Blue Jays: Why the recent changes are not just about winning

TORONTO, ON - JULY 30: Steve Pearce
TORONTO, ON - JULY 30: Steve Pearce /

The most popular topic of conversation in recent weeks surrounding the Blue Jays relates to the changes we have seen in the organization since the midway point of last season to get them back to their winning ways.  Almost like a scene in the movie “Groundhog Day”, the icebreaker in all these discussions always starts with the following question – What exactly are Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins and President Mark Shapiro up to, and will it get us back to winning again?

Let’s recap what look to be the primary objectives of this off-season, to get back to winning:

  • The 2nd half of the 2018 season was about assessing player readiness and showcasing some of the Jays top prospects to build the team of the future (regardless of the fact that Number 1 overall prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr wasn’t allowed to move to the big club).
  • An over-abundance of infielders on the 40 man roster led to the movement of players to help balance the needs of the team in other positions of need.
  • The recent hiring of Charlie Montoyo as the Jays Manager was about bringing a young, progressive approach to the coaching and management of the team and its players and coaches.  With this change in leadership, it was inevitable that Montoyo would be given the opportunity to clean house and select his own coaching staff – as most new managers do.

If we agree that the Jays primary objectives this off-season revolve around these three areas of focus, then why has the following transpired:

  • Rumours surrounding the commitment the team has on keeping Marcus Stroman – a young, controllable key piece of the 2018 pitching staff.
  • The trading of Aledmys Diaz – one of the most versatile platoon infield pieces the Jays employed in 2018.
  • The inevitable movement/release of Yangervis Solarte – one of the only emotional spark plugs on a team that started 2018 with three easy series wins, and then an abysmal set of games against AL East rivals.
  • The retaining of Luis Rivera and Pete Walker – 3rd base and pitching coach respectively – two key positions on any MLB coaching staff.

For some of these moves, it obvious that there are new pieces coming up that offer more long-term value to the organization in terms of performance on the field and winning games.  However, if you allow me to take a step back in time,  I’d like to offer another point of view on how all these events are likely influenced by something else.

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Prior to the 2018 season, at the Blue Jays National Coaching Clinic, Mark Shapiro discussed a trip the coaching staff made to the offices of the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA,  to hold discussions and learn from the likes of Coach Popovich and other Spurs officials to understand the Spurs approach to building a successful professional sporting organization.

The conversations hinged on one element; Create a strong organizational culture and you create the building blocks for success.

The Spurs are one of the most successful professional sporting organizations in North America (yes – even more successful than the New England Patriots). Regardless of the Kawhi Leonard situation this past season, the Spurs pride themselves on their ability to acquire and retain quality players and coaches that buy into their team’s philosophy of success through the ‘building of strong interpersonal relationships’ throughout the organization.  Part of this is attributed to “Coach Pop’s” well known no-nonsense, honest approach to coaching – and someone who will drown his players and coaches with equal doses of harsh criticism and overwhelming love and affection to improve their performance.

Until the beginning of last season,  the culture of the Blue Jays was essentially driven by the likes of then-manager John Gibbons and the ghost of former GM Alex Anthopoulos.  The culture of the team was laid back from a coaching point of view, with feedback and criticism coming more from the players themselves.  With much of the roster from the 2015 and 2016 post-season runs still intact, and the Jays not in a position to make trades or sign free agents to retool the team, it made sense that the 2018 edition of the Blue Jays start the season with the status quo.  However, it’s likely Atkins and Shapiro were already making other plans.

Why dwell on culture?  Because the goal of a strong organization shouldn’t be about winning once; it should be about creating an environment for sustainable success.  Create the right culture, and you create sustainability for success which should translate into championships over the long term.

What exactly is team culture?  I like to think of it as ‘the way we all behave and treat each other on the team and throughout the organization”.  If we behave and treat each other in the same manner, regardless of who we are or what we represent in the organization, we develop a set of common values that help create an environment of success.  Common values build trust and with trust comes buy-in.  When we all believe in the same thing and how we reach our goals, success is usually the outcome.

So with all of this in play, what is significant about what the Jays are currently doing, or what they have chosen not to do?  It has more to do about encouraging a significantly different team culture than swapping in/out pieces to win immediately.

I can only speculate on the reasons Stroman, Diaz, and Solarte are finding themselves on the outside looking in, and Rivera and Walker finding themselves on the inside looking out.  All are capable pieces for any MLB team.

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But if the culture Atkins and Shapiro want to build is negatively impacted by the behaviours of Stroman, Diaz, and Solarte, and positively impacted by the likes of Rivera and Walker, the process they are taking should improve their fortunes in the foreseeable future.

Tino Merianos (aka Coach T)