SWING AND A MISS: The Blue Jays' disappointing 2023 season and what lies ahead

Breaking down what lies ahead for the Blue Jays after a disappointing 2023

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Blue Jays beat writer Rob Longley breaks down what lies ahead for the Blue Jays after a disappointing 2023

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PART 1: Blue Jays front office faces critical off-season of fence-mending and more

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A season that slams to an end in clear underachievement is always going to be punctuated with disappointment, disillusion and frustration.

It’s the nature of professional sports, an enduring price of fandom and the challenge facing every championship-minded front office..

But, to parrot the team’s own lofty marketing slogan, the aspirational 2023 Toronto Blue Jays took these sentiments next level over a tumultuous season that crash-landed once again in spectacular playoff defeat.

Despite projections and betting odds touting them as World Series contenders, as the Fall Classic is set to begin this weekend, the Jays have been done for three weeks now.

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The early and meek exit left plenty to ponder from a team that won three fewer games than it did in 2022 and two fewer than 2021, were less dynamic offensively and punctuated the failures with a series of self-made public-relations disasters.

And it set the stage for a critical off-season for an embattled front office, a process that will ramp up quickly following the conclusion of the World Series.

The fallout after getting swept away by the Minnesota Twins in a best-of-three AL wild-card debacle was as bombastic as we’ve seen around this team in the eight-year reign of president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins.

And the whodunit element of the how and why of starter Jose Berrios’ early removal from the Game 2 clincher defined so much of what infuriated fans about this team.

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The pain of defeat degenerated into a blame game with manager John Schneider suggesting post-game that his hands were tied, Atkins throwing him under the bus three days later and Shapiro suggesting it might be time to hug it all out.

That may take some time for a team that became less likeable the deeper the season slipped into the morass, a frustration sharper than it has been since 2019.

In no particular order, the Jays’ hyper-engaged fan base became fed up with the team’s offensive struggles, the maddening inability to get on a hot streak and a front office that, at minimum, seemed elusive with the truth, avoiding transparency at every turn.

So team turmoil it has been — and not just externally.

Players were openly critical of the Berrios boondoggle in the Twin Cities, both on and off the record. Many, in fact, were incensed at how it played out.

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“There was definitely some confusion from the players as to what was going on,” Whit Merrifield told the Foul Territory podcast. “I don’t know what happens behind those doors, behind the coach’s doors. I just know what was communicated to us. I know the analytics department is pretty involved.”

I don’t know what happens behind those doors, behind the coach’s doors. I just know what was communicated to us. I know the analytics department is pretty involved.

Whit Merrifield

In fairness, the Jays are far from unique in such strategy, as we’ve seen at various points this post-season. But the communications breakdown that shrouded the events in Minny didn’t sit well.

And now, with a number of free agents potentially on the way out, the baseball operations braintrust faces a mammoth challenge of avoiding a further regression from a team that had such promise.

Along the way, they’ll need to regain trust of an annoyed fanbase and mend the disconnect between front office and clubhouse.

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Rarely is the situation ever quite as bad as it seems in the immediate glare of a defeat, but the way the turbulent season played out and ultimately ended has left a mark.

“This season was a grind,” Shapiro said in his season-ending news conference, a presidential address that was part state of the union, part damage control after Atkins’ combative stab at the same a few days earlier.

“It was not easy. It was extremely frustrating and it was challenging. We still won 89 games … but I’ve been in the game 32 years and I can’t remember a season that felt like it was more of an effort.”

Tell that to the fan base, who flooded to the Rogers Centre three-million strong in 2023 and who expected more than the boozy buzz from the new outfield drinking dens.

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The old baseball rallying point of playing “meaningful September baseball” rings hollow for a team that has been swept away in wild-card appearances in 2020, 2022 and 2023. Even worse, a team that had vowed improved defence and attention to detail would be the ticket to do damage in the playoffs, was ill-equipped to do so.

Built to sustain the grind of a 162-game season and qualify for the saturated MLB post-season? Sure. Built for championship baseball where power plays and clutch scoring is at a premium? Not yet, it would seem.

“The goal is to play deeper into October,” Shapiro said. “I think at one point, playing meaningful games in September was probably enough. That’s not enough anymore.”

No, it most certainly is not. And, with the key players all safe in their jobs, what comes next could go a long way in evaluating the Shapiro-Atkins legacy and how much longer it plays.

