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SCOTT STINSON: Toronto Blue Jays' bosses promise better times ahead. Just don't ask when

Toronto Blue Jays new general manager Ross Atkins, right, and Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro shake hands after answering questions during a press conference in Toronto on Friday, December 4, 2015.
Toronto Blue Jays new general manager Ross Atkins, right, and Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro shake hands after answering questions during a press conference in Toronto on Friday, December 4, 2015. - Nathan Denette

TORONTO • The end of Year Four of the Ross Atkins-Mark Shapiro era would have been an odd time for the leaders of the Toronto Blue Jays to start giving straight answers.

Instead, as the general manager and team president each met the media on Tuesday for a year-end session, they talked about the future of the franchise in much the same way that they have done since their arrival in town: vague expectations of good things to come, abundant hedging when asked for specific commitments, and promises that the Blue Jays will definitely look to spend significant money at some uncertain point in the future.

By now, it would have been a shock if they had said anything else.

When Atkins sat down with reporters in the Jays clubhouse, he said what was plainly obvious to anyone with a passing familiarity with his team: it is in desperate need of pitching help, and they will look to acquire it by any means possible.

But asked if he thought it possible that the Jays, after three increasingly dispiriting seasons, could find enough help to be competitive next season, the GM laid off the question like it was a splitter in the dirt.

“It’s too hard to say just when that timeline is,” Atkins said. He explained that they would never rule out the possibility of contention, but said there are too many unknowns, with the offseason not even started, to even contemplate what their chances might be next year. The upcoming season, he said of a team that lost 95 games this year, will be about moving from competing in games to winning them.

A short time later, Shapiro was asked about his expectations for next season. “It’s about moving from competing to winning,” the team president said. This was, apparently, the agreed-upon talking point.

Quite how they will do that remains a question about as open as the gaps in Toronto’s outfield defence.

Allowing for the possibility that the Blue Jays’ vaunted corps of young position players collectively avoids regression, Atkins and Shapiro face a steep task in constructing a staff of capable major-league pitchers. Asked if he could see anyone on the present roster becoming a top-three starter, Atkins was quick to say yes, though he declined to name anyone specific. When asked who he expected to be in the starting rotation, he was similarly opaque: “Nothing is etched in stone,” he said, before adding that Trent Thorton was the most likely candidate to be in there. So, that’s one, then. “A lot of guys could make huge strides” in the off-season, he said, listing off the possibilities: Jacob Waguespack, Ryan Borucki, T.J. Zeuch, Sean Reid-Foley. Indeed, any of them could.

They also could not, leaving manager Charlie Montoyo stuck again with throwing darts at a board while trying to set up his rotation from week to week.

On the team’s other significant need, getting players who can catch baseballs, Atkins’ assessment was even more curious. He disputed the notion that the team’s defence was poor, saying, “Objectively, we were about average.” This might come as a surprise to fans who watched a procession of outfielders do an excellent impression of Not Kevin Pillar, including poor Derek Fisher, who misplayed a fly ball off his face as though he was actively trying to provide a microcosm of the Jays’ defence. Despite Atkins’ review, team defence was below average at every position other than catcher, where it was excellent, and in the outfield it was bottom-five in the majors. Or, as Atkins would characterize it, an “opportunity to improve.”

The big question, after the worst on-field performance from the Jays in 40 years, is whether Atkins and Shapiro will try to improve by a lot, or by a little. And again, it was not a question that they are anywhere near ready to answer. Shapiro has talked about not spending big money until they are confident that the team is ready to seriously contend, and nothing said on Tuesday suggests they believe that time is upon them. Shapiro said the 2020 season will be about taking the “next step,” but as for how big that step could be, he said that “would be a big part of the off-season analysis” that will take place over the coming few weeks. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which such an analysis will tell the front office that the Blue Jays are a player or two away from contention, although both Atkins and Shapiro said they expected an off-season that looks more like the aggressive winter changes of 2015 and 2016 than the whisper-quiet moves of the last two off-seasons.

But if fans are hoping that the front office will be shamed into serious action by either an aggrieved fan base or an ownership that is alarmed by steep revenue declines, neither executive bought that idea. Atkins said carping from fans “is just not something I focus on,” while Shapiro said that when he arrived “there was an understanding coming in” with his superiors at Rogers Communications that attendance and viewership would sag once the team started the hard business of a rebuild.

There is something else that Shapiro didn’t mention: as much as the attendance declines of the last couple seasons have been stark, they have been offset by sharp payroll cuts. When Rogers released its second-quarter results in July, it noted that earnings in its media division had increased by 20 per cent, “primarily as a result of lower player salaries at the Toronto Blue Jays.”

It is something to think about, when Atkins says, as he did on Tuesday, that he feels “that this organization is in very good shape,” and when Shapiro vows to stick around and “finish the job.” The front office does not lack for critics, and yet they remain resolute. Perhaps they have simply kept their bosses happy, which is sometimes all that matters.

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