely) that power hitters damage the team more with their strikeouts and slumps than they help it with the ability to move runners and (usually) draw walks.
- He drafted and signed according to his preferences, accounting for the spectacularly poor drafting during his tenure.
- He has no understanding of the value of defense, as evidenced by the decision to play marginal fielders with good bats (Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana) at key defensive positions.
- He prefers veterans (who have a major-league track record, even if they are past their prime) to prospects (whose value is unknown). He feel more comfortable using a 33-year-old over a 23-year-old.
- He does not think players need to serve an apprenticeship in the majors (settling into the league and overcoming jitters), and benches / demotes them before they can play the 200 at-bats, 15 starts or 25 relief appearances they need to settle in.
- He does not understand how to use trading– moving some of your surplus talent for a player another team doesn’t need– to expand his roster.
- He constantly asks players to switch defensive positions– at the high minor-league level or often the majors- because he does not understand how difficult it is for player to make that shift
- Contrary to his claims that he has a deep understanding of analytical data, he is an old-time baseball man who makes decisions based on prejudice.
- While the team payroll is low and the budget for free agents is limited, Shapiro consistently wastes $10-20 million per year on signings that were virtually certain to fail.
- His public image– that of an affable, low-key fellow– is a pose. Behind closed doors, he is rigid, intolerant of disagreement and dictatorial. He fired a manager who won a world series (Charlie Manuel) and cashiered a GM (Neal Huntingon) who turned a weaker franchise into a stronger team.
- He lies and manipulates others to keep his image burnished, repeatedly blaming bad luck for failed decisions and consistently throwing other people under the bus.
- Because he does not respect data, he shows virtually no ability to learn.
In Shapiro’s mind, his losing record as GM and inability to make the playoffs are excused by factors entirely beyond his control. He has blamed, among other things:
- The market size (Kansas City and Pittsburgh are the same size)
- Fan preference for football over baseball (not true; the Indians have owned many attendance records).
- The salary/payroll situation (even though his decisions waste $10-20 million per year)
The rise of the Royals and Pirates, as I wrote years ago, made Shapiro’s position untenable. Blaming the Browns or Cavs for lack of interest in his shopworn teams becomes impossible when Kansas City and Pittsburgh (whose NFL teams dominate the hearts of their fans to a degree the Browns do not) can have winning NFL teams, see the baseball team win– and have fans support them.
I was not surprised to see him leave before he was pushed out.
The Dolans, and Shapiro’s many apologists in the media, have always claimed that Shapiro is one of the greatest executives in the league. Were he to leave the team, they warned, the Indians would struggle to match his efforts– and most likely fail.
If Shapiro joined a team with a larger payroll– one that could support a reasonable salary level, talent retention and free agent strategy– he would assemble a team that quickly became dominant.
Well, now we have the chance to test that presumption. The Blue Jays:
- Won 93 games
- Reached the ALCS
- Finished fourth in attendance
- Had the sixth-highest team payroll
- Have six players with at least 3.0 Wins Above Replacement
In short, he has everything he needs to excel. And he’s already burning it down.
Shapiro formally assumed control of the Blue Jays on Monday, after they lost the ALCS. He held, as teams always do, a meeting to review the decisions and assess the players. At the meeting, he berated GM Alex Anthopoulos for the in-season trades he had made, claiming that the moves had decimated the talent base and left them unable to compete long-term.
Anthopoulos’s contract expired when the Blue Jays’ season ended. Ownership had offered him a new five-year deal. They even included a clause that let him opt out after one year, if he felt uncomfortable working under Shapiro.
He didn’t need a year– all it took was the meeting. Anthonopoulos refused the extension and left. The leaks have made it unmistakeably clear that the reason wasn’t salary, length or concern about locking himself into a bad fit.
Anthopoulos turned down left even though he is a native-born Canadian (having citizens on the team has always been something the fans, media and owners value). He left even though there are no GM jobs open. He left even though the most of the teams expected to clean house– the Angels (Billy Eppler), Mariners (Jerry Dipoto), Tigers (Al Avila), Red Sox (Mike Hazen) and Phillies (Matt Klentak)– had already picked new GMs.
