Blue Jays face ‘significant challenge’ to return to contention

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TORONTO – Not even 12 hours after the Houston Astros claimed their first World Series championship, the off-season’s business is underway in baseball, the Toronto Blue Jays set to execute plans developed over the past month and finalized during two full days of meetings at the beginning of this week.

Executives and scouts from across the organization, including Ben Cherington, Tony LaCava, Eric Wedge, Jon Lalonde and Jim Skaalen, joined general manager Ross Atkins and the rest of the front office in Toronto on Monday and Tuesday to lock down the club’s plan of attack.

The Blue Jays have "a significant challenge ahead of us to ensure we put a contending team on the field next year," according to Atkins, after an injury filled 2017 led to a 76-86 finish, 17 games back of the AL East champion Boston Red Sox and nine games behind the Minnesota Twins for the second wild card.

"We’re ready to go," says Atkins. "We’re never looking to have this benefit (of missing the post-season), but there is the silver lining that we have been entirely focused for the past month on how we can maximize every opportunity that could present itself."

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The Blue Jays should have some money to work with in the coming weeks, as while Atkins declined comment beyond saying that team ownership remains supportive, it’s logical to think their 2018 payroll will remain, give or take, around the $170 million spent on the 2017 club.

On the books already is roughly $88 million in guarantees to eight players – led by $20 million apiece to Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki – and nearly $54 million projected for 11 arbitration-eligible players.

Tack on an estimated $5 million for 0-3 service-time players, and that gives Atkins $13 million to play with on a payroll of $160 million, $18 million on a payroll of $165 million and $23 million to spread around at $170 million. Additional money can be freed up by non-tendering some arbitration-eligible players – right-hander Tom Koehler, with a projected hit of $6 million, is a likely candidate – giving Atkins ample opportunity to help the AL’s least productive offence and bolster the pitching staff.

"We have very large lists (of targeted players) that include arms and position players at every single position," says Atkins. "Those players, we’ve worked through and have integrated the potential trades with our potential free-agent acquisitions, and preferenced those out at every position. …

"How that impacts run prevention and run creation could come in many different ways. It could come in the form of three players that impact us on the offensive side, or three players that impact us on the pitching side. It’s unlikely that we’ll acquire six major-league pieces without some level of subtraction. The most likely scenario is that there’s some type of combination of 3-6 players where we’re complementing the core that we have and making sure we’re providing as much depth as possible."

Here’s a primer to get you ready for the off-season:

Blue Jays Free Agents: RF Jose Bautista; LHP Brett Anderson; INF Darwin Barney; OF Michael Saunders; C Miguel Montero.

Contract options: Jose Bautista has a mutual option for $17 million in 2018, and the Blue Jays have already informed him that it won’t be exercised.

Arbitration ($53.8 million total projected by MLB Trade Rumors): 3B Josh Donaldson ($20.7 million); RHP Marcus Stroman ($7.2 million); RHP Aaron Sanchez ($1.9 million); RHP Roberto Osuna ($5.6 million); RHP Tom Koehler ($6 million); LHP Aaron Loup ($1.8 million); RHP Dominic Leone ($1.2 million); CF Kevin Pillar ($4 million); OF Ezequiel Carrera ($1.9 million); INF Ryan Goins ($1.8 million); 2B Devon Travis ($1.7 million).

Salary guarantees: $88.375 million to eight players: C Russell Martin, $20 million; SS Troy Tulowitzki, $20 million; RHP Marco Estrada, $13 million; LHP J.A. Happ, $13 million; DH Kendrys Morales, $11 million; OF Steve Pearce, $6.25 million; 1B Justin Smoak, $4.125 million; Lourdes Gurriel Jr., $1 million.

40 man roster: The Blue Jays have 35 players on the 40-man roster but Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis, Aaron Sanchez and Dalton Pompey remain on the 60-day disabled list and must be reinstated by Monday if they plan to retain them. Darrell Ceciliani, Bo Schultz and Cesar Valdez had been on the 60 but were outrighted Wednesday. As well, prospects Rowdy Tellez, Max Pentecost, Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire, Conner Greene, Thomas Pannone, Jordan Romano and Francisco Rios must be added to avoid exposure in December’s Rule 5 draft.

How close are the Blue Jays to post-season clubs?

"I don’t think of what the gap is between us and the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Houston Astros, I look at the Toronto Blue Jays and how do we get better, and how do we make the core that we have here and our farm system a better organization given the resources that we have, and become a World Series team," says Ross Atkins. "We feel as though we can become a World-Series contending team. The benefits of having guys that are as experienced as Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki and Josh Donaldson is that if we get there – and we certainly plan on doing that – we are going to have guys that are not going to be intimidated one bit by that environment and will most likely thrive in it. The challenge for us becomes having guys who have played a little bit longer, is finding ways to keep each of them on the field at the highest calibre and highest potential they can be at for an 162-game season."

Oddsmaker Bodog gives the Blue Jays early odds of 28/1 to win 2018 World Series.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Health check

Troy Tulowitzki continues to recover from torn ligaments and a compression fracture in his right ankle while Devon Travis is working his way back from an August setback after June surgery for cartilage damage in his right knee.

"They’re hitting all the marks at every juncture when they have to meet with therapists and the doctors have been positive," says Atkins. "A lot of progress. Troy is certainly on schedule to be ready for spring training and Devon Travis is, as well. Both guys have had really encouraging off-seasons, thus far."

Regardless, adding a middle-infielder who can play both second and short and contribute both with the glove and the bat will be on the Blue Jays’ to-do list.

Area of surplus

Barring the unexpected, the Blue Jays are highly unlikely to deal from their stable of top prospects, a group that includes Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Nate Pearson, Logan Warmoth, Ryan Borucki, Sean Reid-Foley, Danny Jansen, Rowdy Tellez, Conner Greene, Teoscar Hernandez, Reese McGuire and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

So if they plan to make a trade, where might they subtract from? Some of their fringe 40-man players is one possibility, while the bullpen is another.

"We definitely feel we have depth in our relief pitching with the growth and development of all the guys that contributed, the obvious ones (Ryan) Tepera, (Dominic) Leone, Danny Barnes, that has been a great story for us," says Atkins. "And beyond that, Luis Santos, Carlos Ramirez, Matt Dermody, Timmy Mayza, we’re excited about a lot of the progress with those guys. So that could be an area that other teams have interest in, for sure."

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