Blue Jays having talks, but keeping options open at winter meetings

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins joins Hazel Mae to talk about being linked to players out in the MLB to improve the team, the potential of players in the farm system and more from the MLB Winter Meetings.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Don’t get distracted too much by names connected to the Toronto Blue Jays like Marcell Ozuna, Jay Bruce and Carlos Gonzalez that are bubbling up from the natural churn of a thus far largely idle winter meetings.

The sense among a handful of agents and rival executives to have dealings with the Blue Jays in recent days is that their main focus at the moment is on adding a versatile middle-infielder type, ideally with the ability to play shortstop and some offensive game.

The latter, in particular, seems to be a stronger preference right now, which is why trade candidates such as Cesar Hernandez, Freddy Galvis, Jonathan Villar, Josh Harrison, Ian Kinsler (whose no-trade clause shut down a potential deal to the Blue Jays four years ago) and Jason Kipnis are all under some degree of consideration.

Free agency is less ripe with possibility on that front, as the versatile Eduardo Nunez isn’t a particularly strong defender at shortstop. All-star Zack Cozart is a true shortstop with a solid glove, but the Blue Jays are looking to protect behind Troy Tulowitzki, not replace him, so you can pretty much scratch him from the list. Neil Walker, who fits as a switch-hitter with some offensive pedigree, is a second baseman and at this point they’re not there yet. If they decided to go defence first, Ryan Goins could be re-signed, or someone like Andres Blanco is available.

So, general manager Ross Atkins appears to be waiting out the trade market, all while sussing out where to go next in terms of an outfield upgrade, followed by pitching depth and, lower down the priority list, an upgrade at backup catcher.

Thanks to the earlier additions of Aledmys Diaz, who has a Defensive Runs Saved rating of minus-13 and a Ultimate Zone Rating of minus-9.4 in 1,499 big-league innings at shortstop, and Gift Ngoepe, along with the in-house presence of Richard Urena and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., the Blue Jays don’t need to set the pace.

Or, as Atkins put it during his daily briefing with media Tuesday, “fortunately we’re in a position, because of our core, that we don’t have to do anything to start the season. I think very likely we’ll make a couple of significant additions, but we’re in a pretty good spot.”

The same applies to the outfield, where the decision of which way to augment the in-house options to some degree hinges on how much bat the middle infielder they get has.

The Blue Jays will consider surrendering prospect capital in trade, but aren’t likely to make the type of lunge the Miami Marlins will need in return for someone like Ozuna.

Bruce and Gonzalez, “fit well,” said Atkins, but he quickly noted that, “there are alternatives in that market as well, there are other guys that we like.” Basically, they’d have to be priced right since they’re both the kind of older player the team doesn’t want to invest heavily in at this point.

J.D. Martinez is an intriguing name but he’d pretty much eat up their entire off-season war chest, which would prevent them from rounding out the roster, especially on the pitching side. At this point, the Blue Jays also seem to be slow-playing that market, unwilling to push major resources toward either a starter or reliever until they can ensure that their position-player group has been strengthened.

Emboldening them on that front was word Tuesday that Aaron Sanchez began a throwing program after a roughly three-month shutdown because of a tendon-pulley issue in his troublesome right middle finger. He experienced no issues with that nor the area near his fingernail that caused his blister troubles, and the hope for the Blue Jays and Sanchez is that 2017 turns into a painful but invaluable source of trial and error on how to keep the ace right-hander pitching.

Sanchez is a major game-changer for the Blue Jays, as a healthy season from him this year might have kept them on the fringes of contention for the second wild-card spot.

The relief market is also flush, and they’ve been casting a wide net for bounce-back, value-play types who would build up their depth without eating up too much guaranteed money.

The allocation of their available dollars for 2018 – believed to be in the neighbourhood of $25 million – is most likely to be focused on the middle infield and outfield, with everything falling into place beyond that.

Atkins noted that the Blue Jays’ Tuesday included 30 conversations with other teams and agents “that are demonstrating progress and certainly insight into the market and our opportunities.”

In terms of how agents are valuing their free agents in comparison to how the Blue Jays see things, “it doesn’t feel that we’re apples and oranges in our discussions,” said Atkins, but the part of the holdup is that teams “understand the values better across the industry so it makes the landscape bigger and the opportunities more prevalent.”

“Instead of just lining up in value or having efficient conversations in two or three organizations,” he continued, “you’re having them across 29.”

In other words, there are more options, whether they bear fruit or not.

Asked what was preventing a decision on the Blue Jays’ end, Atkins replied simply, “Opportunities and alternatives.” Run through the executive-to-English dictionary, they haven’t yet found a possibility compelling enough that they’re willing to cut themselves off from another.