That’s how much he wanted shed of the 21st-century incarnation of Gabe Paul.
There are other possibilities you can cite; there are four in this article. The problem is that #4 is obviously wrong. Ownership offered him a deal; by all accounts a good one. Anyway, you don’t leave if the money in the first offer is low– you stay and negotiate.
#3 seems highly unlikely– why would the Executive of the Year want to leave a team that reached the final four, is fourth in attendance and sixth in payroll? Especially since he is a national hero– this was the first time the Blue Jays had made the playoffs in 22 years.
#1 is entirely correct; Shapiro no doubt made it absolutely clear that he was going to be in charge, and that he would never approve deals like the ones Anthopoulos had made for SP David Price and SS Troy Tulowitzki his season.
#2 is also true– Shapiro absolutely cannot brook disagreement with any of his harebrained ideas.
But the move begs a question: Did Anthopoulos do a good job? Winning executive of the year is an absolutely meaningless honor– the winner is almost always the guy whose team surprised and made some blockbuster moves that paid off (at least in the short term). People vote for their buddies, or the best gladhanders.
To give you an idea of how appalling those awards are, Shaprio won twice. The first came in 2005– the year the Chicago White Sox won their first World Series since 1906. Ken Williams didn’t deserve it more?
The second was 2007, when the Boston Red Sox won their second world championship in four years. Shapiro beat Theo Epstein– even though Epstein had also been snubbed in 2004.
These awards– as John Madden once bellowed at me– get voted on by a bunch of jerkoff sportswriters. They make dumbass predictions about who’s going to win in the preseason, then give the postseason award to the guy who made them look like the biggest dumbasses. (He added a few adjectives I won’t include; dumbass is an edited version of the original. Raising the issue of “Coach of the Year” to a guy who had never won one wasn’t one of my more uplifting memories.)
So let’s look at the record. As Christina Kahrl correctly notes, it’s very difficult to see that Shapiro has much of a case:
David Price: They gave up three players for a half-season rental. He can leave in free agency and very well might. On the other hand, he is a great pitcher, he did go 9-1 and get them in the playoffs, they could re-sign him, they will get draft picks if he leaves… and the price wasn’t that high.
Jairo Lebourt is 21, and he had a pretty good season (other than the W-L record) in a high A league. Not an overwhelming prospect, but talented– and young pitchers often put things together very fast.
Matt Boyd has a terrific arm, and it’s entirely possible he will be a dominating strikeout pitcher someday (he was in the minors). But he’s 24, has made 13 starts and went 1-6 with a 7.53 ERA and 43 whiffs in 57.1 inning.
Trading him for a 29-year-old pitcher who is already one of the best in the game isn’t a ridiculous decision. Especially if you can re-sign Price.
Daniel Norris is the same story, except that he is younger than Boyd (22), was in the majors in 2014 and had a better year (3-2, 3.75 in 13 start; 53 hits and 18 walks in 60 innings; 43 whiffs).
Tulowitzki: This gets a little stickier. He’s 30 and under contract until 2020 at $118 million total. His bat has been inflated by playing in Colorado; he’s a good-not-great defender at this point (the gold gloves were in 2010-11, and they were a bit iffy).
This is where Shapiro’s insistence that you can build around pitching hurts his employer. All three of these guys are good prospects (I’d grade them between B- and B+). Counting Boyd and Norris, that’s five guys. But they aren’t overwhelming prospects. At the beginning of the season, only Hoffman and Norris were ranked really high— that mostly on promise.
Also, young pitchers can and do get injured. We could look back on the deals in a few years and say “What was this idiot thinking when he sent these guys away?” On the other hand, we could see a bunch of blown elbows, torn rotators and broken careers.
