MLB On The Record: AL East GMs answer burning questions on Yankees, Rays, Blue Jays arms race

Hannah Keyser
·23 min read

Among the many — and perhaps least important — “unprecedenteds” that can be deployed in a facile attempt to explain the previous 12 months is an unprecedented lack of access at sporting events. I like to think we’re getting by — fans and reporters, both — through a healthy dose of innovation, perspective, and an unhealthy dose of time spent staring at various screens.

But for an in-depth look at each team ahead of the 2021 season, I wanted to talk to someone who’s allowed within six feet of the field. So for each team, division by division, you’ll hear from a top executive about expectations and evaluations. Are they biased? Absolutely, but you’re smart enough to see through that when it applies. And besides, we tried to provide an appropriate counterbalance.

All the quotes are based on exclusive interviews conducted by Yahoo Sports over the past six weeks and have been edited for length and clarity. The teams are ordered by the projected standings from the PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 16: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)  Gerrit Cole #45 of the New York Yankees in action against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on September 16, 2020 in New York City. The Yankees defeated the Blue Jays 13-2. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Gerrit Cole leads a promising Yankees rotation that could be defined by how healthy it can be over a 162-game season. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

NEW YORK YANKEES

With Tim Naehring, vice president of baseball operations

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Yankees?

Naehring: “Obviously when you put the pinstripes on there’s one goal and one goal only: And that’s to try to win a World Series. Anything shy of that? Well, we will not reach our ultimate goal if it’s not a championship.”

What do the projections say?

Despite playing second fiddle to the Rays in 2020, the Yankees are pegged for 99 wins and have baseball’s best odds of winning a division title, per PECOTA. Gerrit Cole fronts the rotation with a sterling projection of a 2.69 ERA over 194 innings. The rest of the staff, though, has no pitchers projected for more than Corey Kluber’s 138 frames — and he has managed only 36 ⅔ innings since 2018.

Beyond wins, what is something else that would contribute to a successful season?

Naehring: “How we handle a 162-game season — how do we handle that on the health front? We have internal players that come up through our system that are impact players, All-Star caliber players, and we want to make sure they stay healthy. We have starting pitching where health is going to be incredibly important — whether it's a person coming back from Tommy John [surgery] like like [Jameson] Taillon; or someone in-house like [Luis] Severino, who's coming back from Tommy John; or if it's somebody like Corey Kluber, who has missed significant time because of injury.

The health of our club is going to be very very important. … We’ve taken on some risk in acquiring some of these guys, but we have some indicators that the upside is worth the risk we’re taking on. So, health will probably be the number one point of emphasis for me personally."

What won’t the team tell you?

If the Yankees are inherently disappointed in any year that doesn’t end with a championship, then it’s been a difficult decade-plus in the Bronx. None of that is news and it’s barely relevant to how their well-established dominance will fare in October this year, but it is a useful reminder that touting the pinstripes looks less like pimping a home run and more like the out-of-touch trash talk that follows the longer it takes to reach 28.

It’s tough to predict injuries or running into hotter teams in the cooler months, but the Yankees also have some real potential for concern on the days that Gerrit Cole does not pitch. Maybe “concern” is too strong. “Potentially exciting uncertainty.” “A lot of upside and not a lot of innings over the past few years.”

Let’s be honest, the Yankees are right to be confident now, they’re likely headed for another postseason berth. But after that, it’s anyone’s game.

How has the hiring of performance coach Eric Cressey to oversee training and strength/conditioning departments changed the outlook for team health?

Naehring: “I don't know anybody can point the fingers at any particular individuals when we had all those injuries a few years ago, but when it's all said and done, we can look in the past and try to make things better. Eric’s department is very progressive and obviously there’s a tremendous amount of confidence in what it brings to the Yankee organization. And I know we all have to evolve. ...

