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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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