Let’s use an example– take Hoffman. He was the ninth pick in the draft in 2014, who signed too late to throw any innings. In 2015, his first season as a pro, he want 5-5 in 20 starts split between A and AA, with a 3.03 ERA. That’s certainly encouraging. But he was a college pitcher (he will turn 23 in January), so it isn’t unexpected. In fact, he’s a bit behind schedule.
If we look at the components, we see good but not great on all counts. He threw 104 innings, allowed 95 hits and 27 walks– and fanned 75.
I can imagine Hoffman starting in AA, dominating, moving to AAA and maybe getting a start in the majors. Then in 2017, at age 24, he begins mowing people down.
On the other hand, you could have made the same prediction about both Drew Pomerantz and Alex White— the high picks the Indians traded for Ubaldo Jimenez. Neither guy has ever panned out. The Indians probably won the trade, because they got half a good year from Jimenez when they needed it. Pomerantz might make it, because he’s now in Oakland, but even that will be a stretch..
I don’t know if I’d make the deals. But I don’t know that I wouldn’t.
And I know that my first meeting with the GM who did would not be an anal-retentive outburst where I tore my hair out and screamed “I hate you– I hate you!!!! You ruined my team!!!!!”
I can guarantee you that when the Blue Jays are 70-92, if any of those guys in playing well, Shapiro will finger Anthopoulos as the reason. When the Indians tanked, he blamed everything on John Hart trading Sean Casey and Danny Graves away, as if two very ordinary players could have saved the team.
Those trades were made before Shapiro was offered the job. If he felt the Blue Jays couldn’t compete after making those trades, he should have turned Toronto down.
Will the Blue Jays stay at 93 wins? I doubt it. The 2015 team gave substantial playing time to 8 hitters over 30. Three members of the rotation are over 30: Marco Estrada (31), Mark Buehrle (36) and B.A. Dickey (40).
They can take one more run at a title with this team. Price, Buehrle, backup catcher Dioner Navarro and 42-year-old reliever LaTroy Hawkins are the only free agents, but pretty much everyone is a free agent at the end of 2016– or past the point where you can trust them to keep playing well. (34-year-old Jose Bautista and 32-year old Edwin Encarnacion had good years in 2015, but I wouldn’t bet on that happening again.)
On the other hand, the Blue Jays have talent. If they can work it in as people begin to sputter, there’s no reason they couldn’t be competitive or better. 2B Devon Travis is 24 and he was a good player for 62 games this year and should be a very good one next year. The regular, Ryan Goins, was 2.7 wins above replacement in 128 games; Travis was 2.4 WAR in half the time. They swap him in, they get better.
CF Kevin Pillar is 26 and not a bad player (.278 batting. .713 on-base plus slugging and 5.2 WAR). But Dalton Pompey is 22. Before the year began, he was as highly-rated as Norris or Hoffman. His defense is already major-league (probably Gold Glove someday). The bat is maybe a year or two away (hard to say, he only had 103 at-bats). Put Pomfrey in center and move Pillar to left– or trade him– and you have another boost.
In the rotation, Drew Hutchison is 24, in his third year (he has 71 starts in the majors) and is trying to figure out how to turn potential into performance. he could come on big next year.
Two other young pitchers were not in the rotation, but could be. 22-year-old Aaron Sanchez had 11 starts and 30 relief appearances this year. he had an ERA of 3.22 and looks about ready to step in. The Jays also have 22-year-old Marcus Stroman, a #1 pick whose past has been better than anyone they traded. In 2014, he went 11-6 for the Jays with 111 whiffs in 20 starts and 130 innings. In 2015 he had injury issues, but still went 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA.
Which, I’m sure, is one of the reasons Anthopoulos felt he was on safe ground. He has three young pitchers and four veterans– how many does he need? But according to Shapiro, you can’t ever have too many… although he thinks right fielders or DHes are luxuries.
The bullpen has no one older than 27; the closer is 20. But knowing Shapiro the way I do, I know he doesn’t see Alberto Osuna as a positive. Osuna had 20 saves and a 2,58 ERA, but Shapiro will fixate on his 1-6 record– and his age– rather than looking at what he did well.