“Eric has a very good feel for what players want and need. Utilizing different technology to analyze the biomechanics — how the lower half works and how the upper half works and what kind of shoulder, hip shoulder separation … all these different types of things that players need immediate feedback. Modern technology offers it! Because of Brian Cashman and the support of ownership, we’ve tried to be growth-minded, utilize that technology, and think outside the box.”

VENICE, FLORIDA - MARCH 11: Tyler Glasnow #20 of the Tampa Bay Rays delivers a pitch against the Atlanta Braves in a spring training game at CoolToday Park on March 11, 2021 in Venice, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Rays ace Tyler Glasnow will be front and center in the rotation after the team traded away Blake Snell and declined Charlie Morton's option. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

TAMPA BAY RAYS

With Erik Neander, general manager

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Rays?

Neander: “Each of the last three years we've taken a meaningful step forward in our season win totals and how deep we've played, and the ultimate success is winning a World Series, which we fell a few games short of last year, and that'll be our ultimate definition of success this year.”

What do the projections say?

PECOTA projects the reigning American League champs to win 87 games and finish second in the AL East behind strong pitching and a mediocre lineup. The margins could get tight. By FanGraphs’ projections, the Rays wind up fourth in a jumble of .500-ish teams.

Beyond wins, what is something else that would contribute to a successful season?

Neander: “162 games and good health for everybody involved in this thing. That's a true answer, like without question and there's stuff more nuanced that’s baseball specific. ... My mind immediately thinks what would be considered a success is every team getting all 162 games in, and for us and for everybody involved to to experience this with good health and safety and the enjoyment that brings us all together.”

Did the team get better or worse this offseason?

Neander: “We got different.”

What won’t the team tell you?

Well, they definitely won’t tell you they got better.

Doing so should be every team’s goal every offseason. Admittedly, in some ways, that task is harder when your season ends in World Series Game 6. The Rays squeezed the second-best record in the sport out of a mediocre lineup, strong pitching and especially savvy deployment of both last year.

And then they didn’t even stay the same. They parlayed pulling Blake Snell too early in the final game of the season into pushing him out of Tampa too early via a trade to the Padres, despite his ace status and a reasonable salary locked in by an early career extension. They let Charlie Morton walk only to replace him with a lovable but unreliable (and accordingly priced) cadre of lesser Charlie Morton types. They did some other things, too, sure — but ultimately they took a team on the precipice of winning it all and scooched it back a bit.

How is it possible to stay ahead of 29 other teams who all know to invest in analytics? What is it about the Rays front office that seems to remain a competitive edge?

Neander: “You mentioned analytics like, if that's all we are, then we're not going to be ahead. We're going to be behind.

“That that's a large part of what we do, we like to put ourselves in a position to test our assumptions and our beliefs as often and as frequently as possible so that we can learn as quickly as we can — that is just something we believe in. But I think more than that, I'd like to think that our success, however anyone wants to look at it, is driven by how we're people focused. We’re built on trust. I think we care about one another and the analytical part. I don't know how much that's different from what anyone else does, but I do believe that we do a decent job of creating purpose for everyone that works here, and if everybody feels some sense of purpose and they feel like they can make a difference in their own unique and individual ways, then the sum of that can be really productive. ...

“Professional sports can be cutthroat and there tends to be a lot of turnover, which in turn can promote a more risk-averse approach, a safer mode of operation. I think we’ve been really fortunate to have had long-standing guidance, and it starts with our owner, Stu Sternberg, that has encouraged thoughtful risk taking.

“Stu has consistently supported thoughtful decisions that we believe are best for us, independent of historical behaviors. He sees the educational value in those experiences, even when the outcomes aren’t favorable. Don’t be afraid to do something that you think is best even if others are going to think you’re crazy. There’s so much benefit from the attempt itself. We’ve had unconventional decisions work out and we’ve had plenty more that looked crazy day one and remained crazy and unsuccessful through their completion. And that’s OK. Keep swinging.”

