The hiring of a new manager in Charlie Montoyo and some 40-man roster housecleaning behind them, the Toronto Blue Jays fully dive into the business of the off-season this week during the General Managers Meetings in Carlsbad, Calif.
With a team in rebuild mode after aggressively transitioning the roster during a trying 73-89 season, GM Ross Atkins isn’t necessarily working from as defined a shopping list as in previous years.
Certainly adding to the club’s pitching staff – ideally by reallocating some of the position-player surplus, but also through value free-agent buys – will be a priority. But even as they shift into the integration phase of a rebuild, talent accumulation, no matter the position, will still take precedence.
Without doubt the biggest year-to-year addition Atkins will make is an internal one with the looming debut of top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – who’ll be up no later than late April once the team secures another year of control on him, if not sooner. Others are sure to follow him, and a desire to give opportunities to their in-house talent means the Blue Jays won’t be seeking any substantial free-agent adds.
The likelihood is Atkins will try to be most active on the trade market, and how bold he gets in terms of using the in-house assets at his disposal will be one of many things this off-season that will be intriguing to watch.
Here are some others areas to watch closely:
The Blue Jays opened 2018 with a payroll in the neighbourhood of $165 million and through their sell-off managed to shave an estimated $10 million off the books. President and CEO Mark Shapiro said in September that they’ll be spending less in that regard next year – “When you enter these junctures usually your payroll comes down because you have younger players anyways,” is how he put it – but how much less?
With $62 million in guarantees to Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and a projected $34 million due to their nine arbitration-eligible players (not including Yangervis Solarte, who at the moment appears to be a non-tender candidate), the Blue Jays can’t go all scorched earth here. They’ll have a handful of players making the big-league minimum or a salary incrementally higher, and expect them to spend a bit fortifying the pitching staff. A figure in the $120-$130 million range is probably where they end up, which should allow Atkins and company to get creative.
Shapiro has spent three years working on plans to renovate Rogers Centre and his recent silence on the matter makes you think the next steps may be happening above his head at team owner Rogers Communications Inc. Certainly the trend in recent years is for new stadiums to be built as part of larger commercial/residential development projects and back in the summer one political insider suggested that Rogers may try to jump into the city’s plans for a rail deck park, which could open up some choice space to work with. If the company does indeed see the dome’s renovation as part of a grander development plan, that would leave the Blue Jays to try and wring out all the revenue it can from the building’s current configuration while the bigger pieces fall into place.
MONTOYO, COACHES AND EXTENSIONS
– The first stamp Montoyo will put on the Blue Jays is through the coaching staff he assembles with the front office, and the changes started over the weekend in the parting of ways with hitting coach Brook Jacoby and first base coach Tim Leiper. Their departures are the brutal byproduct of change, as both were devoted and talented coaches who served the club well and played key roles in the successes of ’15 and ’16.
The belief since the season ended is that pitching coach Pete Walker, at least, will be back if he wants to return, although the status of the others is up in the air while Montoyo and Atkins negotiate the process. As for Atkins, he’s due an extension after Montoyo was given a three-year deal plus an option. The GM’s initial four-year deal when he took over from Alex Anthopoulos is set to end after 2019, but he’ll be receiving an extension in short order, or may have already agreed to one. Either way, his tenure will be tied to that of his new manager.
MARTIN & TULOWITZKI
– The Blue Jays have $40 million tied up in Martin and Tulowitzki next year, with the latter due another $14 million in 2020 along with a $4 million buyout on his 2021 option. For now, Tulowitzki is a great unknown until it becomes clear whether he can get back on the field after surgery on both heels this year. There’s no point worrying about how he fits into the puzzle until his physical status is clarified and the money is what it is. If you’re complaining about the contract now, well, that’s the mortgage on the post-season runs of 2015 and ’16 coming due. It’s still, absolutely, the right move for the time.
Martin is more interesting, especially given how well rookies Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire performed at the end of the season. No one is taking Martin and all his money, but there’s definitely a sweet spot to be found in terms of how much the Blue Jays pay down his salary to get a B or C prospect for him from a contender. While Martin, without doubt, has plenty to offer the Blue Jays, he makes far more sense for a contender, and given that Martin Maldonado was catching for Houston and Erik Kratz for Milwaukee during the playoffs, he’s an upgrade for at least a couple of them.