The New York Mets are in the process finding a permanent head of baseball operations. In the past couple of days Mark Shapiro, the current president and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays, has emerged as a top candidate. You know this because the other day Shapiro took the step to say that he’s happy in Toronto. Always say you’re happy in your current job when being courted for a new one, folks.
As the speculation about Shapiro and the Mets continues — here’s an article from Andy Martino of SNY from this morning talking about that — it’s worth our time to reflect on just how perfect for the job Shaprio would be.
Mets owner Fred Wilpon and his son Jeff hate to spend money. They catch a lot of hell for that and they probably don’t like it much. That’s why hiring Shapiro would be genius! Because, while Shapiro is a multi-time Executive of the Year, his signature accomplishment may very well be giving owners respectable cover for not spending money.
Shapiro was with the Indians for 24 years in a number of capacities, but he came to prominence when he took over as general manager in 2001. It was his job to deal with the tail end of those excellent but expensive 1990s Indians teams. It was the sort of team that required a renovation.
Renovations require both demo work and building work. Shapiro did well with the first part of that, making a number of trades of high-priced and aging veterans for young prospects, many of whom panned out, some of whom did not. He didn’t really build well on that teardown, however, mostly because he drafted poorly and because the Indians showed little if any interest in spending money or attracting good free agents. A couple of blip years aside — they won 93 games in 2005 and made the ALCS in 2007 — his tenure as GM resulted in a lot of third and fourth place finishes and a lot of losing records. What he did do during that time, however, was cut payroll down pretty well.
When Shapiro took over — joining new owner Paul Dolan — the Indians were a team that won 90 or so games a year, had attendance of over 3 million a year and boasted a $93 million payroll. Going forward payroll was slashed, bottoming out at $34 million in 2003 and not returning to the level he inherited until 2016. Attendance fell sharply along with the Indians win total during that time too. You’d think that’d be a bad thing but Shapiro earned a promotion for that, taking over as the team’s president following the 2010 season. The promotion implied to many that, to Paul Dolan, keeping costs low was more important than winning baseball games and making fans happy.
Shapiro would run the business operations, not baseball operations, for the Indians for the next five years. Just after the 2015 trade deadline the Blue Jays hired him as their president and CEO. He would take his cost-cutting ways with him to Toronto.
The Blue Jays overall payroll over the past few years has been fairly high, but the vast majority of that was due to commitments made by general managers Alex Anthopoulos and J.P. Ricciardi. It was primarily Anthopoulos’ moves which brought the team to the playoffs for the first time in 22 years. In 2015, a team led by Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Russell Martin and midseason pickup David Price made it to the ALCS. It was just as this playoff run was commencing that Shapiro was hired and took his place above Anthopoulos on the corporate pyramid.
There were rumors of acrimony between the two and between ownership and Anthopoulos over the David Price trade and over the payroll. No one has ever said anything publicly, but the sense among people around the game is that Rogers Communications did not enjoy spending the kind of money they were spending and that Shapiro’s marching orders were to rein in Anthopoulos. At the end of the 2015 season Anthopoulos left, rejecting a contract extension offer many considered to be an insult aimed at making him leave. He never said anything specific about that, but it was clear that he felt that his wings were being clipped. He’s now the Atlanta Braves GM.
The Jays were stuck with a lot of carryover money in 2016 and 2017, but they reduced payroll heading into this season and, thanks to some big trades and expiring contracts, about 2/3 of their guaranteed commitments are disappearing once the season ends. Their 2019 payroll is likely to be vastly, vastly lower than it has been for the past several years.
As he did in Cleveland, Shapiro has helped build up the farm system and has acquired some young talent. It’s young talent, however, whose service time the Jays are manipulating to save some more money down the road. It’s too early to say if the Blue Jays plan to add free agents or other established big league talent to complement those prospects or if, as happened in Cleveland in the early-to-mid 2000s, a bunch of third and fourth place finishes and losing records are in Toronto’s future.
What we do know is this: the Blue Jays have gotten worse in each of the past three years, they will likely be bad for the next couple of years and their payroll is spiraling down as well. Shapiro is spending a lot of time focusing on increasing the Blue Jays revenue — ticket prices went up this year — and his job is in no danger whatsoever. Indeed, he’s now a hot property for the Mets.
Shapiro has never really caught much hell for the fact that the teams he has run have gotten worse and cheaper under his watch. Indeed, he’s been promoted for it by his bosses and — because he is obviously smart, talks a very good, very articulate and very well-educated way about sabermetrics and market inefficiencies and team-building and all of that — he maintains an excellent reputation among baseball writers and analysts. While Theo Epstein, Brian Cashman and Andrew Friedman are the head officers of the Young(ish) Brainy Baseball Executives set, Shapiro is near their level as far as respect within the game goes. Not bad for a guy who has never won a ring, whose teams performed worse after he took over and whose aggregate won-loss record as a top baseball operations executive is way below .500.
That level or respect is not an accident, of course. Sure, if you are the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Cubs or the Dodgers you pretty much have to be in the business of credibly fighting for a World Series championship, but the rest of baseball is a bit more flexible about such things. We live in an age in which keeping payroll low, eschewing expensive veterans in favor of cheap young players and, in some cases, tanking is pretty darn desirable for baseball owners and the sorts of folks who take baseball owners’ side, philosophically speaking. Everyone would like to win, but if you’re not gonna win, raking in revenue while not spending much of it on baseball players is considered a very, very noble thing. If you can do it without catching hell, all the better.
So no, I don’t think it’s an accident that Mark Shapiro — a man who has shown that he is an expert at not spending money on baseball players while not catching much hell for it — is a top candidate for the Mets GM position. Indeed, I can think of no one more appropriate for the job.