TORONTO – Over the holidays I had the pleasure of meeting several devoted Toronto Blue Jays fans, and a common thread among them is a genuine concern about the club’s lack of activity so far this winter. Rather than the usual hot-takes – so what if the New York Yankees got Giancarlo Stanton, we got Aledmys Diaz and Gift Ngoepe, playoffs here we come! – what I heard over and over was consternation over an off-season they feel is playing out with no direction.
Now closer to opening day on March 29 against the Yankees than the 2-1 win in the Bronx on Oct. 1 that closed out a miserable 76-86 season in 2017, it’s a good time for this winter’s first instalment of frequently asked questions.
Seriously, dude, what the hell?
I totally understand this feeling and while it’s probably of little comfort, Blue Jays fans aren’t the only fan-base trying to make sense of the relative inactivity so far. If you look at MLB Trade Rumors’ top 50 free agents list, only four of the top 20 players have signed (Wade Davis, Carlos Santana, Zack Cozart and Brandon Morrow) while another, Masahiro Tanaka, didn’t opt out of his contract and never reached the market. So really, the bulk of the winter’s business has yet to go down, making it a phenomenon that exists outside of Toronto, as well.
There are a number of theories as to why things are playing out so painfully slowly, from teams trying to leverage free agents by making them wait until closer to spring training, to agents dragging their feet to pressure teams to act. Both are at play, to some degree, as is an increasing discipline we’re seeing from front offices when it comes to pursuing free agents, with perhaps a growing groupthink that it’s a bad market to be shopping in, something teams argue is borne out by history. Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro has repeatedly said free agency is a bad place to build a team, but in the absence of surplus trade capital, they may have to delve in.
OK, what are they waiting for then? If other teams aren’t acting, shouldn’t they be aggressive and make some deals?
This is the big question, one I’ve worked hard to try and answer but still can’t in a definitive way. In my various conversations with people across the industry, I can tell you that they’ve certainly been engaged, with one agent saying, "The Blue Jays sure do love to talk."
What prompts them to finally act is when the magic equation between front-office buzzwords "value" and "acquisition cost" even out in their eyes. In large measure, that hasn’t happened for many other teams, too. I’ve been told that the Blue Jays aren’t looking for the market to bottom out or waiting for prices to come down to their level, but rather they’re trying to understand what the best deals are for them.
For safety reasons, don’t try to square that circle while performing another task. At this point, what Blue Jays fans can hold on to is that players in the areas where they need help are still available, six weeks remain until spring training opens and general manager Ross Atkins still has an estimated $25 million to work with. That’s a pretty strong position – if played out effectively.
What if other teams end up signing or trading for the best players? Doesn’t that just leave the Blue Jays sifting through the dregs for marginal upgrades, if that?
Certainly that’s a risk, although to some extent their financial flexibility offers some protection. At the same time, in their search for an outfielder last year, the Blue Jays exhausted through all their trade targets and when they couldn’t strike a deal, they ended up circling back and re-signing Jose Bautista. We all know how that movie finished.
This time around, consider the market for outfielders J.D. Martinez, Lorenzo Cain, Carlos Gonzalez, Jay Bruce and Carlos Gomez. The Red Sox continue to seem like the most likely landing spot for Martinez, although the Diamondbacks would like to find a creative way to bring him back. The Blue Jays continue to be linked to him, as well, but unless his price and the interest from others drops dramatically, that’s not happening. The others, though, are all possibilities, with the Mets, Giants, Royals, Orioles and Rangers all to varying degrees in those markets, too. The Blue Jays should have more money to work with than those clubs, allowing them to play out trade market pursuits such as Adam Duvall, Josh Harrison or Andrew McCutchen knowing they have backup options and clout in free agency.
That guarantees nothing, but it’s a guess as to how they’re trying to get whoever it is they’re trying to get. And my sense is the Blue Jays are hoping to do a good chunk of their business via trade, if they can.
The trade market makes sense. But their farm system is just starting to trend up after the trades of 2015, why deal from it now?
The likelihood is they won’t, at least not in any sort of significant way. Think about the November pickup of Aledmys Diaz from the St. Louis Cardinals for prospect J.B. Woodman, a 2016 second-rounder whose subtraction doesn’t really impact the farm system. That’s the level of prospect capital the Blue Jays are looking to spend, not the premier tier that includes Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Anthony Alford, Nate Pearson and Logan Warmoth, among others.
I was told that when the Blue Jays discussed Marcell Ozuna with the Miami Marlins, both Guerrero and Bichette came up. That’s a total non-starter for them. Any run at, say, a Christian Yelich starts with at least one, if not both of them. Not happening.
But as spring nears, maybe the Blue Jays and one of their potential trade partners nudge closer to one another on a secondary-tier prospect. And if not, the Blue Jays can fall back to their "alternatives."
Realistically, can they win going this route? With the Yankees and Red Sox dominant, why not just trade Josh Donaldson and start building for when Guerrero and Bichette arrive?
Do you really want that now, even if the likelihood is that Donaldson is leaving some time in the next year, if not as a free agent at season’s end than via trade before the non-waiver deadline?
Truth is if there was a deal with a significant enough return to be had, it probably would have happened by now. The whispers about the St. Louis Cardinals seemed to have dried up now that the Redbirds seem to have realized that they’d have to pay a real price to get him.
Without a major return for Donaldson, the Blue Jays’ most logical course is to take their shot with him, believing that with a healthy Aaron Sanchez and Russell Martin, a few strategic adds and some more strategic depth behind Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis, they can be legitimately be in the wild-card hunt. Sure, they’ll need just about everything to go right, but they have more upper-level depth in the farm this year in case injuries strike again and they have more time to bolster their group before camps open.
Perhaps the best reason of all for them to keep pushing is they have a deeply engaged fan-base sweating out the inactivity, and the Blue Jays know better than to take them for granted.