DUNEDIN, FLORIDA - MARCH 13: George Springer #4 of the Toronto Blue Jays jogs off the field during the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles during a spring training game at TD Ballpark on March 13, 2021 in Dunedin, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Marquee free agent signing George Springer heralds the Blue Jays' intent to build on their young core. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

With Ross Atkins, general manager

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Blue Jays?

Atkins: “Results are, obviously, the most important thing as it relates to any professional sports team. But we try our best never to focus on them and control what we can. So I think the best results that we could see would be that we did the best job possible to put guys in position to be durable, successful and sustain the development and progress that they've made, and continue to get better. And if that turns into, you know, a healthy year especially as it relates to pitching, then we should be extremely competitive toward the end of the year.”

What do the projections say?

The free-agent signing of George Springer brings proven star power to the club — his 5.3-WARP projection is by far the team’s best — but can’t mask a rotation still under construction. Toronto is projected to finish third with 82 wins.

Beyond wins, what is something else that would contribute to a successful season?

Atkins: “We don't have five, you know, ‘Write in their names, you can count on them for 170 to 200 innings of average-to-above-average performance because they've done that.’

“We do have Hyun-jin Ryu who’s done it, and Robbie Ray who’s done it, and Tanner Roark who’s done it. Ross Stripling, not to that extent, but has been in a shorter workload. Steven Matz, not quite as consistent as the others but has shown flashes of it. And then we have some really young, interesting, exciting arms in Nate Pearson and Trent Thornton, Julian Merryweather, T.J. Zeuch, Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch.

"But we don’t have — like the Los Angeles Dodgers have five starters, everyone knows their names and they’ve been there, done that, and they have some depth behind it.”

What won’t the team tell you?

Turns out they will tell you that the pitching is a liability and that’s because it is. As the Mets made clear, contending teams are not built on hoping Steven Matz performs well enough to be a rotation regular. The truth is, at this point it’s probably more fun to bet on the Blue Jays than it is profitable. The combo of 2019 excitement about the Baby Jays with famous names, plus an ill-fated postseason appearance made possible by a generously expanded field in 2020, plus an ambitious offseason in which they were one of just a handful of teams to make a splash in free agency, has resulted in well-deserved but perhaps premature hype around the homeless Blue Jays.

What was your mentality coming into the offseason? And then also how closely the 2021 team mirrors what you were hoping to get?

Atkins: “Coming into the offseason, I think the one thing that we were the most excited about that probably gets talked about less than George Springer, Marcus Semien, Robbie Ray and Steven Matz, Kirby Yates, all the additions that we made is the improvement of all of those other names that were here before. Not only in the strides they made last year, but the strides we saw them making this offseason.

“In Bo Bichette and his work on his defense. In Vladdy and his work on his agility and ability at third base. Cavan [Biggio]’s willingness to move around the diamond opened things up for us. … The work we saw happening at this complex, we were as excited about that as we were about additions we were hoping to make.

“So as we went into the offseason, we were hopeful to add to our team. We were hopeful for it to be a very, very good player who was established and would come in and take some pressure off all of those young names. And we felt like we were able to get two of them in George Springer and Marcus Semien on the position player side.”

So, to clarify, about all the rumors

Atkins: “We did want to make sure that we were considering different ways to make our team better. I had in my mind what I felt was a couple of ideal scenarios that if we could execute this, this would be an incredibly exciting step forward for us.

“In order to shoot for a couple of ideal outcomes — not just one outcome — we wanted to make sure that we had alternatives to work off of that because, as you know, it's difficult to acquire one free agent. It’s difficult to trade for one major-league everyday player. It’s more difficult to do that in concert and in multiple pieces so we wanted to make sure that we had different avenues to do that. And in order to do that, you had to cast a bigger net and understand the acquisition cost and the opportunity cost of those different kinds of constructs.”

FT. MYERS, FL - MARCH 5: Alex Verdugo #99 of the Boston Red Sox looks on before a Grapefruit League game against the Tampa Bay Rays on March 5, 2021 at jetBlue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Outfielder Alex Verdugo was acquired in the trade that sent away Mookie Betts, and sits at the center of the plans for a sustainable Red Sox core. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

BOSTON RED SOX

With Chaim Bloom, chief baseball officer

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Red Sox?