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Photo illustration of Jays GM Ross Atkins sliding in safe at home plate.
GM Ross Atkins’ job is safe even though the Blue Jays failed in controversial fashion against the Twins in the playoffs. Photo by TORONTO SUN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

PART 2: Safe all around, but it’s time for braintrust to turn promise into productivity

Safe in the dugout, safe in the baseball operations department and safe in the presidential suite. Safe all around.

Is anyone in the Blue Jays organization on the clock?

For now — and at least one more season — the answer is no as the Rogers Communications overlords have opted for status quo heading into 2024. And, despite the reaction to the notable underachievement in 2023, there is some sense to letting the current management group finish what they started.

That isn’t to say there aren’t some changes to be made in the team’s messaging and communication of its decision-making process — both from the baseball operations department to game staff and from coaches to players.

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Until spring training arrives — pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report somewhere around Feb. 12 — the questions and second-guessing will linger.

Top of the list is the question of how a team fond of amplifying its commitment to process, accountability and collaboration mixed its messages so dramatically.

In a week of high drama, the fallout to the Jose Berrios post-season disaster got ugly. It was miniseries material as manager John Schneider gently shifted the onus to the baseball operations department, GM Ross Atkins shifted it back to Schneider (before saying that his manager would return) while team president Mark Shapiro worked at smoothing the waters by deeming everyone else was to blame.

You couldn’t make any of it up.

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But when the in-house dysfunction goes public, it’s clear there is work to do. Players notice and get frustrated and the fallout takes time to dissipate and dominates the chatter despite an off-season with plenty on the work order.

The first voice in the blame game was Schneider — often the one left to articulate the front office’s messes. Clearly crushed in the aftermath of the 2-0 loss to the Twins to end the season, Schneider was subtle and sensible in describing the Berrios affair.

“You can sit here and second-guess me, second-guess the organization, second-second-guess anybody,” Schneider said in Minneapolis within an hour off his team’s elimination. “I get that.”

You can sit here and second-guess me, second-guess the organization, second-second-guess anybody.

John Schneider

Heat of the moment, sure, yet eyebrow-raising stuff nonetheless. The mayhem, it turns out, was just getting started.

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Rather than fly home following the game, the Jays remained in Minnesota and those that returned to Toronto didn’t do so until Thursday, Oct. 6. After a day to absorb the wrath being rained down on the front office, a still-hot Atkins was trotted out to face the media on the Saturday morning of Thanksgiving weekend.

And then all hell broke loose.

Combative and defensive, the GM didn’t hold back in deflecting the blame away from the tall foreheads in his department to the uniformed commandos in the clubhouse and dugout.

Among the gems delivered from the Jays press conference room in the bowels of the Rogers Centre:

“I have 100% confidence that it’s not front-office pressure,” Atkins said, when asked if Schneider felt heat to make the in-game call on Berrios.

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On wiping his hands of the implementation and execution of game plans:

“Those meetings are John Schneider’s meetings,” Atkins said of the process that led to the early Berrios hook. “The group is the staff that’s on the field. It’s not the front office. I do not attend those meetings and I certainly do not make those decisions.”

Suddenly, a communications strategy designed to have the gloomy season obituary buried beneath the turkey and stuffing of the Canadian long weekend, instead became a tawdry show destined to drive the off-season narrative.

As Thanksgiving feasts go, it was a mouthful for an agitated fan base and a still-unnerved group of players to digest.

Team personnel we spoke with were incredulous at Atkins’ public stance. Reaction ranged from the belief that such thoughts should be dealt with internally rather than from a podium watched eagerly by a fan base waiting for blood to incredulity from some players that the GM would so brazenly hang his manager out to dry.

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Remember that on the night it happened, players reportedly had their manager’s back, making it known that the decision to remove Berrios wasn’t entirely driven by the skipper’s instincts.

Meanwhile, in his public debrief, Atkins had an opportunity to soothe the angst surrounding his team rather than inflame it.

And the crazy thing? His clear dodging of blame for the Berrios affair all but muted his purely salient point that a team was never going to win a playoff series scoring just two runs.

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There always will be a disconnect between a front office and a clubhouse/locker room in any sport, but when the gap widens to a chasm, it can become an issue. That said, how the team responds in the months between the conclusion of the World Series and the start of spring training will be telling.

While there will no doubt be some minor changes on the coaching staff — likely on the hitting side, plus the replacement of retiring third base coach Luis Rivera — the main decision-makers remain in place.

This is how it should be for a team that still has a strong core in place and a manager with upside who continues to learn on the job.

But at the same time, there is work to done as outlined by Shapiro in his mop-up press conference five days after the Atkins debacle.

