LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Disney World bills itself as the place where dreams come true, and in the manicured swamplands near the Magic Kingdom, the Toronto Blue Jays are hoping to realize their dream of acquiring a versatile middle-infielder who can deliver at the plate.
Ross Atkins, speaking Monday after the first day of the GM meetings at the Waldorf Astoria, described getting someone to protect against the uncertainty around Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki as his team’s top priority. But addressing the need is going to be difficult because productive super utility types are a commodity he admitted, “every team values significantly.”
The options are not plentiful in free agency with Eduardo Nunez, acquired mid-season by the Boston Red Sox from the San Francisco Giants, available on the high end, and Danny Espinosa, who bounced through three teams last year, a roll-the-dice, bounce-back option.
While the Blue Jays are trying to create their own Ben Zobrist in Cuban prospect Lourdes Gurriel Jr., he’s going to need some time. That leaves either anteing up for Nunez or trading for someone like Milwaukee’s Jonathan Villar, San Diego’s Yangervis Solarte or Marwin Gonzalez of the Houston Astros to make it happen.
“Our priority is complementing our infield in some way with versatility, someone that can not just play when needed, but someone who can potentially get 600 plate appearances across our infield in some form or fashion,” said Atkins. “That’s not necessarily going to happen, but that’s the type of value we’re looking for. As we prioritize that, then we’ll think about … that person also potentially complementing our outfield in tandem. Then we think how we’re adding to our pitching depth, starters and relievers.”
The Blue Jays are by no means operating on a single track, with one agent who has spoken with them saying confidently, “they’re going to get a starting pitcher.” Given the lingering uncertainty around Aaron Sanchez and his blister issues, adding protection behind Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada and, potentially, Joe Biagini not only makes sense, but is almost essential.
Colorado Rockies free agent Tyler Chatwood is one starter the Blue Jays have engaged, although Atkins said, “we’re talking to every available starting pitcher and having trade discussions with (teams about) starting pitchers.”
And though Atkins again referred to the bullpen as an area of depth, one rival executive suggested they may still seek more relief help, with the potential for a reunion with Joe Smith a possibility.
One player who would solve multiple needs at the same time is two-way Japanese star Shohei Otani, who is planning to come over once Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball sort out the transfer process rules. While that’s being figured out teams cannot engage with his representatives, but Atkins said the Blue Jays “are extremely prepared,” once they can.
“He fits about as well anybody could fit for our team right now,” said Atkins. “He’s an incredible talent.”
Incredible as he is, even if the Blue Jays landed Otani, they’d still need a super-utility player.
The Los Angeles Dodgers demonstrated just how valuable positional flexibility can be all season and throughout the playoffs, mixing and matching the likes of Enrique Hernandez, Logan Forsythe, Cody Bellinger, Logan Forsythe and Charlie Culberson, among others, at multiple spots.
As a result, they had an unrivalled depth and ability to match up.
“The more guys who play multiple positions, the more straightforward those solutions (to injury) can be,” said Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi. “Rather than having to have a backup at every position, you can maybe have three or four backups who cover everybody. We definitely have tried to create that versatility on our roster and placed a premium on it, and I think every other team views it the same way. It’s not easy to get those guys but when you can get a player who can perform offensively and comes with defensive versatility, it really creates a lot of added layers of protection for you over the course of a long season.”
The Blue Jays’ roster, on the other hand, offered very little of that and manager John Gibbons’ hands were further tied when Justin Smoak’s all-star breakout turned Kendrys Morales into a full-time DH and limited Steve Pearce’s playing time opportunities.
Escaping some of that redundancy is likely what Atkins means when he says the Blue Jays are trying to find ways to create more balance.
“With the emergence of Justin Smoak, now in thinking of how we’re going to get the most out of every single person on our roster, we need to consider every avenue for that,” said Atkins.
“Additionally, with how things transpired last year with the health of our roster, we certainly don’t intend on that being the case where we have as many injuries or as many DL days, but we need to be better prepared to handle that in the event that we do.”