TORONTO – To this point in the off-season, the Toronto Blue Jays have finalized one signing, come close to completing another move and shown a willingness to explore far more possibilities in the weeks and months ahead.
They’ve been busy, and they’d like to keep it that way. With money to spend and prospects to trade, they’re as well-positioned as any team to address their considerable needs. But industry-wide, there’s still an expectation that the coming months will unfold slowly as teams navigate an off-season for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.
“I would expect things to move a bit slower this off-season, but at the same time that doesn’t mean something couldn’t happen quickly,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said during a half-hour session with Toronto-based media Thursday. “It very well could, and almost did for us. But at the same time there’s opportunity in this market for sure, we see opportunity for us to get better and it’s very important that we have a disciplined approach.”
Put simply, the Blue Jays want to get better and believe they will. They’re willing to move now, but intent on staying disciplined. And like so many around the industry, they’re expecting the overall off-season pace to start slowly.
Eventually, that pace will have to pick up league-wide, but there are many reasons to believe it’s not close to happening yet. Even beyond the practical and financial questions posed by the pandemic, other factors are at work …
The second wave
A couple of weeks ago, 147 players hit free agency. In a few weeks’ time, dozens more will likely join them on the open market ahead of the Dec. 2 deadline for teams to tender arbitration-eligible players contracts.
Even at the best of times, many skilled players are cut loose at the tender deadline and the free agent pool expands accordingly. Now that teams are actively cost cutting, there’s a widespread industry expectation that more players than usual will become free agents. For teams shopping in that tier of the market, a little patience could pay off and they know it — so why rush deals now?
What are the rules, again?
Consider some of the core questions to which we still don’t have answers:
• How many roster spots will teams have in 2021?
• Will there be a universal designated hitter, or are NL pitchers hitting again?
• What’s the playoff structure going forward?
Those are some pretty important variables, and if you assume team executives know more than the general public, you’d be wrong.
“There’s still a lot to be determined,” Atkins said. “Major League Baseball is still gathering the opinions of a lot of different stakeholders: the players, the union, obviously front offices, and still factoring in what next year is going to look like.”
At some point, teams just have to make a call with the best information they have, but the uncertainty surrounding these basic questions certainly doesn’t make things easier. The DH question is particularly significant as National League teams try to map out their next moves.
As one baseball person said, “It’s for sure not fair to NL GMs and the few guys that are free agent DHs, but those are the breaks.”
GM uncertainty slowing market
The Angels announced Perry Minasian as their new GM on Thursday and the Marlins announced Kim Ng as their new GM on Friday. Then there are the Mets, who don’t have a GM but seem poised to be one of the industry’s most aggressive teams under the ownership of Steve Cohen.
With that in mind, imagine you’re a GM looking to maximize the trade return for a star player; Francisco Lindor, for instance. Why make a move before you’ve had the chance to talk to those new GMs? If the Mets are a legitimate trade destination for Lindor, Cleveland will surely want to hear their offer before finalizing anything. Knowing that, other teams might hesitate to bid against themselves just yet.
And not only does that keep Lindor in limbo, it impacts the market for free agents like Marcus Semien, Didi Gregorius and Andrelton Simmons. Further complicating matters at the position, 25-year-old Korean star Ha-Seong Kim will likely be posted, too, just not until the end of November.
Shortstops aren’t the only ones affected, of course. Imagine you represent a top free agent at any position. Are you going to rush a deal before sitting down with the Mets? Or before talking to Minasian, the former Blue Jays executive who will now oversee baseball operations for the Angels, typically an aggressive team in free agency?
It adds up to a lot of uncertainty – an environment in which many of the key stakeholders have incomplete information. Until there’s clarity on at least some of those fronts, the industry as a whole will likely proceed rather slowly.
Not that the Blue Jays are closing off any possibilities in the meantime. Team president Mark Shapiro has said ownership at Rogers Communications Inc., which also owns Sportsnet, will support meaningful additions this off-season. With so many possibilities still available to them, the Toronto front office has an eye on high-upside moves right now.
“If we were to move earlier, the impact would be significant,” Atkins said. “And that doesn’t take us out of significant impact later.”
Whether others will be just as ready to move early is another question altogether.