In the lead-up to an off-season in which the Toronto Blue Jays would sign five free agents to major-league deals and make $130 million in payroll commitments, the front office circulated a questionnaire to roughly 50 people across the organization. Addressing a pitching staff that ranked 21st in the majors was an obvious priority, but the survey also sought a wide range of feedback on what the club’s overall direction in the coming weeks should be, player-specific targets, and other thoughts about strategy. By canvassing opinion privately, the Blue Jays hoped to avoid groupthink and having the thoughts of one or two strong voices inadvertently influence the beliefs of others.
Those results, along with months of prep work, formed the basis for a series of meetings in Toronto in October that resulted in the remaking of the rotation, highlighted by the signing of ace Hyun-Jin Ryu. More than 30 members of the scouting department and front office, along with the coaching staff, participated in the discussions, which sought to include as wide a range of opinion as possible.
From there, the Blue Jays formulated a plan general manager Ross Atkins describes as “more conceptual” than step-oriented and put it into action. “We didn’t set a strictly defined course in the way some might imagine, as it’s important to be cognizant of competition and counter-strategies,” Atkins explains. “Obviously we have specific ideas of player interest and targets and very concrete valuations of those concepts. But you need to be able to read and react to the market and obviously can’t simply dictate what moves you will be able to make. So you always need to be exploring things on many different fronts.”
That process of exploration, action and reaction played out over eight roller-coaster weeks, beginning with the official opening of free agency Nov. 4 and carrying through to the Dec. 27 signing of Ryu’s $80-million, four-year contract — the richest deal handed to a pitcher on the open market in team history.
This, based on interviews with multiple industry sources, is how it all went down.
LAUNCHING INTO THE OFF-SEASON
By the time Daniel Hudson struck out Michael Brantley to end the World Series and the Washington Nationals began celebrating their victory over the Houston Astros, the Blue Jays were ready for business. The early days of the off-season are dictated by the baseball calendar. Eligible players officially become free agents the day after the championship is settled, which in this case was Oct. 31. Before they’re sent into the open market, each player’s previous team has an exclusive five-day negotiating window with them, which made Nov. 4 especially busy. Not only could talks begin with everyone on the open market, decisions on most players with contract options, along with the reinstatement of players from the 60-day injured list to the 40-man roster, were also due.
As part of their prep work, the Blue Jays had pored over the list of players with contract options to search out potential trade candidates. The Milwaukee Brewers, facing a cash crunch and a call to either ante up $8.5 million for Chase Anderson or pay him a $500,000 buyout, presented an opportunity. In theory, any interested team could wait for the right-hander to be bought out and then speak to him in free agency, but clubs are sometimes willing to sacrifice minimal prospect capital to gain control over the process. Locking down Anderson was a chance to hedge for the Blue Jays, who believed their primary opportunities were in free agency rather than trade, but desperately needed some stability for a threadbare rotation.
Given that, the question became, if Anderson were a free agent, would he be worth $9 million? With so much work to do, and super-agent Scott Boras in control of the free-agent market with a wealth of clients, including Ryu, Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon and Mike Moustakas, putting an innings-eater like Anderson in place made sense. When the sides settled on double-A first baseman Chad Spanberger as the return, the Blue Jays had their first pickup of the winter. “We felt it was a very strong initial move to begin the push to shore up our rotation,” says Atkins.
While the Anderson acquisition was finalized, the Blue Jays designated reliever Ryan Tepera for assignment and outrighted Devon Travis to triple-A Buffalo to clear space for Ryan Borucki, Matt Shoemaker, Tim Mayza and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who had all been on the 60-day IL. A couple days later, Travis chose free agency rather than accepting the assignment, ending a five-year run with the club in which he routinely flashed potential but was undercut by injury. Travis says he was “prepared” for the split even though he didn’t like it. “I’m walking away feeling a little bit unfinished, but that’s the business,” he says. “I’m not the first person that’s had to leave a team they loved and a city they loved.”