Again, there are prejudices. Shapiro believes that closing is a job that requires veteran experience– he prefers closers in their late 20’s or early 30’s. He also insists that a player cannot fully develop unless he spends a year at every minor league level. Osuna didn’t pitch in either AA or AAA– jumped from A ball to the majors– and Shapiro will get him down the minute he blows a save.
That belief, by the way, was why there never any possibility that Shapiro would ever have extended Charlie Manuel as manager. Manuel was running the club when they decided to jump C.C. Sabathia to the majors from A ball. Shapiro went ballistic– vehemently objected– but he was only the assistant GM and Manuel was the manager.
I’m sure he still thinks Sabathia would have had a better career had he stayed in the minors to 25 or 29 or something. Last time I checked, he did.
Toronto’s minor-league system is stocked with players who aren’t that far away– and could be capable of taking a leap. CF Anthony Alford is 20, and he played in a low-A and high-A league in 2015. He:
- Runs like a deer (27 steals)
- Plays good defense (not better than Pompey, but better than anyone in Cleveland),
- Has a decent arm
- Has a career .286 average in 749 at-bats
- Has hit 32 doubles, 9 triples and 10 homers.
- Has amazing strike zone judgment for a kid (67 walks in 487 at-bats last year, and only 109 whiffs).
I don’t know which direction his skills will take him. He could be a leadoff hitter with line-drive power and speed. He could also fill out and start jacking the ball.
It’s also hard to say when he will arrive. Really talented guys don’t move in a straight line. On some teams he might make the majors next year– they’d say “Let’s get him up here and see what he can do.” On many, he’d spend half the year in AA and half in AAA and maybe get a September in.
Others would go slowly only because Pompey is in front of him and Pillar is ahead of him. (Ben Revere and Chris Colabello split left and did really well at that, though I wouldn’t bet on it happening again.)
Point being that his presence would mean you wouldn’t worry too much about Bautista. But Mark Shapiro is likely to want Alford back in a high A league, because he believes you can damage a player by moving him too fast.
One of the things that’s amusing about this event is seeing the Toronto media react to Shapiro’s complaints about stripping the farm system. Many are asking precisely what I used to: “What does Shapiro know about running a farm system? The Indians almost never have talent unless they trade for it. Anthopoulis got the team into the ALCS– Shapiro only managed it once too.”
The number of guys like Alford and Pompey is the reason I wouldn’t have bet against Toronto winning 93 again. I can imagine all kinds of stuff going wrong… but I can imagine a bunch of kids coming out of nowhere.
20-year-old 1B Rowdy Tellez hit .275 with an .811 OPS in a high A league in 2015 and posted a .949 OPS in a low A league the year before.
Tellez might need a full year in AA or he might tear up spring training and shove Justin Smoak off of first and maybe be rookie of the year in 2016.
And manager John Gibbons, backed by Anthopoulos, might have let him.
It won’t happen now. Veterans will have to demonstrate, beyond any possible doubt, that they’ve hit rock bottom. Shapiro will fire Gibbons the first chance he gets, because Gibbons attacks problems too aggressively and takes too many risks, That gives Shapiro hives.
Bottom line is that I’m delighted by this development. When Mark Hargrove left the Indians, he went first to Baltimore (who was under .500) and then Seattle (who had crashed to 63-99). Since he had no winning seasons after leaving the Indians (he retired during his final year, when he was 45-33), and he never developed any starting pitching, most people can see that Hargrove was flawed– a good offensive manager and dab hand at a bullpen, but hopeless with a rotation.
Some Indians fans, however, still insist he was a great manager done wrong by his front office.
I’m sure there will be people, when Toronto goes to 84 wins next year and then 77 in 2017, who say that Anthopoulos screwed Shapiro by trading young pitching. But most other people, watching players comparable to Casey Kotchman, Jack Hannahan and Gavin Floyd being deployed, will divine the truth.
Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.