The Blue Jays’ Ross Atkins on a Day in the Life of a GM

Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins was the featured guest on episode 918 of FanGraphs Audio, which aired Friday. Here is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.


David Laurila: Ross, thanks for coming on FanGraphs Audio.

Ross Atkins: “Thank you for having me on. It’s good to be here with you.”

Laurila: We haven’t seen each other for a few years, but in this crazy pandemic world, I guess that’s maybe not much of a surprise.

Atkins: “I’m surprised we haven’t been on a Zoom call together. It is an interesting existence that we have, seemingly with some light at the end of the tunnel.”

Laurila: I should start by congratulating you for signing a five-year contract extension, which you did last week.

Atkins: “Thank you very much. You know what, it’s nice to reflect on the people that I’ve learned from, and grown from, and have heard from recently — the congratulatory remarks. It’s really exciting for me to think about how fortunate I have been, and I am, to be working with the people I’m with, from Charlie Montoyo and Joe Sheehan and Tony Lacava and Mike Murov. There are so many people that I could list, including some that aren’t here with Toronto anymore.”

Laurila: When I interviewed you two years ago, we talked a lot about process and infrastructure. Today I want to talk more about players, but before we do that, let’s touch on the life of a big-league GM. What does your typical day look like?

Atkins: “It always depends on the time of the year. This time of the year, everything revolves around trying to win any given day, any given night. What is the best roster configuration we have, and how do we put all of our staff, and all of our players, in position to be successful? There are typically baseball operations interactions happening very early in the morning, where we’re thinking about tonight’s game and this series, then what’s ahead of us and what decisions need to be made. Then there are discussions with major-league staff and personnel to make sure that we’re asking questions and not just answering them, and moving forward too quickly.

“That will shift here very soon. A lot of our attention amongst baseball operations will be entirely focused on the draft. We’ve already started some meetings. We’ll start to get to know the amateur players in a better way, from the top of our baseball-operations department all the way through amateur scouts. That will be extremely invigorating, as it always is.

“Obviously, we’re always thinking about development and deployment. How we’re helping players get better, and how we’re putting them in positions to be successful throughout the minor leagues, as well. So it depends on the day, it depends on the week, but there is usually a transition from discussions with baseball-operations staff, front office employees, to in-uniform staff, and then ultimately to the player — whether that’s to a major league player, a minor league player, or talking to an amateur scout. We’re always trying to think about how we can make the best decisions and put people in positions to be successful.”

Laurila: I’m sure you talk to Charlie Montoyo every day, at least once.

Atkins: “Absolutely. And it’s interesting in today’s world; we’re with each other around the clock. We’re in a bubble, and once you go in it, you pretty much stay in it. I’m traveling with the team and we’re together a lot. The COVID existence in major league baseball has been different for everyone, for many reasons — some of them obvious — and one of the less-obvious ones is just how much tighter our circles are. Therefore, the interactions are different. They’re much more in person. Charlie and I are spending hours together on a daily basis instead of minutes.”

Laurila: Charlie is of course part of the decision-making process in your organization. How are early-season call-ups determined? For instance, Anthony Castro just came up from the alternate site when Julian Merryweather went on the IL.”

Atkins: “It’s similar to what I was describing before: we are wanting to ensure that we’re thinking about it from every angle, and not just from the angle of what matters the most tonight or tomorrow. What are the long-term implications? What are the implications for other individuals. Usually it’s a group of… we actually have several text chains, or Slack chains, where we’re communicating constantly on what we might be discussing post-game. Then several members of that group, from baseball operations, who are in the bubble and in Tier 2, will come down and discuss that with Charlie Montoyo, Pete Walker, Matt Buschmann, John Schneider, Gil Kim, Guillermo Martinez, and Dave Hudgens.

“That one we probably spent an hour on, talking about with a group of anywhere from four to 10 people depending on where we were in the hour. We had three injuries — Ross Stripling, Jordan Romano, and Merryweather — so when we made that decision, there were a lot of moving pieces and parts, and a lot of things we were factoring in. There was also some fatigue to a long day and a long night, fortunately with a game we had won.

“So that particular decision started with a series of text-communication that turned into back-and-forth dialogue. We don’t oftentimes have really close calls and have to break ties, but in that case we had a couple of options and it was a very difficult choice for us. But we were so excited about Anthony Castro’s performance in spring training, and at the alt site. The velocity he’d shown, the poise he’d shown. We thought the chance for a strikeout was there in a big situation, and we were pleased to see how well he performed in his first outing as a Blue Jay.”

Laurila: I believe it was his second big-league outing in total. You picked up Castro on waivers from the Tigers, in December. How does that process work? I assume you have somebody responsible for watching the waiver wire?

Atkins: “We have a team that is watching it, with one individual accountable for it, and that person is shifting. We don’t want one person doing that for three years in a row. But it’s a lot of people with different inputs into one person that’s consolidating the information on whether or not it’s something that we should spend more than 30 minutes to an hour on, and really dig in to the claim being worthwhile or not. That one was a pretty clear decision based on what we had learned about him. We’re fortunate that he got to us.”

Laurila: What is your history with Julian Merryweather?

Atkins: “I was in Cleveland when we drafted him, and I was there early on in his development days. Then I left in 2015, and was gone in ’16 and ’17, so I didn’t see that part of his progression. He ultimately ended up having Tommy John. But we were excited about the intangibles to start. We felt as though he had enough athleticism to repeat what we viewed as a very effective delivery. We were excited about the fastball life and velocity, and the makings of two other major-league average pitches. His rehab process ended up with him coming back a little bit different pitcher, a little bit more power to the arsenal. It was such an extended process — there were hiccups in his return — so we focused on the reliever strategy. That seemed to be going exceptionally well, and then he had another hiccup. It’s an oblique strain that we know he’ll get past. He’ll be back in the fold here, soon.”