FREE AGENCY OPENS
On Nov. 4, Blue Jays executives also began connecting with various agents to demonstrate interest in their clients. The effort made an impression. “They were the first ones to initiate contact with me. Right off the bat, they were really interested,” says Tanner Roark, who signed a $24-million, two-year deal with the Jays in December. “It’s exciting to have someone want you like that.”
Roark was far from the only pitcher engaged that day. Ryu, Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi, Zack Wheeler, Michael Pineda, Jordan Lyles and Rick Porcello were also among the players the Blue Jays initially focused on. More intriguing is that they aimed up the food chain, too, trying to engage Boras on Cole, who eventually signed with the Yankees. Whether things would have gone anywhere if he’d expressed interest in heading north is unclear. But two agents who were actively engaged with Toronto all off-season described the team as acting with far more purpose than the past two winters.
The Blue Jays’ initial legwork extended well beyond an aggressive flex. They created a video featuring Randal Grichuk, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Danny Jansen, members of the coaching staff and front office executives describing the big-league club, the organizational direction and the city itself, and sent that off to various agents. To ensure nothing was lost in translation, the team produced versions in Spanish and Japanese, with another in Korean partially completed. Shannon Curley, the club’s senior manager of player relations and community marketing, and her team kicked into gear, too, talking to players and their families about the resources available if they signed, and fielding any and all logistical questions.
As the GM Meetings began on Nov. 11 in Scottsdale, Ariz., it was becoming clearer to clubs that the free-agent market was going to develop faster than the trade market. Most of their meetings there were with agents, rather than other clubs. The Nov. 14 deadline for players to accept or reject qualifying offers brought about an early pressure point in talks with Odorrizi. The Minnesota Twins had extended the 2019 all-star the requisite $17.8-million, but there was an opportunity to buy him out. His connection with manager Charlie Montoyo from their time together with the Tampa Bay Rays worked in Toronto’s favour, too, but the sides got stuck on both length and dollars. As the meetings came to a close, Odorizzi took himself off the market by accepting the strong one-year guarantee from the Twins.
Disappointed, the Blue Jays still had plenty else on the go. They extended an offer to Gibson and were actively engaged with the other starters on their priority list. Simultaneously, they met with the agent for free-agent catcher Yasmani Grandal, some due diligence in case the trade interest they’d gotten on Jansen and Reese McGuire opened a door. They also kept tabs on the market for first basemen, checking in on Justin Smoak, Edwin Encarnacion and Japanese slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo.
The message agents consistently heard was that pitching was the first priority and that the Blue Jays needed more clarity there before fully delving into the position-player market. They needed clarity on another front, too, as they were making a push on Moustakas, whose market was beginning to take shape, and his fellow Boras client Ryu.
Atkins met with Boras in Scottsdale, a year after the agent chastised the organization for contracting a “Blue Flu” that caused a sharp decline in attendance. This time, during his always entertaining post-meetings media session, he took a far more conciliatory stance. “I think [given] the spirit with which they want to return the franchise to where I think it should be,” Boras said of Blue Jays management, “[it] is more likely we have a common thought about that today.” The change in tone was so notable that his words amounted to a public acknowledgement that Toronto was a legitimate option for one of his clients.
AN INTERNAL LOSS
Despite all the chatter at the GM meetings and some optimism from agents that teams would get down to business earlier this time around, the off-season appeared set to continue at the slow crawl of the previous three years. But beneath the surface, things were bubbling.
Before any of those potential moves, though, the Blue Jays encountered an unexpected hiccup when the Pittsburgh Pirates honed in on Ben Cherington, Toronto’s vice-president of baseball operations, as a candidate to replace the fired Neal Huntington. Cherington was to be part of the Blue Jays crew in Scottsdale but had to be excluded once he started the interview process in Pittsburgh, which culminated with his hiring as GM on Nov. 15. He was officially introduced Nov. 18. Two weeks later, he brought over amateur scouting director Steve Sanders to serve as his assistant GM. (Shane Farrell was hired in late December to fill Sanders’ roll.)
