Why Blue Jays could be big players in future free agent classes

MLB analyst David Sampson joins The Jeff Blair Show to discuss if Bryce Harper and other marquee players actually have an effect on team marketing, ticket sales and overall fan interest.

In any other off-season it would be a normal plant. The notion that, in addition to the Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals and Chicago White Sox, “several teams are said to be waiting in the wings” for Bryce Harper is super agent Scott Boras’s usual claim of a “mystery team” jacked up by 1,000 per cent.

Fair play to all concerned, but this really shouldn’t come as a surprise. We are, after all, in the era of ‘bigly’ things. There might not be any more steroids in baseball, but with Harper and Manny Machado still out there on the free agent market, don’t put it past agents to juice the rumour mill.

Somebody has to move this along and that impetus is no longer coming from teams. The commissioner’s office has strongly urged general managers in recent years to be more circumspect in talking about the free agent market in general, not just players specifically, and the missive has been greeted with a great deal of adherence. Seriously: beyond the odd “duh, yeah, Bryce Harper would look great with Player ‘X’ and Player ‘Y’ on our team,” stuff, it’s tough to find much in the way of on-the-record, big-picture musings.

At some point, GMs and owners became smarter than, or at least as smart as, agents. Or surrounded themselves with smarter folks.

The Harper item came just as Dan Lozano, the agent for Machado, rubbished reports that the White Sox made a seven-year, $175-million offer to his client, calling out both reporters by name and suggesting somebody somewhere was breaking collective bargaining rules. Yikes. My guess is the fact the offer was well below the $30 million per year figure most observers believed was a given for Machado had something to do with Lozano’s protests.

This has been a depressing off-season for prognosticators – yeah, my hand’s up, too – who forecasted the feeding frenzy to end all feeding frenzies for the Greatest Free Agent Class of Our Lifetime ®. Not only was it headlined by two of the game’s truly transformational players and one of its most dynamic personalities, but Machado and Harper were also seen to be restraint-proof: free agent players who were both 26 years of age — staggeringly young in a market no longer much interested in anybody over 32 years of age. I remember Pat Gillick, the Phillies’ senior advisor, telling me two years ago that any team that wasn’t arranging its finances to get into this market was essentially guilty of malpractice. This was before Phillies president John Middleton said his team was ready to spend “stupid money,” this winter. That was a rare bold statement of intent in this muted winter and, well … still waiting for that “stupid money” to be spent, right?

It’s clear that Harper and Machado are each waiting for the other guy to sign first, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since they are comparables. Bob Nightengale of USA Today has boldly called it: the Phillies could open the season with at least one and possibly both of the free agents in uniform, which seems like a safe guess, since it started to become obvious at the winter meetings that usual suspects such as the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers are either slow-playing the hell out of this market or really don’t think they need to spend. And absent a sudden intercession by a ballsy club such as the Cincinnati Reds or San Diego Padres, the White Sox and Phillies seem to be teams best-positioned in terms of surrounding talent and depth and ETA to land these two.

The Phillies and White Sox. Think about that for a minute. No Yankees or Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs. Not yet.

And I know what you’re thinking: no Toronto Blue Jays, either, right?

Not now. But next year? Or the year after? I’ll make a bold prediction: next winter, the Blue Jays will aim higher in free agency. Much higher. That doesn’t mean they’ll sign Nolan Arenado or Xander Bogaerts … but they’ll make a call. Maybe even a follow-up. By then, the core of the future Blue Jays will have arrived and – if all goes well – will have begun creating their own culture. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Bo Bichette, Nate Pearson, Danny Jansen and the rest of them will have started something to build on. Committing large money to a big-name free agent right now makes no sense because in addition to not moving the needle on winning, there is a danger that person ends up creating a culture that the younger players need to fit around. That’s the opposite of what the Blue Jays want.

There are some intriguing free agent classes ahead, most particularly 2021 when Mike Trout (who will be 29) and 28-year-old Mookie Betts could be out there as free agents, and 2022 when any team needing an infielder could have its pick of Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, Corey Seager or Trevor Story. All of them will be under 30 (as an aside: you think Harper vs. Machado has gummed up the works, have fun deciding which of those infielders signs first).

Trout’s status figures to be the most-watched personnel decision of these next two seasons. His team, the Los Angeles Angels, has wasted his early years and he’s considered a model citizen, teammate, defender and hitter. He is Mantlesque, without the hangover.

Look: I don’t know if the Blue Jays will be fishing in these waters – sorry, had to – but I do know this: if the organization gets the initial stages of this reset right, there will be an ample supply of players who might put a team over the top. And as I mentioned on Monday, if the market continues recent trends – if management keeps doing what it’s doing and the players association tips more and more towards being an “association” as opposed to a union — the chance exists that the premium that has always been needed to bring free agents to this city might be a little less onerous than it was when the Blue Jays had to guarantee Russell Martin five years in order to bring him home. “This keeps up, the market’s going to fall back to the field until the CBA is renegotiated,” I had an agent email me the other day. “Not sure I like where term and dollars are going, but more teams will be able to go in on more players in the next couple of years.”

At any rate, this winter of watching the ground shift under this market with jealousy – or, for the more stout-hearted, a detached sense of amusement – is almost over. Just a few more weeks of dreams of Harper hitting between Vladdy and Bo and silly, harmless, what ifs that would depend on Boras picking up the phone, calling the Blue Jays and saying: “Screw it. One year, $35 million. Call me back.”

Get through this, Toronto. Hang on. Because behind it all, there are signs of future re-engagement. Sooner, as opposed to later.

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