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“We need to be more open,” Shapiro said. “We need to be more transparent about who the people are that are in the room and the information that is provided to our staff and John before each game.

“We need to get better.”

Damage control by the president and CEO? Of course. But perhaps foreboding for a regime — one staked with a franchise-record payroll, remember — overdue on delivering meaningful results beyond the first week of October.

Gabriel Moreno and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. of the Arizona Diamondbacks celebrate in the clubhouse.
Gabriel Moreno and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. of the Arizona Diamondbacks celebrate in the clubhouse. Getty Images

PART 3: It was Bye-Bye Blue Jays, hello World Series for two Diamondbacks

The 2023 World Series will begin 383 days after Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Gabriel Moreno were effectively finished as Blue Jays, their time in Toronto ending quietly with the only Major League Baseball team they’d known.

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Moreno was the third catcher on the Jays team that suffered an epic collapse against the Seattle Mariners, Gurriel left off the doomed playoff roster due to injury.

The subsequent expulsion of those two, plus Teoscar Hernandez being dealt to Seattle, were the triggers of a thematic change to the Jays roster that didn’t exactly cash in.

But life couldn’t be more different now for Gurriel and Moreno, two important pieces for the National League-champion Arizona Diamondbacks, who will begin play in the World Series on Friday in Texas.

Nor for the Jays, quite obviously.

“You can’t evaluate a trade in the short term,” team president Mark Shapiro said earlier this month, referring to the move that brought outfielder Daulton Varsho to the Jays. “You’ve got to give it four or five years to understand whether a trade was effective or not.

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“Over the season I still feel like that was a good trade.”

It is, however, a deal that may haunt the Jays for the better part of a decade.

Shapiro’s rationale aside, should the Diamondbacks knock off the Rangers in the best-of-seven championship series, it’s an instant loss for the Jays — and a rather significant one.

Over the season, I still feel like that was a good trade.

Mark Shapiro on the Daulton Varsho deal

Put it simply: A trade designed to help lift the Jays to a Fall Classic as early as this year, instead did the same to the other party in the transaction.

But this is not another hot-take swing at the low-hanging fruit submission that the Ross Atkins-orchestrated deal was the worst in club history because it likely isn’t.

It does, however, further sting in the aftermath of a Jays playoff “run” that lasted all of two games (again) with two runs scored. The fact that Moreno and Gurriel, hitting high in the D-backs order, certainly provides some painful piling on.

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The fact is the Jays felt the effects of the trade long before Arizona launched its unlikely cruise through the Brewers, Dodgers and Phillies.

It started in spring training, when catcher Alejandro Kirk reported late after awaiting the birth of his first child and clearly not in physical condition to begin such an important season in his career. Kirk never truly recovered and, although he was fine defensively, regressed significantly at the plate.

Danny Jansen, the stable figure at the catcher position, once again battled injury in 2023 and continued a frustrating career trend of bad luck despite some renewed power and production at the plate.

The fact that the Jays felt that they were solid enough at the catcher position to swap a top prospect for a corner outfielder seems like a gross miscalculation — and not just in hindsight.

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Circling back to Moreno, his performance this post-season is precisely what was feared by his supporters both in and outside of the Toronto organization.

His elite defensive skills have earned rave reviews on the Snakes’ magical October run and the blossoming performance has included some slugging at the plate, a feature not often on display during his days developing in the minors.

Moreno has been comfortable and productive in key situations while hitting third in the D-backs lineup. Varsho, meanwhile, started his Jays career hitting cleanup, but plunged all the way to ninth, where he was a non-factor 0-for-5 in the abbreviated playoff loss to the Twins.

(We interrupt the Moreno love-in to note that we believe considerable upside remains in Varsho, an elite defender with game-changing skill in the outfield. He’s young, has room to improve and can hit for power, albeit far too erratically.)

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Moreno, however, is the type of player who could be a difference-maker and an all-star for years. There is a reason there would have been heated debate among Jays executives about dealing the 23-year-old Venezuelan. Those that saw the upside would certainly have feared parting with the club’s top-ranked prospect, a home-grown talent touted for exceptional things.

He may be the gift that keeps on giving for his new team, a reality that has the potential to haunt Atkins and Shapiro long after they leave Toronto.

It certainly didn’t help that Gurriel was included as a throw-in, though let’s not lapse into revisionist history about his star power with the Jays.