The free-agent market also really started moving toward the end of November. Gibson spurned the Jays and agreed to terms with the Texas Rangers. That one stung as the $28-million, three-year deal was right in Toronto’s financial wheelhouse, and the miss was amplified when Wheeler ($118 million, five years from Philadelphia), Pineda ($20 million, two years from Minnesota) and Lyles ($16 million, two years from Texas) all came off the board before the winter meetings got going Dec. 9 in San Diego. On top of that, a trip to California by Atkins and Montoyo to visit Moustakas wasn’t enough to land the infielder. The Reds, the clear high bidder, secured his services at $64 million over four years.
The flurry of activity shifted the off-season from stagnant to frenetic and, from the outside, the Blue Jays appeared to have been caught flat-footed. “We were prepared for the fast-moving free-agent market that we ended up seeing, but we didn’t actually expect it,” says Atkins. “I wouldn’t say our focus shifted as Odorizzi and Gibson signed. We were prepared to act quickly on those players, and obviously if they came to terms with us, that might have affected some of our ensuing transactions. But we were also cognizant of our alternatives on the market while engaging with those players. Our focus throughout the off-season was on the starting pitching market as a whole.”
That focus would be tested as the industry descended on San Diego for the game’s annual swapfest.
THE WINTER MEETINGS
The Dec. 2 tender deadline for arbitration-eligible players dumped another 40 free agents into the mix, creating some new opportunities and allowing Toronto to lock another piece in place. Matt Shoemaker’s status had been uncertain all winter long, with Atkins refusing to commit to the right-hander while also declining to cut the cord on him. Talks on a multi-year contract in September went nowhere and had the Blue Jays locked in another starter or two in advance, they might have cut him loose.
Instead, they tendered him, adding another hedge alongside Anderson, while also targeting a couple of non-tenders in right-hander Kevin Gausman and first baseman Travis Shaw. “From the beginning they showed serious interest,” says Shaw.
Despite that, as the 30 clubs and agents gathered , the pressure was mounting. On the eve of the meetings, one agent involved in talks with Toronto said, “the Blue Jays are going to have to get aggressive to get something done.”
The market had become far more competitive than in years previous, with atypical spenders like the Reds and Chicago White Sox jumping into the fray. A strong class of starting pitchers also led to more intense bidding on a scarce commodity, particularly in the middle tier of the market, where most teams were playing. Monster deals for Strasburg ($245 million, seven years) and Cole ($324 million, 10 years) also dragged prices up. And more Blue Jays targets came off the board with one-year deals; Gausman ($9 million) signed with San Francisco and shortstop Didi Gregorius ($14 million) with Philadelphia.
At that point, agents in discussions with Toronto said the team’s approach changed drastically, with one calling the conversations “totally different. It’s like they realized what they’d been doing wasn’t working and decided to change things up.”
Another described the shift as dealing “with a new Ross.”
That wasn’t necessarily by design. The Blue Jays had hoped to land a premier arm like Ryu or Wheeler first, and then fill out the rotation around him. But with Boras busy working his way toward a billion dollars in negotiated contracts, they realized the order would have to be reversed.
By Dec. 11, the third day of the winter meetings, things were coming to a head with Roark, Porcello and Josh Lindblom, who was looking to return to North America after finding success in Korea. At a late morning meeting, as Porcello’s camp told the Blue Jays they needed more time to decide on the club’s offer, Roark accepted the $24-million, two-year deal. “I talked to the pitching coach, Pete [Walker], and the bullpen coach, Matt Buschmann, we had a great conversation,” says Roark. “They knew what they wanted and they wanted me and it’s exciting to have someone want you like that.” That same day, Lindblom agreed to a $9.125-million, three-year deal with the Brewers. Porcello took $10 million for one season from the Mets as the meetings wrapped up the next day.
While all that was happening, the Blue Jays were also in the mix for Alex Wood, Angel Sanchez — who, like Lindblom, had righted himself in Korea and was looking to cross the Pacific — and Shun Yamaguchi, the right-hander posted by the Japanese powerhouse Yomiuri Giants. They also continued their pursuit of Ryu, meeting with Boras again in San Diego after a visit with him in Los Angeles before the winter meetings.
