Mark Shapiro cites Phillies, Padres as cautionary tales for spending on free agents
In our current era of austerity baseball, Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins are an owner’s best friends. They are happy to go out and toe the company line, justifying putting the bare minimum of effort needed to cobble together a major league roster. It is no surprise, then, that the Blue Jays just finished in fourth place for the third consecutive year after back-to-back appearances in the ALCS.
At Pitch Talks in 2018, Atkins said, “When you’re talking about free agency, you’re talking about aging players. And the trend of overpaying a player’s aging curve has come to an end across baseball.”
In late 2018, Shapiro defended the Jays’ decision not to call up top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. when rosters expanded in September, saying the decision “has nothing to do with business.” Guerrero had absolutely crushed it in 2018, batting an aggregate .381/.437/.636 in 408 plate appearances in the minors, including a 1.120 OPS at Double-A and .978 at Triple-A. He would continue to crush it in the Arizona Fall League.
In late February this year, Atkins set the ground work for the Jays to manipulate Guerrero’s service time, saying of the then-19-year-old, “I just don’t see [Guerrero] as a major league player.” Guerrero was held down in the minors until the Jays gained their extra year of contractual control, then brought him up in late April. He was no Pete Alonso, but had a fine rookie season, batting .272/.339/.433 with 15 home runs and 69 RBI in 514 plate appearances in the majors. Not bad for a 20-year-old. But the Jays were less interested in his age-20 season and more interested in his age-26 season. You know, in 2025.
In the run-up to the July 31 trade deadline this year, the Jays traded away infielder Eric Sogard, starters Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, and relievers Joe Biagini and Daniel Hudson. Atkins was tasked with spinning this into a positive for Blue Jays fans, so he said the Jays “turned 14 years of control into 42 years of control.” As you might expect, this quote did not exactly excite the Jays’ fan base, but Atkins did his job toeing the Rogers Communications company line.
Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro and Atkins spoke to the media on Tuesday. Per MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm, the Jays won’t be pursuing “top tier” free agents but will be active in the “secondary” tier. Shapiro set expectations for an underwhelming offseason, citing the Phillies and Padres as cautionary tales for spending in free agency.
According to Baseball Reference, the Phillies and Padres were No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, for the biggest year-over-year increase in attendance from 2018 to ’19. The Phillies averaged 7,028 more fans per game while the Padres averaged 2,813. The Jays were No. 30, dropping 7,100 fans per game. Harper’s jersey was the second-most popular player jersey this season behind only Aaron Judge.
Of course, it’s not really about bringing fans to the ballpark anymore. That’s not really how teams are making their money these days. Rogers Communications owns the Blue Jays, owns the stadium they play in, and owns one of the publications (Sportsnet) that covers the team. Rogers, along with Bell Canada, also has a majority ownership stake in the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Argonauts (CFL), and Toronto FC (MLS). Teams are valuable more for the TV rights and stadium deals they can fetch and for branding purposes. The Braves are another good example of this. After getting a brand new stadium that opened in 2017, and reaching the postseason with a terrific young core of players in 2018, the Braves continued to slash payroll. They went from an Opening Day payroll of $122.6 million in 2017 to $118 million in ’18 to $115 million in ’19. Liberty Media, which owns the Braves, isn’t in the business of caring about the Braves’ roster and whether fans flock to the ballpark. As we can see with the Red Sox recently, even winning a World Series seems to be viewed more as a negative than a positive for those concerned with the bottom line.
Are the Phillies and Padres a cautionary tale? If you’re trying to put together a competitive team that generates fan interest, then absolutely not. But if you’re a roster min-maxer like Shapiro and Atkins, then they absolutely are. In the case of the latter, it’s to the detriment of the entire sport.