While popular in the dugout, Gurriel was often a liability in the outfield position now aced by Varsho and was wildly inconsistent at the plate. His 2022 numbers were modest thanks to a nagging wrist injury that was surgically repaired in the off-season.

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The 24 home runs in Arizona were a career high for the Cuban, who will be a free agent next month. He was certainly a fan favourite in Toronto and the 2021 version of Gurriel, anyway, was one that fit nicely in a more electric Toronto offence.

And now he will join Moreno in facing the Rangers and former teammate Marcus Semien, in the showcase event of the sport and, with it, the potential for a nightly revisit of the biggest move of a 2022 Jays off-season that proved fruitless.

Grade the trade in four years all you want, but if the Diamondbacks walk away with a World Series title in Year 1, it will feel like a swapping swindle for the ages.

Manoah and Schneider
Blue Jays manager John Schneider sheepishly takes the ball from starter Alek Manoah in the sixth inning at the Rogers Centre on May 20, 2023. Photo by Mark Blinch /Getty Images

PART 4: Communication breakdowns a nuisance and distraction in frustrating season

Long before the blame for the spectacular exit to the playoffs was scattered to various landing spots around the Blue Jays, it was a season pockmarked with mixed messages from the team.

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Unlike so many in-game situations when they had runners in scoring position, the off-field hits just kept on coming.

Where to start with an organization that at times seemed to be so protective of the truth that it bordered on paranoia?

Working backwards from how the decision was handled to remove Jose Berrios from the ill-fated Game 2 of the wildcard series against the Twins, to the enduring mystery of the Alek Manoah struggles, to the elusive and distasteful bungling of the Anthony Bass affair, the examples of miscommunication piled up.

To varying degrees, each of those situations created feelings of frustration in the clubhouse, especially when escalated to the point of distraction to the on-field tasks at hand.

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The team’s ongoing grapple with transparency reached a head at Ross Atkins’ spectacular post-season press availability, when the general manager was defensive in describing what went down in the Twin Cities. Rather than contrition, a heated Atkins opted for re-distributing the blame during his Thanksgiving weekend summit at the Rogers Centre, an act that didn’t play well.

Clearly still wounded from the critical reaction to his team’s abbreviated stab at post-season baseball, Atkins was antagonistic at suggestions the team was over-managed by the front office and dismissed the notion that meddling from his staff led to Berrios getting yanked after three-plus innings of superb starting pitching.

It may have been the last such disruptive act of the 2023 season, but it was far from the only incident where the messaging from the front office ranged from elusive to convoluted.

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In the open wound of the immediate post game defeat, players weren’t shy about questioning the call ultimately made by manager John Schneider, but clearly suggested they believed its genesis was in the baseball operations department.

The mixed signals that emerged in the days that followed was in keeping with a series of public relations commotions to arise during a 2023 season that at times was more frustrating than fruitful.

The club’s handling of the Manoah mess was confounding at best, and, at worst disruptive to his teammates grinding through a season. A Cy Young Award finalist and all star the previous season, something was clearly off with Manoah from his opening day start in St. Louis, a startlingly poor  effort.

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Manoah’s first demotion was relatively straight forward, an assignment to the Florida Complex League in June that the pitcher may not have liked, but was a move designed to determine the root of his struggles and get him back on track.

To help spell an arm-weary four-man rotation (which exposed the Jays lack of starting depth) Manoah was recalled just prior to the all-star break. But after six more appearances with no clear evidence of a return to his top form, the big right hander was sent to Buffalo for a second demotion.

Or so we were told. Trouble was, Manoah didn’t report immediately and in fact never threw a pitch for the triple-A Bisons before his season was shut down.

Fair enough, but the messaging put Schneider in an uncomfortable position when he was routinely asked about Manoah during his daily sessions with the media. At times, it felt like Schneider was sheepishly left to take the heat for the front office as the light-on-details drama played out.

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It’s instructive to note here that as a rule Schneider is up front and insightful in his dealings with the media, a twice-daily part of his job description that had to be tedious some days. It can’t always be an easy task given that he serves and protects both the front office and the players, but Schneider handles it with considerable aplomb.

The Bass debacle, meanwhile, was bizarre from the outset and made worse when the team bungled the handling of the mess. The reliever was a colossal distraction following his ill-conceived endorsement of anti-LGBTQ sentiment on social media.

After two weeks of drama, the team finally parted ways with Bass – calling it a “baseball decision”, mind you – a day before their traditional Pride week celebration. Though many on the team didn’t appreciate Bass’s attention-seeking activity on social media, they weren’t impressed in how the situation was handled by the front office.