Laurila: You have a player development background, and also pitched in college and in the minor leagues. Are you pretty tuned in to pitching, both with development and acquisitions?

Atkins: “I am. I think I’m probably more comfortable talking about it from an identification and problem-solving standpoint. And I would say I’m probably more passionate about pitching, but I’ve learned so much about hitting over the years. I love talking to really good hitting evaluators, really good hitting coaches, and really good hitters. They’re so different. I think there’s a book to be written about the difference in pitchers and hitters. The mindset is so entirely different.

“I’ve always felt that pitching is a lot easier to evaluate, because you always know what the pitcher is trying to do, based on the catcher’s setup and request. The thing about hitting that you never know what he’s trying to do. Sometimes you can see based on the outcome, but if the result’s not there, it’s not always easy to see what the hitter was trying to do — what he was thinking approach-wise, what he was thinking from a timing standpoint.

“The athletic pieces of it are similar in the way that they load, and how they effectively create consistency, whether it be arm-stroke or bat-path. But breaking down the mindset and the reactive ability of hitting versus the proactive ability of pitching is fascinating to me. I would say that I’m probably more confident talking about pitching, but I’ve become as excited, and my passion is extremely high, for continuing to learn more and more about hitters.”

Laurila: Your club acquired Simeon Woods Richardson — one of your top pitching prospects — in a trade. The Mets drafted him four picks before you would have had that opportunity. Was he on your radar in the second round [in 2018]?

Atkins: “He was. That was a part of our acquisition. We were excited about him as an amateur. That’s the thing with decision-making in baseball, at least in my opinion. When you have a group of people that can paint a picture, and there are less unknowns, that typically ends up being higher in terms of how you’re placing a value on that individual. We had a very good picture painted on Simeon Woods Richardson. We felt as though we knew him as an amateur, and felt as though we knew him as a professional player, and we’re exceptionally excited about his potential. So the short answer is ‘yes.’ We were excited about him as an amateur, and he was in our mix in and around that area [of the draft].”

Laurila: Was acquiring him from the Mets in the Marcus Stroman deal a drawn out process — did it take months — or did it come together pretty quickly?

Atkins: “Months would probably be a bit of a stretch, but weeks for sure. It feels more like a month with the preparation that goes into it. And if you start to factor in the work that was done in the draft, then sure, there are months that go into it. We spend a lot of time prior to the deadline thinking about other farm systems and our own, and best potential outcomes. We try to project [and] be as prepared as possible. But it’s so hard to do. It takes an incredible amount of work from our professional scouting staff, and from our operations staff, throughout R&D, our analytical team. We bring in people from the development side, and obviously from the amateur world as well, to again paint that picture — not only of what they’ve done, but what they could do, and what potential adjustments could be made, or might need to be made for maximizing opportunities.”

Laurila: Switching over to the international side, I believe you were still in Cleveland when the Blue Jays signed Vladimir Guerrero Jr. What was your level of knowledge on him?

Atkins: “We loved Vladdy. Loved the bat. [Cleveland] didn’t have that level of financial power at that time, at that juncture. That wasn’t ownership-driven; it was based on how we had our strategy that year. He had just out-priced where we were at the time, but he, amongst all of our scouts, was one of the better hitters that we had seen. So I wasn’t surprised by where he landed, and the dollar figure — how much he received in that signing bonus. Yeah, we loved the player.”

Laurila: What did his earliest scouting reports look like?

Atkins: “Off the top of my head, I just remember everyone talking about the bat speed, the bat-to-ball, and the plate discipline. That was the thing. The consistent hard contact. The lack of swing-and-miss. The exceptional rate of driving the ball in a very strong way.”

Laurila: What about when you signed Alejandro Kirk in 2016? What did his early scouting reports look like?

Atkins: “It’s such a cool story of scouting, of just perseverance and hard work. Andrew Tinnish and Sandy Rosario, with Dean Decillis. I think Dean went on that trip alone initially to see a couple of players in Mexico, and ended up identifying Alejandro Kirk, independent of our strategy. He was a player we hadn’t been targeting. He was a player that Decillis uncovered, and found for us. I remember Andrew Tinnish telling me the story of how excited [Decillis] was about the bat-to-ball ability, how excited he was about his mobility, about his range of motion, and really just the heartbeat and the competitiveness of the player.”

Laurila: There are dozens of other players I’d like to ask you about, but we’re running out of time. That said, I will ask what Nate Pearson’s status is right now.

Atkins: “He’s great. We’re exceptionally excited. We’re going to have to temper our excitement and ensure that we don’t move him too quickly. He’s throwing the ball back to the velocities that he’s always living at. And he feels great. All of his pitches are there. He’s throwing bullpens — he’s already thrown a live BP — so he’ll be in game activity at our alt site very soon.”

Laurila: To close, let’s go back to your playing career. When were drafted by Cleveland out of Wake Forest [in 1995, in the 38th round] you asked if you could finish your thesis before reporting. Is that accurate?

Atkins: “Yeah, that’s accurate. I actually ended up doing it on baseball. It was comparing baseball markets to financial markets, for an economics class that I was taking. At the time, I hadn’t determined that’s what it was going to be, because I couldn’t finish it. I decided to go play baseball. Casey McCann was the scout, and I was quite frankly surprised to be drafted. Pleasantly. I said, ‘Hey, I’m enrolled in one last class to graduate, and part of it is writing a thesis; can I finish that before I report?’ Basically, he said, ‘Well, that will probably impact your ability to be a Cleveland Indian.’ So I quickly decided to come with an alternate plan. [The thesis eventually] did get done, and I graduated.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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1 year ago

David’s articles are the best on FG