Blue Jays' belief in Bichette won't stop them from considering shortstops

Sportsnet's MLB insider Ben Nicholson-Smith joined Sportsnet Central to discuss the Toronto Blue Jays' free agency plans and what players are among the Blue Jays' biggest trade assets.

TORONTO – At first, the idea feels a little counterintuitive. Why would the Toronto Blue Jays, a team with one of the game’s best young shortstops, spend any part of their off-season pursuing players at that position? Other areas of the roster could certainly use the help more.

Yet the Blue Jays explored the possibility of adding a shortstop a year ago and now seem poised to do so again. Where it leads is anybody’s guess – like any responsible front office, the Blue Jays consider all kinds of scenarios – but this line of thinking warrants further exploration as it would introduce some truly intriguing opportunities for the Blue Jays while also bringing with it potential pitfalls.

To start, consider these comments from GM Ross Atkins, who expressed full confidence in Bichette as the Blue Jays’ long-term shortstop Monday.

“Without a doubt in my mind,” Atkins said as Day 1 of the now-virtual GM Meetings wrapped up. “I have so much confidence in Bo. In talking to him, how he thinks about improvement, the way that he’s gone about improving his entire life. Every challenge that’s put in front of him, he embraces in an elite way.”

At the plate, Bichette has excelled, hitting .307/.347/.549 with 16 home runs and 3.1 wins above replacement through his first 75 big-league games. And while the 22-year-old has made occasional mistakes in the field, including two errors in the playoffs this year, the Blue Jays have seen enough development over the years to believe he can keep improving and become an above-average defender at shortstop.

“It would not surprise me if in a year or two we’re talking about him in a Gold Glove category,” Atkins said. “Bo checks every box on professional athleticism and elite Major League Baseball-calibre players. He’s going to be a very, very good shortstop in our view for a long time.”

Even so, the Blue Jays are open to scenarios where he’s not their everyday shortstop as soon as next year. As Atkins describes it, the versatility of players like Cavan Biggio (and potentially Bichette) allows the front office to explore high-upside players regardless of position.

"That affords us the ability to focus on 'acquire the best players.' And then factor in the acquisition cost, obviously,” he said. “And it doesn't mean we're out on shortstops altogether because of our conviction in Bo. We have to stay in on every market and consider 'are there ways to get better, are there ways to think about improving our team?' But again, we do very much believe in Bo."

To be fair, that doesn’t sound like someone who’s eager to move Bichette off his position. But those comments make it clear to anyone who’s watching closely that the Blue Jays are open to the possibility. If it were to gain traction, it would introduce some real advantages as well as some potential risks.

Starting with the advantages, there’s the simple fact that many of the game’s best players play shortstop. If you open yourself up to that group, you’re able to contemplate adding talented players like Francisco Lindor or Trevor Story. Years ago, the presence of Derek Jeter didn’t stop the Yankees from adding fellow shortstop Alex Rodriguez. More recently, the Padres showed interest in Lindor over the winter despite the presence of Fernando Tatis Jr.

The motivation behind those moves and near-moves is clear. While teams can certainly have too many designated hitters or too many first basemen, there’s just no such thing as having too many shortstops. You can simply play them at second, as Javy Baez often did before earning the Cubs’ starting shortstop job, or third, as Alex Bregman does whenever Carlos Correa’s healthy in Houston.

Because while shortstop is to some extent a job description – “stand here, catch what you can” – it’s also a description of a skillset. As a group, shortstops are strong, right-handed throwers with good footwork and instincts. Call it what you want, that skillset plays anywhere.

But for that very reason, shortstops are expensive, too. Acquiring Lindor or Story would cost a ton of young, high-upside talent before you even consider an extension that would run hundreds of millions. Will the Blue Jays be willing to give that up when a year from now the free agent class of shortstops will feature not only Lindor and Story but also Correa, Baez and Corey Seager? At that point, the players will cost only money and a draft pick, but by then another season will have gone by, too. There’s value in having elite players now.

Of course there’s also Bichette to consider. He does not yet have the clout that allowed Jeter to claim shortstop for himself when the Yankees acquired Rodriguez from the Rangers in 2004, but at the same time no team wants to offend players unnecessarily. If the Blue Jays were to acquire a player building a strong Hall of Fame case like Lindor, then that move likely sells itself in the clubhouse.

But does the same apply to free agents like Didi Gregorius (who intrigued the Blue Jays last winter), Andrelton Simmons (who was linked to them over the summer) or Marcus Semien? Maybe not. And if you’re not offering those veterans a starting shortstop role, attracting interest from them might become much harder. In that sense, a good player like Simmons could be more of an awkward fit than a superstar like Lindor.

This time of year, teams consider all kinds of moves and maybe that’s all this is – just one possibility among many for a team that likes to keep its options open. But if nothing else, the Blue Jays’ approach at shortstop reflects a broader shift in their approach to team building. Not that long ago, they needed the off-season to fill gaps and ensure they had a respectable team in place. Now that they’re building on a playoff appearance, the focus is shifting from quantity towards quality.

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