TORONTO – All things being equal, the Toronto Blue Jays should be in an advantageous position as they head into the off-season.
They have a young, cost-controlled and returning core that capitalized on expanded rosters and the 16-team playoff format to reach the post-season. Moving forward, they have relatively minimal financial obligations over the next three years and no guaranteed money beyond 2023, a combination that allowed them to be aggressive in trade and free agency last winter, highlighted by Hyun-Jin Ryu’s $80-million, four-year deal.
Without doubt, this is a time to push forward aggressively, to continue capitalizing on a promising strategic setup, but amid the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing is equal, and uncertainty reigns. So, general manager Ross Atkins, given all that, are you in position to be similarly aggressive in free agency and in acquiring salary via trade as you were last off-season?
“I’d say that’s fair, the way you proposed it,” Atkins replied Friday during a season-in-review discussion with media. “But again, there’s a lot of work to be done and a more formal presentation to be given to our ownership group and for us to work through with Mark (Shapiro, the team president and CEO). But the way you stated that is fair. As difficult and as challenging as the pandemic has been, and what it’s meant across the world, and certainly the impact on baseball, the best way out of that for all involved is for us to focus on winning. That means we need to add to this team in any way that we can.”
The answer is an intriguing, but understandable hedge.
A year ago, before the Blue Jays went out and signed Ryu, Tanner Roark ($24 million, two years), Shun Yamaguchi ($6.35 million, two years), Travis Shaw ($4 million, one year), Joe Panik ($2.85 million, one year) and Rafael Dolis ($1 million with a $1.5 million club option for ’21), and traded for Chase Anderson ($8.5 million with a $1.5 million buyout of a $9.5 million club option for ’21), Atkins was more direct.
“It’s not good enough to have depth,” he said last Oct. 1. “We have to have guys who can contribute in significant ways. What I can tell you is our off-season will look more like the off-season after ’15, after ’16, where we were much more open to different structure and term.”
The message then to the industry was clear: Let’s go, dudes, we’re open for business.
This time, Atkins wasn’t nearly as direct to his peers and to fans, although there are a number of factors at work there.
He did indicate that he’d have room to spend, but left room to walk things back just in case the wider picture changes amid the club’s budgetary process with parent company Rogers Communications Inc., which also owns this website. For instance, the COVID-19 infection of U.S. President Donald Trump could spin out of control and derail the global economy.
Baseball officials continue to insist that the lack of fans in 2020 will lead to a collective $3 billion loss for the industry, even as Major League Baseball last week finalized a rights deal with TBS worth $3.7 billion, an increase of 65 per cent over the current agreement, according to Sports Business Daily.
That hasn’t prevented layoffs across the sport, including for the Blue Jays, and there is certainly more short-term pain to be incurred for all 30 clubs. How much and how significant is an interesting question, one that threatens to throw the player market into major flux.
If given significant spending power, the Blue Jays – who traditionally face hurdles in free agency that can only be overcome with more money and term (see Ryu contract) – may have a better chance to add impact talent than usual.
The status of Shapiro, who assumed control of the club Nov. 2, 2015 and whose five-year contract was believed to expire at the end of this season, is also unclear. Indications have been that he will continue on – surely he wouldn’t be overseeing this process if not – and it’s possible that he may already have been extended, but if so, it has not been announced.
Shapiro’s ties to the commissioner’s office and influence within the industry give the Blue Jays a strong insight into where the sport is trying to go, although COVID-19 will have the ultimate say over that. Remember that the Canadian government didn’t allow the Blue Jays to play in Toronto this season, forcing them to take refuge at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, and earlier this week, NBA commissioner Adam Silver underlined that the Raptors, due to restart before the Blue Jays, are wading through similar murk.
Hence, “the way that we're approaching it is we’re thinking about how we can continue to build on this team, to build on this core,” said Atkins. “The quickest way to recovery is winning. The quickest way to getting our business back to a very good financial spot is winning and our ownership knows that. Mark has had multiple interactions and they're ongoing and continuing. We're aligned on that front.”
That sure sounds like the elevator pitch version of the presentation to ownership – “investing in players, investing in infrastructure is the best way in our view to do that.”
Given that Atkins is unlikely to advocate for payroll publicly, it’s reasonable to think the Blue Jays have had at least some positive indications about where things end up.
How those deliberations settle will determine how ambitiously the Blue Jays can look to address the pitching shortfalls that are sure to come, and to pursue what Atkins described as “impact condensed in one player,” better known to fans as a star.
Notable is that when asked if there are positions on the diamond where the Blue Jays are set, Atkins said, “we have to stay open-minded,” and after talking about how well-covered they are positionally, added players “that are really, really high impact oftentimes are playing shortstop and oftentimes are playing centre field.”
That’s noteworthy because Marcus Semien, Andrelton Simmons, whom the Blue Jays explored trading for prior to the deadline, and Didi Gregorius, whom the Blue Jays pursued last fall before he opted for the Phillies, are all free agents. The first two, at least, would prompt them to consider moving Bo Bichette off shortstop, something they floated by him last year.
Cleveland may also reach a tipping point with star shortstop Francisco Lindor, whom the Blue Jays at minimum checked in on last year and are likely to circle back on, even if a deal is a longshot. Lindor is eligible for free agency after the 2021 season.
In centre, George Springer is a pending free agent, and the Blue Jays could also explore the trade market, or piece together a platoon in centre field.
Those are all pathways to the defensive improvements Atkins said the team is hoping to make, while adding that internal development and improved execution were other means to that end.
The Blue Jays have invited their entire coaching staff to return, including the pivotally impactful Dante Bichette, said Atkins, who added there could be some changes in job descriptions.
Their collective efforts will be needed to brainstorm ways to cover the pitching gaps that will exist with Matt Shoemaker, Taijuan Walker and Robbie Ray all headed to free agency, and the pandemic disrupting the workload build-up for all of the organization’s young arms.
Still, amid the significant challenges that lie ahead, there are reasons for optimism. The Blue Jays took a major developmental step forward under trying circumstances, and advanced their window of opportunity. They’re positioned very well to jump right through the glass.
But now that the welcomed respite of their 2020 season is over, it’s back to the suspended animation of a COVID-19 stricken world for the Blue Jays, making plans for a brighter, ambitious future, unsure if and when they’ll be able to act upon them.