TORONTO – Something Toronto Blue Jays fans should closely watch for as the off-season develops is how general manager Ross Atkins and company work to bridge the gap between the current core and the coming wave of kids led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette.
Barring a long-term extension for Josh Donaldson, the window of opportunity opened in 2013 is due to shut once the superstar slugger becomes eligible for free agency after the 2018 season. The Blue Jays are intent on trying to leverage his final year, but the manner in which they go about addressing their offensive problems and pitching needs may also determine how difficult the looming transition will be.
One strategic question to wrestle with is whether it makes more sense to add medium- or long-term pieces this winter so there’s insulation on the roster once the prospects start breaking through, or short-term pieces to create more of a clean slate.
According to Atkins, the Blue Jays aren’t "thinking of it as an either/or."
"We’re considering both," Atkins says in an interview ahead of the general managers meetings in Orlando. "It depends on whether or not you’re talking trade, you’re talking about free agency – ideally some hybrid of those. Last year the difference wasn’t necessarily where we are as an organization, it was more the very defined needs with the players that were exiting, Edwin (Encarnacion) and Jose (Bautista). Our needs are not significantly less defined, but less defined than a year ago. We are in a position to think about several different strategies to ultimately how do we win, and how do we sustain a winning team for a long period of time? That could come in either form, most likely, in the form of both."
Pulling that off won’t be easy, especially with the Blue Jays determined to upgrade themselves without any of the prime prospects other teams will be seeking in trade. Justin Smoak’s emergence last year created some roster surplus with Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce, they have some depth in the bullpen and they likely won’t have enough 40-man roster room to shoehorn in all the prospects that must be added by Nov. 20 or be left exposed in December’s Rule 5 draft. That list includes Conner Greene, Thomas Pannone, Max Pentecost, Rowdy Tellez, Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire.
Those are some assets to work with on the trade front and while Atkins says, "there are no plans to trade from our core," a point he made twice for emphasis, the Blue Jays could, "if we have to, exhaust those alternatives on what it could mean to trade from our core if we can create a better, sustainable model that doesn’t have big valleys, and have a steady climb."
Then there’s free agency and the one player who could potentially alter the club’s direction – Shohei Otani. The two-way Japanese star’s recent decision to hire CAA’s Nez Balelo as his agent brought a bit more clarity to his plans, as did the Nippon-Ham Fighters announcement that Otani will be allowed to leave through the posting system. Still, a new transfer agreement between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball needs to be formalized, so the process is somewhat stuck in neutral.
"We’ll continue to work to understand that and stay at the forefront of making sure that we can be players in that market," was all Atkins would say on the matter.
The Blue Jays scouted Otani heavily over the summer, sending multiple executives and scouts over to Japan for first-hand looks. Given that he’s only 23, he’ll count against the hard cap of $4.75 million-$5.75 million on teams’ bonus spending pools for international free agents, which means money isn’t likely to be the determining factor.
The Blue Jays are largely tapped out of their $4.75 million allocation, but they did acquire some pool room from the St. Louis Cardinals in a trade for minor-leaguer Lane Thomas back in July, and are believed to have slightly more than $1 million to work with right now.
Is it enough? Otani’s wants, desires and preferences are cloaked in intrigue – a true wild card.
The rest of the free agent market offers far more clarity and the Blue Jays will take more than a week’s worth of work to Orlando, when things should come further into focus.
"We’ve made contact with every potential free agent that could fit for us to their representation, to express our interest and start to talk about if that’s mutual or not," said Atkins. "We have not to date had discussions beyond the fit being a good one or not, but they are very telling to understand where that seems that there’s going to be more of a connection or not. I can’t get into specific players, but over the past week … on a scale of realisitic to unrealistic, we have a better feel for where certain targets fit on that scale.
"Similarly, on the trade front, which teams have good fits for us. Those discussions have been going on for much more than a week. Now you’re starting to get a little more clarity as we head into the GMs’ meetings on which teams we should be spending more time with because we line up well, because there’s mutual interest in making a deal."
The results will offer a glimpse into what lies ahead for the 2018 Blue Jays, as well as how things will shape up for an uncertain 2019 and beyond.