DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Toronto Blue Jays returned to the postseason in 2015 following a 22-year absence from playoff baseball, but some wondered how the upheaval in the front office would impact their quest to reach the postseason for a second straight season.
President and CEO Mark Shapiro, who had assumed control of the club at the end of the 2015 campaign, turned to Ross Atkins -- a longtime member of his front office with the Cleveland Indians -- to take over for departed general manager Alex Anthopoulos, making the South Florida native the sixth GM in Toronto's history.
The new decision-makers helped guide the Blue Jays back to the postseason as Toronto appeared in the American League Championship Series for the second straight season before falling to the Indians -- the team Shapiro and Atkins had both left for their new challenge in Toronto.
MLB.com sat down with Atkins, Toronto's executive vice presidant of baseball operations and GM, in his office at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, Fla., for a wide-ranging interview that included the future of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the Blue Jays' busy offseason and what it was like being teammates with a 14-year-old Alex Rodriguez.
MLB.com: Helping young Latin players was important to you when you joined the Indians' front office, which eventually led to your job as the Latin American operations director in 2004. Why was that so important to you?
Atkins: It was actually something that I saw as an opportunity to learn and grow and help. I grew up in Miami, played baseball in Venezuela, was always drawn to the young Latin American players when I was a Minor League player, trying to learn more about their culture, their upbringing, and in turn, trying to help them transition into ours. It was just something I saw as an opportunity where I could not just help an organization, but also help individuals in realizing their potential and transitioning well to professional baseball.
My first job after playing was -- I can't remember if my title was translator or not -- but essentially I was translating for Danys Baez in his transition into professional baseball. But the way Mark [Shapiro] and Neal Huntington described the role to me was to help him transition into this culture of professional baseball in the United States, which was a very different transition than the Dominican Republic to the United States or Venezuela to the United States from where he was in his career.
MLB.com: With so many executives changing teams on a seemingly annual basis -- you and Mark came from Cleveland, while Ben [Cherington] came from the Red Sox -- is there such a thing as secretive data anymore when teams are hiring guys from other teams who obviously are bringing those experiences with them?
Atkins: That's a good question. We talk about that all the time. I think you would get different answers from different people. My take on it is, you absolutely have to be thinking about, "What's the next competitive advantage?" -- but once you have it, it's probably in someone else's pocket. It's that relentless approach to finding the next one. All too often, people are focused on just information when it may not be about information; it may be people, it may be culture, it may be environment. There is no silver bullet, if that's a part of the question. But if you're not thinking about finding the next competitive advantage, then you're missing out on opportunities.
MLB.com: How do you think Statcast™ being available as widely as it is has changed the way fans look at the game -- or even some clubs?
Atkins: I think probably mostly they have more of an appreciation for defense, is what comes to mind for me. There's more to Statcast™ than defense, but being able to objectively differentiate something that you probably were thinking was true, then not only differentiate, but understand that there are sometimes big gaps that you couldn't see that weren't there for the naked eye. It's really interesting.
It's a great tool that front-office executives have been talking about the concept for a long time. Is there some way to understand what we're saying that, "I really think this guy closes gaps well," or "I really think this guy hits the ball harder than most," or "This guy really seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time." It's really just making things more objective.
MLB.com: When you were 14, you played on a youth team in Miami that included Alex Rodriguez and Mike Lowell, among some other guys who ended up in the big leagues. What was it like playing with and watching a 14-year-old Alex Rodriguez?
Atkins: Awesome. It's interesting; one of my most vivid memories of A-Rod was as soon as the game was over, he wanted to go back to our hotel rooms and play. We created a game in our hotel rooms with the towel rack, towels and tape balls and continued to play a game of baseball on our knees where it was a double off the wall; if you hit it off the mirror, it was a home run.
Any video game we could get our hands on that had something to do with baseball, A-Rod was the first to want to run back and do that. Mikey was very similar that way. That's what stood out more than talent was his passion for baseball. He was younger than Mikey, and I was older than Mikey, so he stood out from a talent perspective in that he was almost two years younger than most of the team.
MLB.com: The Blue Jays have been in the ALCS the past two years. Going into this year, is anything short of that next step -- getting to the World Series -- considered a disappointment?
Atkins: Yes. Of course, we'll be massively disappointed if we're not in the World Series and winning the World Series; that's why you do it. Having said that, we talk to our players all the time about focusing on process, not focusing on results, focusing on culture and environment and being a good teammate. I think if we look up at the end of the year and it's only the ALCS or only the ALDS, but we improve from a culture, environment and process standpoint, then we'll be able to lay our heads down. But man, why we do it is to jump up and down on mounds.
MLB.com: How difficult was it to see Edwin Encarnacion leave this offseason? Was there any extra sting in him going to your old team?
