TEAM TURMOIL: Blue Jays front office faces critical off-season of fence-mending and more

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

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

“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.”

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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.

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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.

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.

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“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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