Why shuffling Ross Atkins to a new role is a horrible idea for the Blue Jays

Would a new GM realise Mark Shapiro’s promise of an obsessive focus on winning and on building a strong farm system?
Tampa Bay Rays v Toronto Blue Jays
Tampa Bay Rays v Toronto Blue Jays / Mark Blinch/GettyImages

In a recent column, Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun suggested that Toronto Blue Jays general manger Ross Atkins might be shuffled to another front office role within the organisation after the season. That would be a disaster.

“Shapiro, the Blue Jays president, with one year left on his contract and this horrible season to answer for, doesn’t have many bullets left to play with here. With two years left on his own deal, Atkins — his close friend and the GM he gave a rousing endorsement to at the end of the playoff mish-mash of a year ago — will likely be shuffled into another front office position with a fancy title and replaced by another general manager that Shapiro will have complete control over.”

For any business school graduate who’s taken courses in organisational design, management decision making and leadership, that makes zero sense. Not only would it mean that the new GM would have his failed predecessor looking over his shoulder — and likely in many of the same meetings — as part of team president Mark Shapiro’s collaborative front office, it wouldn’t allow for a clear new front office direction on the baseball operations side.

After nine years, it’s time for a change in the front office leadership. Ross Atkins is now the longest tenured Blue Jays GM after only the Hall of Famer Pat Gillick, who built an expansion franchise into back-to-back World Series champions in 1992-93, won five AL East division titles, and built the top ranked farm system in baseball in his 17 seasons. His teams had a .566 winning percentage from 1985 to 1993.

Apart from the 2022 team, which had a .568 winning percentage, Atkins has done none of those things in his time in Toronto, with the team compiling a 650-634 record for a .506 winning percentage, and zero AL East titles and zero playoff game wins since 2016.

This is professional sports; the whole point on the baseball operations side of the business is to build a roster capable of contending for a World Series. To shuffle him somewhere else in the front office after failing to do that would be to reward failure, and would send the wrong message to the organisation — that failure is tolerated.

The Blue Jays haven’t won a playoff game since 2016, with a team that Atkins largely inherited from his predecessors. They haven’t won an AL East pennant since Alex Anthopoulos left after the 2015 season, and they were the 8th (and final) playoff seed in an expanded Wild Card playoff format during the pandemic shortened 2020 season, and the 6th (and final) Wild Card seed last year.

The 2024 Blue Jays appear headed for a sell-off after struggling for much of the season to score runs and shut down opponents in the later innings in relief. And the farm system appears to be in complete disarray.

Atkins was here when the Blue Jays ranked 3rd overall in BA’s midseason ranking update in early August 2018, with top ranked prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Nate Pearson and Danny Jansen. It’s been a steep fall since then, with the upcoming midseason rankings likely putting the Blue Jays somewhere between No. 26~ 30 overall.

That’s a big change. According to Baseball America, “The Blue Jays have ranked No. 1 in our organization talent rankings on three separate occasions. Through much of the 1980s and early 1990s, the Blue Jays were the gold standard when it came to drafting and player development. Toronto never ranked lower than eighth in our farm system rankings from 1986 to 1996. The club ranked No. 1 in 1987 and 1988 as well as 1993 and ranked second an additional two more times.”

Shapiro insists on collaboration in baseball operations and won’t give fully autonomy to Atkins’ successor

But would changing the GM even matter? Ever since former GM Alex Anthopoulus rejected Blue Jays’ owner Ed Roger’s last minute contract extension offer following the 2015 season, the whispers have been that he was only offered a demotion from having full autonomy on baseball operations at the time to “collaborate” with the newly hired team president Mark Shapiro.

Anthopulos’ comments in subsequent interviews reinforce that storyline: “The one thing I always came back to is “who are you going to work with and who are you going to work for”… at the end of the day, you can have the greatest organization in the world, if you’re working for people you don’t enjoy, you don’t believe in them, they don’t believe in you, what environment is that going to be? How rewarding is that going to be?”

We can only speculate, but that lack of autonomy can perhaps be explained by Shapiro’s comments in a June 2023 Forbes article on leadership strategy, discussing how he and the Blue Jays' management team have “established a framework for meetings through which they intentionally eliminate the influence of experience or the loudest voices in the room to ensure younger employees feel safe to share their opinions, and to ensure that their ideas are valued.”

In Shapiro’s own words: “I try to break down those formal definitions and boundaries of leadership as best as I possibly can. We spend a lot of time thinking about a framework for our decision-making processes and about regressing our biases.”

Bottom-line, it doesn’t sound like any new GM working in a Blue Jays front office led by Shapiro will have autonomy over baseball operations. And that’s a shame given the huge sample size of failure he’s had since he was first promoted to be Cleveland’s general manger following the 2001 season.

Shapiro was Cleveland’s GM from 2002-2010, and then served as their team president from 2011-2015. Cleveland had ONE playoff series win over that stretch. Attendance numbers also declined over those 14 seasons, falling from almost 3.2 million when he was appointed GM to a low of just under 1.4 million in 2010, his final season as GM.

In fact, it was Shapiro’s successor Chris Antonetti and his assistant GMs Mike Chernoff and Derek Falvey who built Cleveland into a postseason contender. After winning just one AL Central pennant under Shapiro, they’ve won four division titles since Shapiro left the organisation, went to the 2016 World Series, and are again handily leading their division, with Antonetti now the team president and Chernoff now the GM. Falvey has gone on to run baseball operations for the Minnesota Twins.

In fact, Shapiro focused on the Progressive Field renovations after 2010. He made a comment that getting back involved in the baseball operations side was one of the key attractions for him in accepting the Toronto job: "I think what's more important is this, I don't know any situation where there's that much focus on pure autonomy.“

So many Blue Jays fans might be asking what happened to the promises to fans that Shapiro made when he was first introduced as the team’s new president in November 2015: “If you want to have a championship organisation that can contain success, regardless of market and payroll, then you need to have a healthy and vibrant farm system. Sometimes that's to make trades, like the ones that were just made, and sometimes it's built as the core of your foundation. You will have an obsessive focus on winning and on building a strong farm system."

Would shuffling Ross Atkins to another role in the front office and appointing a new GM improve the Blue Jays chances of building a championship organisation? Would it help build a healthy and vibrant farm system?

Given that wholesale changes in both amateur and professional scouting, draft strategy, and player development are all likely needed, having Ross Atkins looking over the shoulder of his successor means the answer to those two questions above is a resounding “no”. But as Steve Simmons suggested, it also appears unlikely to change with another general manager that Shapiro will have complete control over.