Atkins: Yeah, I mean, obviously when you're competing for a title, for a city and for a country, everyone knew that Edwin being back here was important to this organization, to the city of Toronto, to the nation. Initially, when it didn't work out, we were disappointed. But like any offseason will be, you have several strategies. You don't just go into an offseason with, "I hope our Plan A works," or "I hope our first initiative works."
When we moved to the next strategy, we were excited. We were extremely excited about the potential of what Kendrys Morales and then building around him could mean; then to look up and that now means not just Kendrys Morales, but Steve Pearce, Joe Smith, J.P. Howell and Jose Bautista. When you look up at the end of an offseason and you say, "How much better is our team?" It's significantly better than when we started the offseason. We executed a strategy we felt good about.
MLB.com: You recently said you believe Jose Bautista can return to his All-Star form this season. What gives you that belief?
Atkins: Two things. One is what he's done in his career; his track record. The second thing is there's a lot of information -- and it's all subjective -- that tells you that he was not at his best last year; from a shoulder injury in '15 that lingered into '16, then the knee and then the toe. He is as strong as he's looked since I've known him. He looks like he's in 2013 form; he looks really, really good. All of those subjective reasons -- if I were a betting man, I would bet on something much closer to those monster years that he had prior to 2016.
MLB.com: There has always been a perception that it's more difficult to attract free-agent players to Toronto; out of the country, etc. Have you found that to be the case at all?
Atkins: I think there is the unknown for some younger players -- and maybe even for some more veteran players -- that maybe haven't spent as much time here. Now that in the past few years the environment has changed a bit, that certainly helps. I think we can break down those barriers a bit with education; break down those unknowns and make sure they're certainly not fears. It really just comes down to most people in this game didn't grow up in Canada, so breaking down that barrier is something we're confident we'll be able to do.
MLB.com: You said this winter that your farm system wasn't good enough to pull off a major deal last summer, for either Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman, specifically. How long do you estimate it takes to get the system where you'd like it to be?
Atkins: The easy answer to that is three to five years. I think that's what most teams generally say, and I think a lot of that is based on just one Draft or one trade; the likelihood of all of those players being good in one Draft or one trade is not great. The likelihood of all of our players getting better in our Minor League system is not great. But as we build out an infrastructure that can do those things and build the team to do those things, I feel like we're there now.
We're certainly not done and we're always looking to get better in regards to the team that's building the team: baseball operations. I feel like we have the appropriate resources now to do that, and if we look up in three to five years, ideally we have a winning team and a more robust system to contribute that we don't have to make trades -- but if we need to make trades, we certainly can. Certainly the odds of one of those two things, we feel like are very good.
MLB.com: Everyone is quite familiar with Vladimir Guerrero, future Hall of Famer. Not everybody knows his 17-year-old son, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. What kind of upside does he have as a player?
Atkins: There aren't a lot of players that go into live batting practice for the first time and hit multiple home runs and doubles into the gap when they're seeing, for the first time in a while, 92-mph sinkers, guys throwing breaking balls and changeups. Live BP isn't traditionally a time you see 17-year-olds shine; he does.
There's a ton of subjectivity to a 17-year-old Dominican player, but when all of the subjective commentary, evaluations and looks are unanimous -- that he's as talented as any young player that our player-development staff has seen in some time -- those are good things to hear. He's got a long way to go, a lot of work to do just from the standpoint that he wants to be great and what it means to be great. There's a lot of sacrifice ahead, a lot of hard work ahead, but he's as passionate and driven as any young 17-year-old you're going to be around. We're excited.
MLB.com: With the season a few weeks away, what would you say right now is your team's biggest strength and biggest question mark?
Atkins: I think our biggest strength is our expectation in our clubhouse. Our biggest question mark is our starting-pitching depth. We have five elite starting pitchers and we're really excited about some of the Spring Training stories; Lucas Harrell and Casey Lawrence, guys that are throwing the ball well. But we don't have a proven set of guys that could start beyond those five.
MLB.com: How do you assess the state of the American League East? The Red Sox are obviously strong after adding Chris Sale, the Yankees are going through a youth movement of sorts. With the Yankees going through that, at least, do you view this as a window here for you to stay strong at the top of the division?
Atkins: Yeah, I think we certainly stand a chance to contend for the division. But this division is always very good. The Orioles are going to be good again; they're basically the same team. The Rays always find a way; they have such good pitching and seem to use information exceptionally well to find ways to be competitive. The Yankees are mostly the team they were in the second half, which was a very good team. And everybody knows how much better the Red Sox have become over the last three or four years. Our players are motivated by that, and we certainly are as well. The most gratifying way to win is against the best.
Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.