“Can we just get on with baseball?” was the reaction of one team member. “All we want to do is focus on baseball and the ability to do that has been compromised. It’s a major distraction.”

There was more than one of those annoyances in 2023 for a Jays team that struggled to reach potential and didn’t need the nuisance of uncomfortable situations being mishandled to the point of diversion.

George Springer of the Blue Jays reacts to a wild pitch against the Twins during the seventh inning in Game 2 of the wild-card series at Target Field on Oct. 4, 2023 in Minneapolis.
George Springer of the Blue Jays reacts to a wild pitch against the Twins. Photo by Adam Bettcher /GETTY IMAGES

PART 5: How the Blue Jays offence was compromised by bats in regression

In his season-ending news conference, Blue Jays president and CEO president Mark Shapiro didn’t name the guilty parties — probably because there was no need.

“There were players that fell short and that led to one of the biggest challenges watching night in and night out,” Shapiro said in evaluating his team’s offensive shortcomings. “We had three or four players that fell short of what we projected.”

Those who watched the team throughout the 162-game season and brief playoff cameo were well aware of the villains.

From Vlad Guerrero Jr., who has now had back-to-back seasons of regression, to Alejandro Kirk, who dropped off noticeably, to new guy Daulton Varsho and veteran George Springer, the big hits didn’t keep on coming.

Each of those in the flailing foursome had their own issues in 2023, as we examine below.

VLAD GUERRERO JR.

The year actually seemed to begin with promise for the 24-year-old slugging first baseman as he reported to spring training in good shape, his preparations accelerated in anticipation of leading the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic.

Some of that momentum was stunted when Guerrero suffered a minor injury to his right knee that kept him out of action for two weeks.

From then on, it was an uneven season for Guerrero, whose production fell well short of his career breakout in 2021, form that now seems like a distant memory.

Was it a nagging knee injury that limited the talented first baseman to 26 homers, six fewer than the previous season, and a whopping 22 in arrears of that sensational 2021 campaign?

Were there too many coaching voices in his head, muddling his approach?

Was it lack of plate discipline to adapt as pitchers attacked him aggressively?

All of these questions will need answers this winter. When the highlight of your season is winning the Home Run Derby, there is work to be done.

ALEJANDRO KIRK

Under the glare of Gabriel Moreno’s emergence as a key component of the NL champion Arizona Diamondbacks and Danny Jansen’s injury woes, Kirk’s struggles in 2023 feel even worse.

But for too much of the season it wasn’t pretty for Kirk, whose emergence as an important bat in the Jays’ lineup the previous season never returned.

It started when Kirk arrived in camp late while awaiting the birth of his child back. When he did show up, he was in less-than-desirable condition.

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Kirk’s numbers were down across the board as he often looked lost at the plate. The native of Tijuana, Mexico, managed just eight home runs (six fewer than in 2022), drove in 43 runs (compared to 63) and hit .250 (vs. 285.) At age 24, Kirk is still young enough to turn it around and suffered from the affliction of many young hitters: An inability to adapt to how opposing pitchers attack him.

But the shocking downturn was an unexpected blow to a front office that had lost interest in keeping Moreno as the team’s catcher of the future.

DAULTON VARSHO

As if living in the midst of the Jays’ docile exit from the playoffs wasn’t enough, seeing his former team, the Diamondbacks, surge through October had to feel like a kick in the groin to Varsho.

When the Jays dealt Moreno and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to the D-backs for Varsho, they weren’t doing it for his bat. Instead, they felt they would revolutionize their outfield with the elite defence that Varsho lived up to — and then some.

But they didn’t expect the 27-year-old to be a liability at the plate. Remember that this is a player that batted cleanup on opening day, but had worked his way to the bottom of the order by season’s end.

Varsho did that by seeing his average dip to .220 from .235 in his final season in the desert. He did manage 20 home runs, but that was a dip in power from the previous season and, given the decline from others around him, it felt even more costly.

The Jays certainly don’t need Varsho to lead their offence, but they can’t afford for him to be a liability, either.

GEORGE SPRINGER

When the Jays signed Springer to a six-year, $150-million US deal in 2021, there was always the expectation the back end wouldn’t be as fruitful as the front.

But what if there was a regression in Year 3?

To his credit, Springer was the healthiest he’s been in years, playing in 154 games and seemed to thrive defensively out in right field.

At the plate he wasn’t so robust, however, as Springer was inconsistent at times and looked lost at others, most notably during an 0-for-35 stretch in late July. It got so bad that the 2017 World Series MVP was dropped from the leadoff position by manager John Schneider, a demotion that didn’t sit well with Springer.

