In competitive market, Blue Jays pitch to FAs could be the difference

Mark Shapiro spoke about the Blue Jays' potential interest in free agent starting pitcher Gerrit Cole and what challenges and advantages will affect their plans.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The conversations with free agents started right off the hop this off-season for the Toronto Blue Jays, who like virtually every other team in baseball are on the hunt for starting pitching this winter.

As such, the beginning of the General Managers Meetings at the Omni Scottsdale Resort and Spa didn’t represent any type of “a crescendo” in the ongoing discussions, according to Ross Atkins, but rather an important in-person touchpoint.

How much that advances things is unclear, as one plugged-in executive predicted little more than clarity on qualified free agents ahead of Thursday’s deadline over the next few days. More certain is that with a limited pool of desirable free-agent starters, getting someone to sign with a rebuilding club in the American League East won’t be an easy task.

So, what exactly is the Blue Jays’ pitch to prospective pitchers?

“That’s fun for us to talk about,” said Atkins.

“We have tons of flexibility with an incredibly exciting young position player core and a lot of depth on our 40-man (roster) and a lot of depth in our system, much of which is in the form of pitching, which we feel bodes really well for our future. As important as the talent on the field that showed very well in the second half, certainly in the last couple of months of the season, is the environment that we have, what we feel is a special one. We’re not where we need to be yet because it needs to be much higher on the wins than the losses. We feel the free agents and the potential acquisitions that we’re talking to, we’re talking to about improving that environment and making it even better.

“The agility of our roster, the depth of our system, the financial flexibility that we have, the leadership of (manager) Charlie Montoyo and the environment of our clubhouse are all very attractive.”

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Well, the market will decide if that’s attractive or not, and the key point there is the “financial flexibility” that Atkins has mentioned time and again in his public comments since a trying 67-95 season came to an end.

The Blue Jays have money to spend with only $38.4 million in guaranteed salaries, and just one sizable arbitration payout in the projected $8.4 million due to Ken Giles, who may very well be traded.

If they’re willing to be the high-bid for a free agent, they definitely can be.

The question then, dollars aside, is how to sell their targets on what they’re building and finer points, such as environment and a manager’s leadership. Buying a player is fine. Getting him to legitimately believe in what’s happening is better.

“The other things are strategic things that we’d rather not share, even if it’s a very small thing that is in the form of recruiting, the more we talk about that, the less individualized it becomes, be it from the Toronto perspective or be it from the players’ perspective,” said Atkins.

“The smaller strategic things we do to hopefully entice them to come to Toronto are things we’d rather keep between us and the players.”

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.

Fair enough, but actually closing deals, not just getting close only to be outbid at the end, is an important test for the Blue Jays this off-season.

Real, concrete steps toward a return to contention must take place because the clock is ticking on the club’s control of youngsters Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Danny Jansen and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., among others.

Coming up empty, or with 2020 versions of Clayton Richard, will only end up punting the leap to contending down the line. The club’s contention that now isn’t the time to splurge on the Gerrit Cole/Stephen Strasburg types is somewhat justifiable – better to time such adds ahead of a year when contention is realistic, rather than on the path back to .500 – but only if some middle-tier pieces that help now and later are brought in instead.

There’s risk in that, and a front office that leans toward conservative at the best of times is going to have move out of its comfort zone and not lock in on all the reasons why it shouldn’t do something, but instead focus on the reasons why it should.

As Atkins himself conceded, “we have more financial flexibility, we have more depth on our 40-man that can protect us in the event of injury and we have the ability to entice more free agents, as well.”

All that makes for a great opener in conversations in their targets. What really matters this off-season is how the Blue Jays finish.

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