Bloom: “Well, I think anyone who is in a chair like this, anyone who's in this game, if you're a competitor, you are never fully happy with any season that doesn't end with you winning the World Series. That is always the goal.

“Beyond that, regardless of how much on-field success we have this season — with where we are with recognizing that we need to build up another sustainable championship core — zooming out and looking at the big picture, I think how clearly that core is taking shape at the end of the season is going to be one of the main ways that, when I look in the mirror, I’m going to assess how we were. And that’ll be true even if we win the World Series.

“How well positioned are we going forward to feel like we have a championship-caliber team and we’re going to have a championship-caliber team year in and year out?”

What do the projections say?

PECOTA foresees another sub-.500, if better, season with 80 wins and a fourth-place finish. Following a dreadful year on the mound in Boston, the system does project a promising year for Nick Pivetta (3.71 ERA) and a blistering half-season return for the rehabbing Chris Sale.

What won’t the team tell you?

When the top baseball executive is talking about how he would prize sustainability over a World Series championship this season (not that anyone thought they were in danger of walking away with the latter part of that equation), it’s less about what they won’t say and more about what’s underneath those euphemisms.

The Red Sox are rebuilding in the hopes of someday emulating teams that spend less to achieve almost the same success they enjoyed as recently as 2018. Fans learned last year that Boston simply wasn’t prepared to pony up the money it would take to maintain the core of that championship-caliber club and now they’ll live through yet another year of flipping guys with diamond-encrusted “B” rings for a couple prospects apiece. It might pay off down the road with the sort of sustainability that’ll make the front office more famous than their players, but what the team won’t tell anyone is why it makes sense to alienate your fanbase when you work in the entertainment industry.

How do you interact with Red Sox fans and what has that relationship been like?

Bloom: “I think because of the pandemic there hasn't been as much interaction as there normally would be. Actually with fans back in our ballpark out here [at spring training] I had my first live fan interactions in a long time this past week — you know, albeit from behind the mask.

“It’s something that I think is really important. I know that a lot of the things that we have done since I came here have been difficult for our fans. If I didn't think that they were the right things for the organization to do, then I would not have done them. But I also think that, you know, I have a responsibility to try to lay out the reasoning for what we're doing as best as I can. That doesn't mean that it's going to make the emotional side any easier, but I think if you're in a chair like this, you have a responsibility to explain what you're doing to the people who care so much about your team.”

The last two Red Sox baseball ops leaders were demoted or fired shortly after winning a World Series. How do you view the organization from above’s expectations, and the ability to meet them consistently?

Bloom: “When I came in here to interview for this job, I felt I owed it to myself and also to the organization, if I were to come here, to be really clear about how I saw the organization and make sure that there was a lot of alignment on what we needed to do. If that’s not in place, then you can't have success.

“Now as far as expectations are concerned, I don't think anybody has higher expectations for me than I do. I hold myself to a high standard and I’m probably more competitive with myself than I am with anyone or anything else. I have really high expectations for what we’re going to accomplish. I think right now we're in a period where we have to be thinking more long-term — where that is the best way to meet those high expectations, to put this organization in position to compete for as many championships as possible. I don't think you can ever get into a mindset where you are doing things with a goal of worrying about your own security, your own career. I think that's best accomplished by worrying about your organization. And if you're doing the right things that are aligned with the plan that everybody has for the organization, I think that's the best way to have success and everything else takes care of itself.”

during a spring training baseball game on Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Sarasota, Fla. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Orioles GM Mike Elias said the organization's state when he took over in 2018 required a rebuild that he wouldn't undertake voluntarily. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

With Mike Elias, general manager

What would it take for you to consider 2021 successful for the Orioles?

