Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro speaks in annual springtime media availability

“We’ve got a strong core in place, so we doubled down in the belief of our players. That’s the bottom line.”

Arizona Diamondbacks v Toronto Blue Jays
Arizona Diamondbacks v Toronto Blue Jays / Vaughn Ridley/GettyImages

Ahead of his 9th season with the organization, Toronto Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro spent about an hour on Thursday in his annual preseason session with the media at the Blue Jays’ Player Development Complex in Dunedin. While there weren’t any surprises, he did offer some clarity on a few key questions.

New angles at Rogers Centre make it more like a ballpark

On the second phase of the close to $400M in renovation work at Rogers Centre ahead of the team’s April 8th home opener, Shapiro noted the Blue Jays have reimagined the lower bowl, reorienting the seats toward home plate and making it feel “like a baseball field, not like a circle dropped in the middle of a big concrete circle.”

Per Kaitlyn McGrath of The Athletic (subscription required), “The new angles mean the field will have its foul territory reduced by 3,000 square feet in total. In theory, that may make Rogers Centre a more hitter-friendly environment, but Shapiro cautioned against making assumptions considering many expected the new outfield dimensions introduced last year would make the ballpark more hitter-friendly and it was anything but.”

There are also redesigned dugouts and player facilities, including a new batting cage and a 30-yard running track behind the dugouts, plus “the best, biggest clubhouse in Major League Baseball — by far, it won’t even be close,” Shapiro said.

He told Sportnet’s Arden Zwelling he hopes that “taking the philosophy towards supporting our players, and providing them with the best environment to maximize their performance, [and] to encourage a championship culture that we accomplished [at the player development complex in Dunedin]” should mean a facility that maximizes the opportunity to provide resources to their players and staff.

The pursuit of Shohei Ohtani

Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from his comments on what turned out to be a failed attempt to lure perennial MVP candidate Shohei Ohtani to Toronto was Shapiro’s debunking of the often claimed myth that high-end players don’t want to take their talents north to Canada.

“It’s great to go from that narrative that free agents won’t sign,” Shapiro said. “To bring (George) Springer, [Hyun Jin Ryu], (Kevin) Gausman, (Chris) Bassitt and then (the pursuit of) Ohtani … I mean nine years ago I was told free agents wouldn’t sign here and you have to pay a premium.”

“It’s clearly not the case. We’re having a conversation with the most pre-eminent free agent in the history of modern baseball and we are among the few teams he’s [seriously] considering.”

On payroll capacity and long term extensions for the core

With a 26-man roster made up mix of veterans in their mid-30s and a core in their prime approaching free agency, the Blue Jays are running with a top ten payroll in Major League Baseball again this year, and appear likely to trigger a luxury tax for a second consecutive season on their projected $248M competitive balance tax (CBT) payroll.

As a likely second-time CBT tax payor, any overages in payroll above the $237M luxury tax threshold this year will be taxed at 30%, with an additional 12% surcharge on overages of $20M ~ $40M. After trading Santiago Espinal and his $2.725M salary in 2024 to the Reds, the Blue Jays are comfortably under that $257M second-tier tax threshold, which means they could add a non-roster invitee like backup catcher Brian Serven, or a power-hitting DH like Joey Votto or Daniel Vogelbach to the 40-man roster, and still have room under the second tax threshold to add players ahead of the July 30th trade deadline.

But Shapiro was clear on payroll: he believes the Rogers Centre upgrades and the corresponding impact on revenues “will better support the way we’ve spent the past few off-seasons.”

“Upper levels of payroll are likely to be where we are or where we have been at,” he added, suggesting that the current projected 2024 CBT payroll of $248M is a sustainable spending ceiling.

Also, as McGrath of The Athletic notes, “The Blue Jays have yet to sign any homegrown players who make up their current core to long-term extensions, including Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk or Jordan Romano, among others.” When asked about the possibility of striking those deals, Shapiro said, “We’ve got to keep those conversations private. Those are ongoing.”

Belief in an “incredibly competitive” core

Shapiro’s confidence that the team can have a better outcome this season is founded in the belief of their own [core] players as they enter the prime of their careers, and complementing them with almost $50M AAV in signings this offseason, including exercising their two-year, $21M club option on Chad Green, bringing back Kevin Kiermaier on a one-year, $10.5M deal, inking Isiah Kiner-Falefa to a two-year, $15M contract, adding Justin Turner on a one-year, $13M flyer, and signing Yariel Rodríguez to a five-year, $32M pact.

On Thursday, Shapiro was predictably optimistic about the team despite returning largely the same core of the roster from last year: “[We believe] in the projections and the talent that we have in place… the fact that they’re entering the prime of their career — which means that their performances are going to be more reliable and dependable.” He concluded, “We’ve got a strong core in place, so we doubled down in the belief of our players. That’s the bottom line.”

At his year-end press conference last October following the painful wild card exit, Shapiro had said, “When we fall short of expectations, that responsibility and that accountability clearly lies with me. We've got work to do. That work is already underway.”

In October, he’d also said that general manager Ross Atkins “needs to get better, but he's done a good job, and put us in good position [in 2024] to be a very good team. [He] certainly deserves that opportunity to continue to lead the baseball organization.”

Blue Jays fans will now get the chance to see first hand if that work has paid off in a more competitive ball club for 2024.