Blue Jays pass on Odorizzi opportunity, show their restraint once again

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Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins looks on during baseball spring training. (Nathan Denette/CP)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — There was a real opportunity for the Toronto Blue Jays with Jake Odorizzi, the all-star right-hander who took himself off the free-agent market by accepting a $17.8-million qualifying offer from the Minnesota Twins.

Odorizzi could have been bought out of the big one-year payoff, much the way the Atlanta Braves tempted closer Will Smith away from a return to the San Francisco Giants with a $39-million, three-year deal that includes a $13-million club option with a $1-million buyout.

The calculations would have been different for the 29-year-old starter, who developed a deep respect for manager Charlie Montoyo from their time together with the Tampa Bay Rays. Factoring in the compensation signing Odorizzi would have required — in the Blue Jays’ case, their second-round pick, roughly 45th overall, plus $500,000 in international bonus pool room — a three-year offer in the $45-$50 million range forces Odorizzi into a tough decision, maybe even gets a deal done.

That’s a pretty tough guarantee to leave on the table, even with the potential of returning to the market next year without the tether of draft-pick compensation. And from the team end, there’s still a near certainty of winning a good chunk of surplus value in that salary range, at an annual number that won’t tie anyone’s hands.

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Clearly, no one got there, and Odorizzi is now positioned to join a free-agent class set to include Trevor Bauer, Jake Arrieta, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, Marcus Stroman and Robbie Ray next fall.

First baseman Jose Abreu was the only other qualified free agent to accept the $17.8 million ahead of the 5 p.m. ET deadline, but the sense all along was that he intended to remain with the Chicago White Sox. Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson and Marcell Ozuna all rejected the qualifying offer, as did premium aces Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, plus Madison Bumgarner and, of note to the Blue Jays, Zack Wheeler.

Where they go from here is unclear, although Odorizzi’s handling demonstrates that even amid their self-described aggressiveness in the market, their restraint from previous winters remains strong and steady.

Wheeler, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Kyle Gibson, Jordan Lyles, Tanner Roark, Michael Pineda, Wade Miley, Rick Porcello and Dallas Keuchel are among the starters they have some degree of interest in. They’d like to add two starters to join a rotation that currently includes only one lock in Chase Anderson, and they seem intent on playing out a decision on Matt Shoemaker to the Dec. 2 tender deadline for arbitration-eligible players.

The Blue Jays contingent left the General Managers Meetings early Thursday having spent the past four days information-gathering on pricing and interest, intent on returning home to process what they’ve learned before moving forward.

“If you think of the last four days, it’s really just condensed, but it’s not something that we haven’t been doing for months and certainly over the last couple of weeks with the accessibility of the agents and players,” GM Ross Atkins told Toronto media before boarding a flight home.

“This four or five days is very productive because everyone’s in one place. Most agents are here, every team is here and it’s around the clock. What we do with it when we go back is we continue our process. We continue to gather information. We continue to understand where the market could be headed and where our opportunities lie.”

The Blue Jays had an opportunity with Odorizzi. They declined to take it. What they do next will determine whether that was a mistake or not.

• The signing of Will Smith pulled perhaps the top reliever off the market, which could help the Blue Jays with Ken Giles, who to this point has drawn limited interest from potential trade partners. Should bidding for him not pick up, keeping the elite closer and trying to move him at the deadline, when shutdown relievers are more coveted by contenders, may be the play for GM Ross Atkins, although it’s one fraught with risk.

Either way, the club’s need for starters has pulled focus away from a bullpen that Atkins says, “we’re going to need to add (to). What we do feel good about is the depth of our 40-man roster, the number of guys we feel can help our major-league team that will potentially be in triple-A. We feel we have a number of guys that will stabilize our bullpen a little bit. But we’ll be looking to increase that level of execution, higher-leverage arms that have experience doing that and the starting pitching acquisitions that we hopefully make will have some impact on that.”

• The loss of Tim Mayza to Tommy John surgery means the Blue Jays don’t have an obvious option for a left-hander in the bullpen for 2020. In-house options include Thomas Pannone, who could be in the triple-A Buffalo rotation, Travis Bergen, who was claimed by the San Francisco Giants in the Rule 5 and subsequently returned, and Kirby Snead, who impressed in the minors last season. But new rules will be in effect for 2020, when rosters expand to 26 men and relievers must face a minimum of three batters, likely ending the days of the LOOGY, a left-handed one-out guy.

“We haven’t been big on situational left-handed relievers,” says Atkins. “We like guys that can get multiple outs and for the most part deployed even our left-handed relievers that way. I think the industry, really, is using the situational reliever less and less. Not something we feel will impact us significantly.”

• This is a time when all manner of ideas and concepts are floated between clubs and that’s how to read the chatter about catchers Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire and left-fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. The Blue Jays, according to one rival executive, don’t seem to be actively shopping either, but would consider moving them for a pitcher with similar contractual control.

To that end, they did meet with the representatives for Yasmani Grandal, as first reported by ESPN’s Marly Rivera, but that was far more about due diligence and information gathering than groundwork for a run at the free-agent catcher.

• The one starter the Blue Jays have acquired this off-season is Chase Anderson and Brewers general manager David Stearns described the right-hander as “a guy who was incredibly consistent over his time in Milwaukee. Whatever we asked of him, he did. He was a consummate professional and a guy I would certainly expect to contribute to the Blue Jays and for the fan base to really like.”

Anderson’s curveball usage shrank by nearly eight per cent in 2019 from the previous two seasons and one area of opportunity the Blue Jays see for him is in increased usage of the pitch. The Brewers worked with him on that, with Stearns saying, “Chase is unquestionably at his best self when he’s got a breaking ball that’s working. It complements the rest of his arsenal. There were times in Milwaukee when the breaking ball was a weapon for him and there were times when he lost the feel of it. So I think that’s a really good goal for him.”

• A highlight of every major baseball off-season gathering are the one-liners delivered by superagent Scott Boras. And while this year his barbs were more reserved than usual, he still delivered a few gems. For example, on his view that not enough teams are trying to compete: “We have to have a league about winning, a league about competition. When you go to the zoo and half the bears are asleep, you’re not able to enjoy the zoo as it should be.”

On the interest in ace Gerrit Cole: “If this were major-league Christmas, we’d be looking at 30 stockings that would clearly want a lump of Cole.”

And on client Nick Castellanos: “Old St. Nick delivers once a year. Young St. Nick delivers all season. You’ve got a pretty good market for that kind of player.”

• The Blue Jays started interviewing finalists for the head trainer role vacated when Nikki Huffman recently left the club, with Charlie Montoyo and Ross Atkins meeting with some candidates during the GM Meetings. “That’s a huge job, to tell you the truth,” says Montoyo. “The guys that are interviewing are going through a deep process, from me, Ross and Angus (Mugford, head of the high performance department).

It’s been fun. Whomever we get is going to be good because that’s a big job.” Huffman didn’t have previous experience as a head trainer when she was promoted to replace George Poulis, but Montoyo says “most of the guys right now that we’re interviewing, they all have experience so it’s not going to be someone with no experience.”

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