TORONTO – During a visit to Toronto earlier in the off-season, Bo Bichette met with Ross Atkins in the general manager’s Rogers Centre office. Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro was there, too, and the trio kicked around a number of subjects, including one that had the potential to be touchy – the club’s intention to pursue free-agent shortstop Didi Gregorius.
Bichette, after all, had just positioned himself as a franchise cornerstone with an electric two months in the majors after his July 29 promotion. During his rapid rise through the minors, he had worked relentlessly on his defence to undo the scouting reports that said he wasn’t capable of sticking at short.
The pursuit of Gregorius could easily be misinterpreted, if not worse. Atkins and Shapiro wanted to ensure that didn’t happen.
“It was presented to me as, ‘We’re going after Didi, don’t worry, we’ve already told him you’re our shortstop,’” Bichette said in an interview Saturday during the club’s annual Winter Fest. “I’d imagine that’s probably a reason why he didn’t come here. But at the same time, there’s definitely a certain type of player of a certain type of stature that I’d be definitely willing to switch positions for.”
Gregorius ended up signing a $14-million, one-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, who offered the 29-year-old the type of regular playing time at shortstop the Blue Jays simply could not. They are fully committed to Bichette up the middle and they very much should be, given how rapidly the 21-year-old’s defence has progressed over the past two years.
Within his first couple of weeks in the majors, his defence was so beyond expectations that the front office decided that keeping veteran Freddy Galvis as an insurance policy was unnecessary. The Cincinnati Reds ended up claiming him on waivers, handing the position over to Bichette.
All of which makes the club’s pursuit of Gregorius all the more revealing of how Atkins and the front office both went about their business this off-season, and view team-building in general.
Based on the roster at the end of 2019, a middle infielder would have been last on the team’s lengthy list of needs, which was topped by the gaping holes on the pitching staff. With Vladimir Guerrero Jr., at third, Bichette at short and Cavan Biggio at second, the Blue Jays seemed set for years to come.
Here, though, is where the organization’s emphasis on positional flexibility opens a path to roster creativity.
Gregorius offered a defensive upgrade at second base, insurance around the infield and an impact left-handed bat, each an element that would have upgraded the Blue Jays as a whole.
Had he signed, Biggio would have been pushed off second into a super-utility role – Atkins even asked the 24-year-old about playing some centre field during a conversation in November – thereby making the overall roster deeper.
And rather than getting boxed in by specific positional needs – centre field remains an unresolved issue because the free-agent market offered few solutions – the Blue Jays instead sought out the best upgrades they could fit into their puzzle.
For the players, involved the process can be tumultuous, but there’s a balance for them between pursuing their own interests and sometimes taking a step back personally for the betterment of the group.
“I was talking to (Atkins) about something totally different and he just kind of slid in that I might be moving around some more and then dropped in centre field,” said Biggio. “He didn’t say anything about Didi, but he just told me that he didn’t want to limit himself in free agency. I was like, ‘Go get who you need to get.’ … Whether it’s moving around a lot or being mainly at second base and occasionally moving around, it just helps the team.”
Bichette feels the same way.
“It’s an interesting question,” he said of the balance between self and team. “I’ve worked really, really hard to be a shortstop in the big-leagues. For me, that wouldn’t necessarily be an easy thing to give up. At the same time, my main goal is to win a World Series, so however I can do that is what I’ll do.
“A big thing would be having a guy come in and take the position who would put us over the top. I’m not going to put any names out there, but there are certain guys on the block that I’d be more than willing to move for.”
Little sleuthing is needed to figure out who that might be, as the Cleveland Indians have floated four-time all-star Francisco Lindor on the trade market all off-season, and like any sane front office, the Blue Jays have checked in. Intriguingly, as colleague Ben Nicholson-Smith chronicled, Atkins this week said he remains “extremely open to something of significant impact,” and added that would most likely occur via trade, with the caveat that pulling off such deals “is very difficult to do.”
In other words, nothing is imminent, but the Blue Jays still have the capacity to make something big happen if the opportunity arises.
As such, the club’s position-player set-up remains largely unchanged, with Travis Shaw replacing the departed Justin Smoak at first base and backup catcher Luke Maile non-tendered to set up a Danny Jansen-Reese McGuire tandem behind the plate.
Like Biggio, Shaw can move around the diamond, with experience at second and third. Manager Charlie Montoyo will be able to deploy different lineups for a variety of different situations.
“If Vladdy is hurting at third base and you want to give him a day at DH, Brandon Drury can go play third, Travis Shaw can go play second, Rowdy (Tellez) can go play first, throw me in right field and you can still keep my bat in the lineup,” said Biggio. “My position depends on a lot of different things going on with our team.”
The heavy lifting this winter has come on the pitching side, with ace Hyun-Jin Ryu, right-handers Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson and swingman Shun Yamaguchi brought in to bolster a pitching staff that ranked 21st in the majors with a 4.79 ERA.
Their signings triggered a wave of optimism across the roster that the path back up from a 67-95 season that earned the Blue Jays the fifth-overall pick in the 2020 draft is well underway.
“I definitely think our clubhouse is way more confident than the media or anybody else seems to be (about the team’s chances),” said Bichette. “To see them go out and get guys to try and help us win now – I don’t think anybody is expecting us to win the World Series, but those guys are going to help us continue to grow and continue to get better and push it along.
“I’m super pumped about that.”