DUNEDIN, Fla. – What wild theatre this is, watching what’s essentially the first week of December on the transaction front play out concurrently with the first week of spring training.
Speculation, signings and trades are right there at the forefront alongside live BPs, pitchers fielding practice and the slow-build to opening day. For players, a shoulder tap in the clubhouse could mean good job on the field, or the manager needs to see you because you’ve been traded. In many clubhouses, there are locker stalls changing almost daily.
“It’s definitely different,” star centre-fielder George Springer said shortly after the Toronto Blue Jays acquired all-star third baseman Matt Chapman from the Oakland Athletics in their latest bold strike. “It’s cool. It’s weird. It’s fun to see all the stuff that’s been happening. It adds a little bit of a different buzz to spring training where you're just waiting to see what potentially happened with anybody, anywhere.
“Definitely not your traditional spring training, obviously, with it only been three weeks, as well, but just with the craziness that's happening, it’s awesome to see.”
That his Blue Jays are among the driving forces in the current transaction frenzy should come as no surprise. GM Ross Atkins came out of the gates firing and Wednesday’s pickup of Chapman – for a comfortable package of infielder Kevin Smith, 2021 first-rounder Gunner Hoglund, lefty starter Zach Logue and southpaw reliever Kirby Snead – is their second major move since the end of the lockout, following the $36-million, three-year deal for left-hander Yusei Kikuchi.
They’ve also been linked to everyone from Freddie Freeman – a fit too complicated for a number of reasons – to Kyle Schwarber, whom they pursued until he opted for the Philadelphia Phillies, and they’ve been asking about Jose Ramirez since at least July.
The wild speculation has made anything seem possible for the Blue Jays which is perhaps why Atkins, carrying the weary eyes of someone up all night trying to close out a major trade, seemingly tried to temper expectations after landing Chapman.
Nothing else “was imminent,” he said, while hinting at interest in another bullpen piece while adding “the potential to complement our offensive roster is still there.”
“I feel good about internal pieces and there's a lot of talk about the right-handed nature of our lineup,” he added. “We're mostly focused on acquiring good players and if the left-handed version is better than the right-handed version that we have, then we have to consider that. But do feel good about where we've gotten to.”
Chapman is a big reason for that and the only thing to quibble about in his acquisition is that he bats right-handed rather than left-handed. Given the entirety of what he brings, that’s a total non-factor.
If he’s not the best defensive third baseman in baseball, he’s right there on a very short list with Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado. At the plate, in spite of a couple of down seasons that could be tied to his September 2020 hip surgery, he brings the combination of discipline and power that’s led to career marks of .330 in on-base percentage and .478 in slugging.
He did that mostly in the cavernous ballparks of the American League West and the dank, flyball-killing hellhole that is Oakland Coliseum. Much in the way Josh Donaldson did after the Blue Jays acquired him in a November 2014 deal with intriguing parallels to this one, Chapman stands to benefit both from joining a lineup with Springer, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernandez, and hitting in the AL East bandboxes.
“It really is a good complement,” said Atkins. “The plate discipline, the power – I think he's going to thrive in our lineup. We're excited about getting to know him and asking questions and seeing things that have really helped him be consistent in the past. We're exceptionally confident that he's going to be a very well-rounded player and not just an idle threat, but a significant threat on both sides.”
The defence, though, is really pivotal here.
Last year, the Blue Jays collectively ranked 13th in the majors in Runs Prevented at third base, a metric that translates outs into runs saved, with one. Tied for first in the majors at 12 were the Athletics, who had 150 games and 1,314.2 innings there from Chapman.
Seven different players were on the hot corner for the Blue Jays last year led by Santiago Espinal’s 81 games, but he logged only 140 innings more than Cavan Biggio there, and it was a leaky spot that too often cost pitchers extra outs, if not worse.
“We asked a lot of guys last year, especially Cavan Biggio. We knew it was a lofty ask and man did he give it an incredible run. Espy's been great for us, bouncing around and filled in pretty well for us there,” said Atkins. “Now having someone as accomplished as Matt Chapman to really stabilize that side of the infield, I think will be great for Bo. I think it'll be great for those that are going to be getting second-base opportunities, and it really will help us have a much more well-rounded defence.”
Worth remembering is that Marcus Semien’s defensive gains at shortstop with the Athletics coincided with Chapman’s arrival and of note is the Outs Above Average metric when players move to their left. The Blue Jays third basemen had a score of minus-3 in that regard last year, underlining the burden on Bichette to cheat to his right. Chapman was a plus-5 to his left, while recording 17 OAA and being credited with 13 runs prevented, both tops in the majors.
“Super exciting,” said Bichette. “He’s someone who's going to push us to get better in the infield, I'm sure. Excited to see his work ethic, his preparation. I've heard a lot of good things (from Semien) about him. Heard he likes to grind, likes to play hard. Just incredible work ethic and focus. Excited to see the impact he can have on all of us.”
In tightening up the 5-6 hole, the Blue Jays will be able to position their defence in different ways, too, and Atkins quipped that “I'm sure it's a very good feeling for Hyun Jin Ryu to look to his right and see essentially a wall standing there.”
Ross Stripling saw plenty of Chapman on TV while playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers and said having such an elite defender on the field offers pitchers “peace of mind knowing if I go inside and this guy pulls it down the line or whatever, there's about a 99.9 per cent chance that this play is going to be made. Slow rollers, guys bunt, whatever … you just know it's all good.”
Springer comes at it from an opposing batter’s viewpoint and during his many clashes against Oakland with the Houston Astros, he knew balls to the left side were trouble. He loves Chapman’s fit in the lineup – “a guy who can move himself up and down the lineup, can navigate an at-bat … is awesome to have. He's going to have a lot of fun here,” he said – but also knows the impact he’ll have on batters stepping in against the Blue Jays.
“I've played against him enough to know that you really don't want to hit the ball to him,” said Springer. “It's awesome. He can hit. He can hit for power. I've seen pretty much all aspects of his game for a long time. Pumped to be on his side for once.”
It’s a sentiment heard all around the Blue Jays’ Player Development Complex on Wednesday, when the club continued to throw its weight around amid the transaction frenzy. When he signed for $150 million over six years last spring, the Blue Jays promised Springer that he’d be a beginning and not an end.
They followed up by signing Semien to a one-year deal, trading for Berrios, extending him and then landing Kevin Gausman in another pair of nine-figure deals. Add Chapman to the list of build-up moves delivered as promised by president and CEO Mark Shapiro and Atkins during the dark days of the teardown from 2015-16.
“Ross and Mark were extremely authentic and honest and said, 'We want to surround the guys that are already in that locker-room with other guys and we need to add a piece or two or whatever it is that we need to do, we want to do that,’” said Springer. “You're obviously starting to see it. And I think this is going to be a pretty good team for a long time to come.”