Blue Jays' strange handling of Atkins extension speaks volumes

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Ross Atkins will continue as Blue Jays GM beyond 2019. (Nick Turchiaro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Ross Atkins will continue as Blue Jays GM beyond 2019. (Nick Turchiaro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With the exception of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s debut, and subsequent development, the Blue Jays most consequential move of the season came to light just two days ago.

And yet, since that report of general manager Ross Atkins’ extension, which was initially credible and has since been seconded repeatedly, the club has said nothing. More specifically, president Mark Shapiro has declined to comment on the contract status of front office employees.

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Whether they ever come around to stating it explicitly, the Blue Jays’ justification for this will be some kind club policy about keeping their front office contracts opaque. They might see some advantage, however slight, in other teams not knowing the deals their guys are on. That might make it harder for other clubs to pry a part of their brain trust away, like Ben Cherington who has GM credentials.

Atkins isn’t a crucial cog at risk of getting a break elsewhere, though. He’s the face of the franchise’s decision-making. When the club doesn’t even issue a press release to indicate he’s being extended, the silence is notable.

It would have been extraordinarily easy to make an announcement. You could even throw Shapiro in front of a few cameras to say how happy he is about the direction of the team under Atkins. The GM could sit next to him, throw on a big smile and say there’s nowhere he’d rather be. The script writes itself.

The fact they didn’t do that could say a couple of things. The first is that the Blue Jays are well aware Atkins is unpopular with the fan base and didn’t want to draw attention to the move. If Rogers thought this decision would score them some PR points they would have leaned into it, even if it circumvented a club policy. This is a franchise that can’t afford to leave any good vibes on the table. Instead, they knew what the reaction would be — it can be found in the comment section of any report on the Atkins extension — and figured a deft sidestep was in order.

Probably more important than avoiding fan scrutiny was not putting any terms out there. While nothing firm has been reported, there’s been significant chatter that Atkins is just getting the nod through 2020. If this deal is a single additional year, it’s not much of a vote of confidence. A “we’re going to keep our GM, but he’s on a short leash” deal wouldn’t project confidence and conviction about the team’s direction.

The precedent for the silent treatment is mixed. Cleveland reportedly extended their GM, Mike Chernoff, that way in the offseason. Ditto for the immortal Brian Cashman in 2017, whose deal was ultimately confirmed by Hal Steinbrenner — but not the Yankees. On the other side of the coin, the Cubs were transparent about their extension for Jed Hoyer, even specifying that his deal ran through 2021. The Nationals handled their business with GM Mike Rizzo last year completely in the open.

You could argue there’s no right or wrong way to do this. However, the Blue Jays had the ability to publicize a critical decision for the franchise — and control the message around it — and it’s significant that they opted out. If their goal was to keep this move low in order to avoid the news cycle, they unintentionally succeeded even though it was ultimately reported — in part due to a Raptors team that is dominating the city’s attention. Here we are two days later, and this has already been internalized without dominating newspaper columns and talk radio.

The debate over whether Atkins is worthy of an extension is a reasonable one to have and it’s fallen by the wayside despite the presence of valid points on both sides. Drafts under the GM look promising so far and he’s put together and admirable farm system. He also has a logical and transparent plan centred on building around a couple of special talents in Vladdy and Bo Bichette. Allowing Atkins to tear the team down then replacing him before building it back up seems a bit rash.

On the other hand, there have been free agent clunkers like Kendrys Morales, Jaime Garcia, and Jose Bautista. The trade returns for Josh Donaldson and J.A. Happ look questionable. Reinforcements for the 2016 playoff-bound club at the deadline were scarce. The rebuild probably started a full year too late.

If the Blue Jays had wanted to move on from Atkins after 2019 they would’ve been armed with blunders to justify that choice.

That’s a debate the Blue Jays clearly weren’t interested in anyone having. That’s their prerogative, but if optics were their main concern they might have considered that the only thing worse than pulling the trigger on an unpopular move is getting caught doing it in secret.

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