His power was often missing as well, as Springer managed just 21 homers, his lowest total as a Jay. The power outage resulted in one fewer long ball than in 2021, his first season with Toronto, when the former Astros star appeared in only 78 games.

Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins speaks to reporters during an end-of-season media availability at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ont. on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022.
Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins speaks to reporters during an end-of-season media availability at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ont. on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022. Photo by Ernest Doroszuk /TORONTO SUN

PART 6: Body of work of Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins will be put to test this winter

In the final part of a six-part series, Rob Longley breaks down what lies ahead for the Blue Jays after a disappointing 2023

“The body of work,” Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro says, “is undeniable.”

Shapiro was speaking about his longtime sidekick and general manager for the past eight seasons, Ross Atkins. He also was using the platform of his season-ending news conference to put out fires lit large a little more than a week after his team went up in flames in one of the more dramatic and frustrating season endings in franchise history.

While the boss’ words served as an endorsement for Atkins to continue his work in Toronto, what also is undeniable is that all signs point to what awaits being the GM’s most important and perhaps challenging winter yet.

And while we are on the “undeniable” thread, the harsh reality is that a team that has made the playoffs three of the past four seasons has been swept away in each of those. It is a group yet to win a post-season contest with a roster constructed by the Atkins-led front office.

So after this past season’s blueprint for betterment resulted instead in regression — despite the fact the Jays had one of the best pitching groups in baseball — Atkins faces a stout challenge to remake an offence capable of complementing that defensive excellence.

And it most certainly won’t be easy.

With a fist full of players about to become free agents, there are significant holes to fillfrom the likely departure of Matt Chapman at third base, to the expected exits of Brandon Belt, Whit Merrifield, Kevin Kiermaier and more, Atkins will need to be both creative and productive.

He’ll also have to find a way to improve his team at multiple positions and, with limited internal options at the ready, do so from a free-agent class that won’t exactly have many of his fellow general managers salivating over the menu.

On top of the obvious want list, the Jays front office will need to get its house in order after the noisy exit to the playoffs, one in which players openly questioned the decision to remove Jose Berrios from Game 2 of the ill-fated series against the Minnesota Twins. The communication breakdown that surrounded it made matters worse, a failing that surfaced all too often in 2023.

And hanging over it all is the question of whether the current regime can survive one more year of regression and playoff disappointment.

To his credit — and to the point of Shapiro’s ongoing advocacy — Atkins did construct a team that averaged 91 wins over the past three seasons, elevating a talented young core to contender status. During his eight-year tenure, Atkins meticulously (and at times ruthlessly) oversaw the transition from the John Gibbons-Jose Bautista-Josh Donaldson playoff seasons of 2015-2016 to a young team built for sustainable success. He has cycled through two managers and revamped many corners of the operation.

Now, however, the Jays run the risk of being lapped by other young teams, all the while watching a pair of clubs — the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks — who had 100-plus losses just two seasons ago battle for the World Series.

Signed to a five-year extension in 2021, Atkins and his baseball operations staff still have the means to salvage this. The core is still in place, the pitching staff has the makings of being elite, especially if Alek Manoah returns to form, and there appears to be plenty of Rogers Communications money to spend.

How long the vault remains open remains to be seen after the team already squandered a record payroll in 2023. Although, in the short-term, there appears to be more where that came from.

“I don’t expect a dramatical philosophical shift in payroll next year,” said Shapiro, understandably light on the financial details from the communications mothership. “I expect it to say in the same area for now.”

With that, all signs point to there being another serious Atkins-led stab at this. Piling on to the challenge is the looming task of re-signing home-grown stars Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, who suddenly are down to just two years of club control.

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The obvious immediate priority, meanwhile, is to discover a boost to re-ignite on offence that was such a liability throughout the 2023 season and into a short-lived playoff season that yielded just one run over two games.

Besides diminishing the entertainment value of the Jays, the drop in production has been precipitous: From 846 runs in 2021, which was third best in the majors, to 775 in 2022 (fourth) to 746 (14th.)

“We didn’t score enough and we did not reach our goals,” Atkins said in succinct acknowledgement of his team shortcomings. “It was extremely painful for me. This has been one of the most frustrating times in my career.”

And now the task is to avoid more such angst. One of the most challenging of off-seasons he has faced in his career.

That body of work Shapiro lauded is in fact a work in progress at a critical stage.

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