James Click staying in Toronto puts immense pressure on Ross Atkins moving forward

Blue Jays’ VP of baseball strategy, James Click, is waiting in the wings should ownership decide to go in a different direction baseball operations wise.
World Series - Philadelphia Phillies v Houston Astros - Game Six
World Series - Philadelphia Phillies v Houston Astros - Game Six / Harry How/GettyImages

After a season apprenticing in Toronto, could former Houston Astros GM James Click be in-line to become the 7th full-time general manager in Blue Jays history? He’s certainly the odds-on-favourite as next in line in terms of the Jays current leadership succession planning were anything to prevent Ross Atkins from performing his duties.

Should the Jays regress further in 2024, that will certainly be the talk of the town as the current competitive window with Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. nears its conclusion after the 2025 season. They can both become free agents in two years, along with Chris Bassitt, Jordan Romano, Tim Mayza, Erik Swanson, Chad Green, Génesis Cabrera and Cavan Biggio.

The peak-to-date of the current competitive window with Bo & Vlad was the 2022 season, when the team won 92 games, and finished second in the AL East. They won the top Wild Card seeding after scoring 775 runs, the 4th-most in baseball that year after the Dodgers, Yankees and Braves, with the 2nd best wRC+ of 118, ie. 18% above league-average. However, that team was swept out of the postseason at home by the Mariners.

The 2023 team regressed to 89 wins, 3rd place in the AL East, and scored 746 runs, which ranked 14th in baseball. The wRC+ fell to 107, which ranked 8th overall. Thankfully the pitching was outstanding and made up for the weaker offence, with only 611 earned runs allowed, the 4th-lowest in MLB. The staff's ERA- was 90, 10% lower than league-average ERA and the 2nd-best mark after Milwaukee. But the team was still swept out of the playoffs after qualifying as the final Wild Card seed.

GM Gold Standard

Blue Jay historians hold up Hall of Famer Pat Gillick and his assistant GM Epy Guerrero as the gold standard for GMs in Toronto. They took an expansion franchise and turned it into an AL East pennant winner in just eight seasons, and built the core of a club that would win five AL East titles and back-to-back World Series titles from 1985 to 1993.

The only other GM in Blue Jays history to build an AL East pennant winner was Alex Anthopoulos in 2015, when the team finished two wins away from the World Series. The 2016 team would run it back to the ALCS, but the top ten players by WAR on that team were acquired by Anthopoulos and interim GM Tony LaCava, who served from October to December of 2015 before Atkins was hired.

It’s no secret that I’ve been critical of the eight-year body of work assembled by embattled Blue Jays’ GM Ross Atkins. The state of their current team includes a poorly ranked farm system, a payroll that triggered luxury taxes and penalties for signing qualified free agents this year, and one of the oldest 26-man rosters in baseball. The current seven-game playoff losing streak, including 0-6 with Bo and Vlad, doesn’t help.

Despite a top-five luxury tax payroll and supportive large market ownership, 12 arbitration eligible players under team control, plus two AL MVP finalists in 2021 in Guerrero and Marcus Semien; the 2021 AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray; 2022 Cy Young finalist Alek Manoah and 2023 finalist Kevin Gausman; plus multiple All-Stars, Gold Glovers and Silver Sluggers; the Blue Jays have never won the AL East under Atkins’ leadership in baseball operations in eight tries and they haven’t won a playoff game since he inherited the team.

By comparison, Anthopoulos was Toronto's GM for six seasons. His predecessor J.P. Ricciardi was here for eight seasons, and prior to that, Gord Ash was around for seven seasons following Gillick’s big footsteps as GM for 17 seasons. Blue Jays fans have now waited over 30 years since the last World Series team in Toronto, so an upcoming 9th season under Atkins isn’t as long, but… he’s bumping up against his term limits when it comes to building a roster capable of deep postseason success.

James Click staying in Toronto shines the glare on Ross Atkins

With news that James Click will not be leaving Toronto - at least this offseason - to take another GM job elsewhere, there should be immense pressure on Atkins to build a team that goes deep in the 2024 playoffs. A failure to challenge for the World Series next year in the penultimate year of team control of Bichette and Guerrero will surely be seen as a failure; and, as that competitive window closes, the team will likely have to start thinking of reloading or even rebuilding.

Click certainly knows his way around the baseball operations group of a front office. After graduating from Yale, he spent a few years at Baseball Prospectus, helping to maintain their PECOTA algorithm, a sabermetric system for forecasting MLB player performance. He was then hired as an intern by Tampa Bay in 2005 to help build a database for then 28-year old GM Andrew Friedman, and worked his way up to Rays’ VP of baseball operations from 2017-19 before Houston hired him.

Click oversaw a Houston Astros roster that put up a 230-154 record (.599), won two AL West pennants, and made three ALCS and two World Series appearances, while winning the 2022 World Series championship in his three seasons as Houston Astros GM.

He was able to work with a top payroll in Houston (5th-highest in both 2020 and 2021, and 8th-highest in 2022), as well as with key free agent departures, including George Springer after 2020 and Carlos Correa after 2021. So he has experience running a large market team like Toronto, and found internal solutions to replace Springer in Myles Straw, Chas McCormick and Jake Myers, as well as 2022 ALCS and World Series MVP Jeremy Peña to replace Correa. Plus his team won it all that year!

As Astros GM, he made 12 trades, including ones that brought aboard Kendall Graveman, Yainer Diaz, Phil Maton, Yimi García, Trey Mancini, Christian Vázquez and reliever Will Smith.

As James Yasko of the Houston Chronicle wrote late in the 2021 season, “what we have seen from James Click is a willingness to inherit one of the best rosters in baseball, leave it alone, navigate a crisis, see that the bullpen needed major help at the 2021 deadline, [and] address it…”

That crisis was precipitated by the Astros sign stealing scandal which led to the suspension of Click’s predecessor James Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch in 2020, and subsequent firing after the league investigation confirmed the Astros had cheated. They were then able to hire Dusty Baker to provide stability, and the Astros didn’t look back after also hiring Click from Tampa to be their new GM.

After his disastrous press conference following yet another early playoff exit, Ross Atkins is surely on the hot seat in Toronto. Thankfully James Click, is waiting in the wings should ownership and team president Mark Shapiro decide to go in a different direction baseball operations wise. He already has one World Series Championship under his belt with Houston, and would certainly be expected to deliver more with Toronto.