Elias: “We’ve tried to be very transparent about what we're doing with this organization. We kind of launched this project and came on board at the end of 2018. The Orioles were wrapping up what was a really impressive run from 2012 to 2016, where they outperformed a lot of expectations, made the playoffs, had a lot of really good players in that group. That nucleus was breaking apart, it had broken apart. The prior decisions to lag on international investment and sort of the analytics technology revolution was rearing its head a little bit in terms of when you looked at the pipeline and the outlook for the near future. So it was time to reinvest in those areas, turn the attention of the organization toward building the player and player development infrastructure.

“And we’re doing that, and we’re still doing that.

“But we do have a young and interesting group here. And to us, the most important thing is for these young players to continue to get better, to take steps forward, for us to find one or two or three more guys this season that we view as potential core parts of a championship roster. That’s going to be where our successes lie. We want to keep developing our individual players and finding individual players who are going to help this team. We think if we keep focused on that, good things win-loss results wise are around the corner because that’s how the team works.”

What do the projections say?

PECOTA, like the rest of the world, expects the Orioles to finish last. It charts them on a 67-win course, but is bullish on young outfielder Austin Hays — who has shown extreme flashes in September playing time.

What won’t the team tell you?

Elias is blunt about the harsh reality of a rebuild, so there’s no need to temper expectations for a team that’s sporting nonexistent postseason odds. The Orioles are fielding a team of Chris Davis (and even then, only sometimes, and begrudgingly), John Means, best-story-in-baseball Trey Mancini, and a bunch of guys who are happy to have big-league playing time. That’s fine, for now, but at some point, a respectable organization starts rewarding players who make the most of that opportunity with a little loyalty and maybe even some money rather than continuing to cut costs and linger at the bottom of division. If the Orioles don’t want to be looked at like a Quad-A team, they shouldn’t act like a temporary stopgap for players with potential.

You've been through a from-the-studs rebuild with the Astros. What lessons from that are informing your plans with the Orioles? And are you doing anything differently? Is there something you have to do differently now and in this market?

Elias: “Well, there's a lot different this time around. I think in 2012 it was prior to a lot of technological revolutions that have happened and a couple teams that were on the forefront of those probably saw some extra benefits. I think the Astros were one at that time. Also, at that time, of the Astros and the Cubs, embracing the rebuilding mantle was a little bit more rare than it's become and so there were fewer teams throwing the doors open to hoarding young talent. I think it probably made it a little easier for those two teams in particular to do that. And then also, those are big cities. They’re in different divisions than we’re in. So we’ve got a really high bar to climb just with the three huge markets that are in our division and then also the Tampa Bay Rays, pretty much the best organization in the game. So, it’s a high mountain to climb, but we’ve got some advantages with the history and culture of the Orioles and the talent and the fan base that we have and we’re embracing that.”

It seems like you’re saying something that a lot of people on the outside have started to notice and take issue with. Which is that the more that teams are trying to emulate the rebuild, the harder it is to do it. Which means more teams that are just sort of languishing. How do you avoid that?

Elias: “I think the important thing to me is, this is not something that you can or should do willfully. This is not a situation where we had an 81-81 team with a bunch of young talent right on the way and we decided let's strip it down and bottom out in order to get to the next era.

“This was a team that had taken its competitive window to the max and in 2018 had a very rough season and was in need of significant investment internationally, in the organization, in player development, in the infrastructure of how modern baseball operations departments run. It’s a tall order. We are committed to those things, knowing that that foundation is necessary to success, especially nowadays, and especially with the competition that we have. And there's no way to skip past that.

“So this is not something we ever want to see the Orioles organization go through again. We think it's possible to avoid this, and I commend the Rays and the Cleveland Indians and the Oakland A's and other organizations with limited resources that find ways to — recently, at least — avoid getting to the 100-loss depths.

“But, you know, right now, this is our pathway to getting out. And so that's the only reason that we do it. And it's really the only viable, plausible strategy for a team that was in the position that we started from.”

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