The day of the Roark signing, Boras completed a $245-million, seven-year deal for Anthony Rendon with the Angels. Boras’s next priorities, in an undetermined order, would be Dallas Keuchel, Ryu and Nick Castellanos. The Blue Jays at that point believed they had a real shot at Ryu if they were willing to be in the $80-million, four-year range. And while they also explored acquiring David Price from the Red Sox while in San Diego, their priorities were elsewhere.
“We spent a great deal of time talking about Ryu and the trade alternatives remaining, and ultimately decided that Ryu would be the best move for us,” says Atkins. “We also knew that was not completely up to us, but felt good about the work we had put in, the communication we delivered and understood what the opportunity cost would be. We also believed that our market was a good fit for Ryu and would help us to potentially be the team he chose.”
The back-and-forth with Boras on Ryu continued once Atkins et al returned to Toronto, while the market continued to move elsewhere, as well. Talks with Yamaguchi began to pick up and on Dec. 17, the sides agreed to a $6.35-million, two-year deal, the right-hander becoming a low-cost rotation candidate with a track of record of pitching in leverage out of the bullpen in Japan. While still lacking impact at that point, the Blue Jays had at least managed to assemble a major-league calibre rotation, something they lacked for much of a miserable 2019.
Meanwhile, the first-base market began to crystalize as well. Tstusugo took $12 million over two years from the Rays, while Smoak joined the Brewers on a $5-million, one-year deal. That didn’t change things for the Blue Jays where Shaw was concerned – they valued his versatility and strongly believed his bat would rebound. As their own internal picture became clearer, they felt comfortable they could sign him and still have enough budget to land Ryu. The first baseman agreed to a $4-million, one-year contract Dec. 22. “They stated multiple times that they were looking to bring me in and as the process sorted itself out, they ended up making a really strong offer that we liked at the time. It looked like a good opportunity for me,” says Shaw. “For me it was kind of a no-brainer.”
That day, though, the Blue Jays were big-game hunting, too. The previous night, Keuchel had signed with the White Sox, which suggested Ryu would be next. Atkins called assistant GM Joe Sheehan and director of baseball operations Mike Murov in the morning to plot a strategy for the day, and then drove out to Shapiro’s place for a call with Boras at 11 a.m.
Atkins went home afterwards, trying to think of anything else they could do to get a yes from Ryu. He was in his wife’s home office at 6 p.m., when Boras phoned back and said they were close. Once they hung up, Atkins opened up the front office’s group chat and punched in a note. “I think we’re getting Ryu,” he wrote. The sides traded more phone calls and a few hours later, the main structure of the deal was settled – Ryu was coming to Toronto. Word of the $80-million, four-year deal leaked soon after, a blockbuster add that capped the team’s heavy lifting this winter. “Toronto was a team that engaged with me from the very get-go,” Ryu says through an interpreter. “I’m very pleased they stayed through to the end. Now that I’m a Toronto Blue Jay, my job is to perform to the best of my ability.”
The Blue Jays are counting on that, having so heavily invested in the 32-year-old. “Not a week went by that Ross wasn’t calling,” says Boras. “And with each week I’d report to Hyun-Jin. When he returned to Korea, I kept telling him, ‘The Blue Jays are calling, they’re calling.’ And then the offers started coming in and I think he became very familiar with the franchise then. The pursuit and the consistency really allowed him to look at Toronto as though they wanted him.”
The Blue Jays wanted Ryu to be their ace and to bring in other arms to lengthen their staff, and accomplished it all. This off-season signalled the beginning of a buildup, not the end, with the work done this winter sure to benefit them when they go calling on free agents next winter. “Overall, we feel great about how we’ve been able to position our team,” says Atkins. “There is a ton of young talent on this team that could do some exciting things, and we feel like we executed on our mission to supplement and surround that talent with real impactful pieces that substantially strengthen our team’s position for 2020 and beyond.”
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