Sense of urgency surrounds Blue Jays

March 23rd, 2016

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- John Gibbons was pleased when the Blue Jays' opener was moved from April 4 to April 3 to accommodate the ESPN slate. The natural byproduct of success is allure, and if Gibbons' club keeps rattling off five runs a game and maintains its status as an American League East power, there will be plenty more scheduling shifts aimed at ensuring ample eyes are upon them.

"That's what you want, right?" Gibbons said.

Yes, indeed. But for Gibbons' club, the storyline for the season ahead is less about the spoils of success and more about the uncertainty surrounding a group that made such amazing gains last season. When you have a new team president (Mark Shapiro), a new general manager (Ross Atkins), a manager who just took more money for slightly less long-term security and a roster with two signature stars (Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion) fast approaching free agency, the prestige of the recent past takes a decisive backseat to the fascination surrounding the near future.

And so, at Blue Jays camp, you have a slight sense of unease to accompany the sense of urgency. This is a team with a win-now roster, but one that could evolve considerably in the not-too-distant future.

Spring Training:Tickets | Schedule | More

"The sense of urgency is the opportunity," Atkins said. "We have an opportunity to have a really solid team. You have to recognize that those windows of opportunity don't happen every year."

It seems the safest way to maintain a group that won a ton of ballgames together in 2015 is, well, to win a lot of ballgames in '16.

But even that comes with no guarantees.

"Everybody's conscious that there's a handful of guys who could be gone next year," Gibbons said. "It's a business, and these guys gotta run a businesses. We've got to maximize what we have while they're here, because we know they're here this year."

Gibbons is here this year. Beyond that, who knows? He and the Blue Jays reworked his deal to eliminate the rollover clause established by former general manager Alex Anthopoulos, and that was an outward acceptance of whatever everybody involved understands: When a manager is not the new regime's "guy," it's a tenuous situation. Gibbons came back to Toronto for a second go-round at a time when his name was not typically floated in connection with managerial openings, because Anthopoulos had a unique understanding of his value to the dugout.

That Anthopoulos is now with the Dodgers serves as a reasonable segue into the point that Gibbons could very well be 2016's version of Don Mattingly. The Andrew Friedman-led L.A. front office certainly wasn't going to dump Donnie Baseball when it arrived after the Dodgers' second consecutive National League West title, but it wasn't going to blindly lock arms with him for the long haul, either. The Dodgers won a third straight division title, but a quick bounce from the postseason meant a separation that all involved felt was best.

No one's rooting for it to come to that with Gibby. He's a good baseball man whose player-friendly nature enables max effort, on and off the field, from said players. But his future here could be dependent on a deep run.

Last year's run deepened the Blue Jays' revenue resources. This was a club that captivated a nation that had waited too long for October. And there is a sense in the industry that Toronto is something of a sleeping giant, in terms of the way further revenue leaps could impact the player payroll, should the Blue Jays parlay one winning season into another.

But in the meantime, the 2015 success was followed by minimal roster change, with the biggest alteration not an addition but a departure (David Price). And the bottom line is that the $84.5 million committed to Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada for the 2017 season does not bode particularly well for the Blue Jays making a bold bid to retain what will, by then, be a 34-year-old DH (who, for the record, has yet to appear in a Grapefruit League game as a result of an abscessed tooth and then an injured oblique) and a 36-year-old right fielder. Even retaining one currently rates as iffy, at best, especially given Bautista's understandably extreme asking price.

For now, Atkins won't comment publicly on the negotiations, but the players' public comments on the matter and Encarnacion's public deadline on discussions provide plenty of indication that both players will be testing the open waters next offseason.

The Shapiro/Atkins regime is facing an unusual, possibly unwinnable scenario here. Because had they gone the extreme lengths it would have taken to sign one or both guys and appease the fans this spring, they very likely would have put the club's long-term competitive interests in a bit of a bind. Loyalty to a winning core is all well and good until you become the 2013-15 Phillies.

What the Blue Jays are facing is only natural for a club that in many ways revolves around position players in the 30-and-over class. At some point, the decisions become delicate, and the prudent path doesn't always mesh well with the publicly popular one.

Shapiro and Atkins are pretty unpopular at the moment. There has been a natural and visceral reaction to them, given Anthopoulos' exit on the heels of the native Canadian's signature season. It's difficult to come up with a comparable, in terms of a new front-office group facing more immediate and intense public pressure.

"There's so much for me to do and so many people to get to know and so much opportunity here, that it's relatively easy not to focus on the external perception," Atkins said. "I don't mean that to sound political, because it's genuinely how I feel."

The external perception is that the Blue Jays are a team ready to win but also a team in transition, a team in which the key decision-makers are evaluating every element of the organization and slowly applying their stamp.

"The hood's open," Atkins said.

Soon, a new year will be open for business. And how Toronto handles the external expectations and the internal uncertainty is bound to be one of the more fascinating subplots of the 2016 season -- one that, as a result of 2015's successes, will be closely watched by more than just Blue Jays fans.