Who’s running my team: Toronto Blue Jays

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 26: Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins talks to the media during a press conference before a game between the Oakland Athletics and the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario Canada. (Photo by Nick Turchiaro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - APRIL 26: Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins talks to the media during a press conference before a game between the Oakland Athletics and the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario Canada. (Photo by Nick Turchiaro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

One of a series of articles looking at the front office structure of each major league team. Today, we take a closer look at the Toronto Blue Jays.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Owner: Edward Rogers, Rogers Communications
  • President and CEO: Mark Shapiro
  • Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations and General Manager: Ross Atkins

Atkins came to his position of authority as the accidental byproduct of an internal dispute in which he was not involved.

Late in the 2015 season, Rogers concluded that the Toronto Blue Jays front office would be stronger if he followed what at the time was the trend of adding a top administrative position between himself and the general manager. The man he wanted, Shapiro, was at the time working in the same role for Cleveland. Shapiro took the job.

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The only problem was that the incumbent general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, read Shapiro’s arrival as an infringement on his own operational freedom…which, technically at least, it was. In an effort to settle the roiling administrative waters, Shapiro offered Anthopoulos a five-year contract extension. But Anthopoulos declined, creating an unexpected GM opening.

To fill it, Shapiro looked toward his old stomping ground, Cleveland, and specifically to Atkins, that club’s vice president of player personnel. Atkins obviously had no problem accepting a promotion to work under his old boss, an arrangement that has since been extended at least through 2020.

They are working for an organization that is as established as it gets in Toronto and across Canada. Rogers Communications, which purchased the team from Interbrew in 2000, is one of that nation’s major telecommunications, cable TV, telephone and internet corporations, with more than 25,000 employees and assets estimated to approach $30 billion.

Forbes values the Jays franchise at $1.5 billion, ranking it 16th among the 30 MLB teams. Based purely on market size, that’s a significant underperformance since Toronto’s 5.9 million metropolitan area ties Atlanta for 11th largest.

On the plus side, it’s 10 steps up from the $326 million valuations placed on the franchise just a decade ago, where Forbes ranked Toronto as only the 26th most valuable franchise.

Toronto Blue Jays gross revenues amounted to $265 million in 2019, 62 percent higher than in 2010. The Jays carried a $130.5 million payroll, representing about 49 percent of that net revenue. Most team administrators will accept that ratio.

What hasn’t been acceptable has been the club’s profit history. The Jays have operated at a loss during six of the most recent seven seasons, taking a $16 million pre-tax hit in 2019. In the face of three consecutive losing seasons, attendance has also declined sharply, from 3.39 million in 2016 to 1.75 million in 2019.

The Jays only grossed $28 in revenue per fan visit in 2019 – that’s the game’s third-lowest figure –and that in combination with the attendance decline has amounted to a double fiscal rabbit punch.

Major League Baseball has tried to help out, providing a generous $559 million in revenue sharing assistance last year. That equates to 36 percent of the franchise’s overall worth. Given that the MLB average is under 30 percent, the Jays are a welfare case.

The extra dollop of aid makes up for market-based shortcomings. In simple terms, regional Toronto isn’t as deeply in love with the Jays as other fan bases are with their teams. The Toronto region produced $484 million in financial support, just 32 percent of the overall team value. The norm is a fraction below 40 percent.

To this point, the Shapiro-Atkins partnership has functioned smoothly, at least judging by outward indicators. From a results standpoint, however, progress has been stop-and-go…or more accurately go-and-then-stop.

Atkins had a great rookie season. Inheriting a 93-69 division winner, he re-signed star infielder Josh Donaldson for two years and got an immediate payback when Donaldson hit 37 home runs, drove in 99 runs and delivered a 153 OPS+.

The Toronto Blue Jays went 89-73 and advanced to the American League Championship Series before losing to the Cleveland Indians. Based on net Wins Above Average, the impact of Atkins’ collective moves added 10 games to the Jays’ performance*.

But when the Jays began to recede in 2017, Atkins’ personnel moves turned edgier and less rewarding. For 2018, Atkins acquired 15 players in deals with other teams but based on Wins Above Average those 15 combined to cost Toronto 5.3 games in the standings. Those 15 non-productive acquisitions came at a cost of 12 players who left for Toronto for other teams. That dozen netted +2.4 games for their new homes.

Atkins’ net 2018 impact to the Jays, then, amounted to -7.7 games. The decline has shown up in the standings. The Jays’ overall winning percentage under Atkins is .474.

Going forward, there is a reason for hope. The Jays are banking on the continued development of a brace of touted rookie talent led by infielders Vlad Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, and Bo Bichette.

They’re in a tough division that requires them to confront the Red Sox and Yankees 38 times annually. That’s been a particular hurdle; since 2017 the Jays are a combined 42-77 against those two clubs.

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*This calculation is obtained by determining the net impact of player transactions on team performance for the season(s) in question. Wins Above Average is a zero-based offshoot of Wins Above Replacement; thus, the final figure suggests the degree of positive or negative movement in the standings attributable to front office moves.