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‘I feel good about where we are right now’: Q&A with Toronto Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins

‘I feel good about where we are right now’: Q&A with Toronto Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins
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With beloved Blue Jays slugger Edwin Encarnacion unsigned and eventually destined for American League champion Cleveland, winning popularity wasnt going well.

Tasting the playoffs for two consecutive seasons certainly heightened expectations among one of the biggest and most passionate fan bases in all of baseball.

But Atkins isnt looking to win a popularity contest. The task, operating under the restrictions of parent company Rogers Communications, is to build a team destined for long-term success.

Refining a core that has made the team a contender the past two seasons has been a work in progress, as has laying the groundwork to nurture and develop prospects. And with injuries still to heal and questions to be answered over the remaining 24 Grapefruit League games, there is plenty of work to be done.

That said, when we caught up with Atkins watching minor league batting practice at the Bobby Mattick Training Center, the second-year Jays GM liked the tone and direction of what he had seen so far.

Spring signalled the end of the off-season and renewed optimism from Jays management.

I feel good about where we are right now, is Atkins early assessment. Its been very encouraging. Almost to a man, theres been so many good stories from the guys getting ready.

These are busy days for Atkins, from overseeing the big teams activities in his office beyond the right-field fence at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium to monitoring the development of the non-roster prospects at the teams training facility.

Overall spring training impressions so far:

Basically, there are three groups of players here right now guys who are getting ready for the season and preparing their bodies, finding their rhythm and timing. Theres a group of players who are competing for a spot and that are new to the organization and trying to demonstrate their abilities. And then theres a group of players that are getting exposure to the environment. And across all three of those domains we have really seen some really good storylines.

Our leadership group has been strong. Josh Donaldsons moving around exceptionally well. Russ (Martin) and Jose (Bautista) have looked like they are in mid-season form. Our starting pitching has been very good.

In the competing group, there are a lot of guys who have been really encouraging, a lot of the relievers that are in the mix to make our major league team.

And just as encouraging has been the play of many of our young players.

On filling the void for Encarnacion:

We feel very good about the situation with (off-season free-agent acquisitions) Steve Pearce and Kendrys Morales. Depth is a very good thing and were always looking to get better.

On the veteran leadership core:

These guys are absolutely working their tails off. Theyre in here at 6 in the morning, they have a meeting at 7:30 and very full days. Their intensity to get ready is exceptional. (Martin as an example) is already in mid-season form. You dont just wake up and do that.

Theres a reason that (Troy Tulowitzki) and (Josh Donaldson) and Jose (Bautista) and Russ and Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ and the others have had the careers they have had. And its how they take care of themselves. Its how they prepare each day and not just for spring training, but for a season.

On Jose Bautista:

Hes been unbelievable. His preparation its not by mistake or by chance that that happens. Hes a hard-working guy. Hes consistent, steady, sets a good standard for the other guys. Jose is exceptionally routine-oriented and very driven.

I was standing (at the batting cage on Sunday) watching him and he looks like hes in mid-season form. Theres no question hes exceptionally driven and exceptionally talented. The way that can manifest in a batting practice he stands out.

On Bautistas struggles in 2016:

The shoulder injury that he had in 15 lingered and that impacted his ability to maximize his strength and conditioning routines. And then he had the toe and the knee (injuries) last season. Its easy to say that if you took those out, he would have had a more typical Jose Bautista year.

On what a big Bautista 2017 season would mean:

The individual production from a player like that has a cascading effect on other players and to opposing pitching staffs. Theres no question there is residual there.

On a number of Jays training in Dunedin in the off-season:

Ideally, well have at some point a more state-of-the-art facility where those numbers will only increase, but I think we had 60 minor league players here and a good number of our major league players working here for the entire off-season. Thats what changes the culture.

Guys are enjoying the work and the preparation as much as the competition. I think culture is the most important (intangible). Its the only way to sustain winning.

Guys are enjoying the work and the preparation as much as the competition

Everyone has analytical departments. Everyone has strong scouting staffs. Everyone has a big player development operation. But how you get all those areas to integrate (into the culture of the team) is in our opinion a must.

On injured second baseman Devon Travis:

Obviously when someone has surgery theres reason for concern, but he has progressed well. Now each step of the way is more and more positive. Well see (about opening day). I would just say were going to let Devon Traviss timeline be based on Devon Travis, not on opening day. We obviously have good alternatives to fit in whether its a combination of two or more players. There are some alternatives for us.

On prospects learning from Jays veterans:

Theres a standard and an expectation and guys like Kevin Pillar have taken a lot from the players they have been around. The strides young guys like (first baseman) Rowdy Tellez, (pitchers) Timmy Mayza and Matt Dermody and Conner Greene have made these guys are coming into an environment where the standards are exceptionally high.
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