Hey, wasn’t that Ervin Santana working garbage time for the Kansas City Royals on Sunday? The same guy who in 2014 effectively held the Toronto Blue Jays hostage in spring training before signing a one-year contract with the Atlanta Braves?
Yep. 'Twas him. You remember that spring, right? The Blue Jays players were lobbying Santana to join the team, including friends such as Jose Bautista. On the eve of the regular season, then-president Paul Beeston lent credence to a Fox report that some of the Blue Jays players said they were willing to defer money to bring Santana aboard — something general manager Alex Anthopoulos initially denied, then kind of, sort of walked back.
Santana had two weeks earlier signed a one-year, $14.1 million contract with the Braves, a relationship born out of an ill-timed injury to Kris Medlin and Santana’s decision that he wanted no part of the American League East hurlyburly. It was as much frustrating as embarrassing for the organization, an impression softened only slightly by the sense Anthopoulos had been screwed over by Santana’s agent.
So, while some of you likely saw echoes of 2015 when Jose Berrios took the mound less than 48 hours after being acquired in one of the most significant trades of the 2021 trade deadline — memories roused of David Price’s start against the Minnesota Twins — I looked at Santana’s relief appearance for the Kansas City Royals and saw a no less significant touchstone.
The Blue Jays have a different front office, manager and playing core than 2015 — let alone 2014. There is no comparison between this organization’s developmental and competitive arc and that of 2015. The success of 2015 was a financial, emotional and marketing earthquake for ownership and fans; its progeny being Hyun-Jin Ryu's $80 million free-agent deal and George Springer’s six-year, $150 million contract.
Yet let’s be clear: the Blue Jays still have to offer more money and longer term to sign free agents. There is, in effect, a premium to signing bigger free agents — has been since J.P. Ricciardi was G.M. — and pitching, in particular, has been an almost impossible free agent nut to crack.
Ryu is an outlier; since Anthopoulos traded for Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle before the 2013 season, Blue Jays pitching has relied on the likes of Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ and home-grown starters such as Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez. Converting Roberto Osuna into a closer and then letting him run with it was a ballsy and important call.
This winter? No free agent of significance ... other than Robbie Ray who was acquired in a trade at last year's deadline, found nirvana with pitching coach Pete Walker and hurried to sign a one-year, $8 million contract. But the Kevin Gausmans of the baseball world didn’t show an interest.
And that was before Nelson Cruz, Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo moved into the neighbourhood.
General manager Ross Atkins and president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro went to school on that experience and Berrios is the result. They paid a hefty price in the minds of baseball people sending Austin Martin and their top healthy pitching prospect — Simeon Woods Richardson — to the Twins for a 27-year-old right-hander who doesn’t miss starts and will likely break the bank when he is a free agent after next season.
Now they have the rest of this season and all of next year — fingers crossed for no labour stoppage — to sell him on their team and city and give them a leg up either on an extension or in free agency. Even with Ryu’s deal off the books after 2023, the Blue Jays still have to figure out how to pay Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. at some point while accommodating Springer’s salary. They will need to thread the needle with Berrios then but this front office has shown an ability to sell itself to ownership and players.
To that end, the decision to allow the Blue Jays to come home this weekend is a plus because it’s easier to put your best foot forward when you aren’t playing in a triple-A ballpark. The team sent a private jet to pick up Joakim Soria and Berrios this weekend. Manager Charlie Montoyo was playing the bongos in his office on Saturday night when Berrios, his Puerto Rican countryman, strolled in to check out his new digs.
The Blue Jays players hit bombs for him, the crowd of 14,427 sounded twice that and cheered his every move and the guys in the dugout cut up, good-naturedly taping Vladdy, Jr. to the corner of the dugout because his frenetic energy on his first off-day since the pandemic was a little much.
“A nice welcome here,” Berrios said later. “I feel home so far.”
(And with that in mind, a suggestion for this series against Cleveland: let’s all show a little love to Jose Ramirez, just in case, OK? He has a couple of really friendly club options and knows Atkins and president Shapiro from their time in Cleveland where they needed to figure out a way to navigate the timetables of Ramirez and Francisco Lindor and keep them both happy. Cleveland had some discussions with clubs at the deadline but a trade for a player of that magnitude is best done in the off-season. Ramirez is a switch-hitter who can play multiple infield positions and is a most valuable player candidate and perennial all-star. He’s the perfect player for the Blue Jays ... the perfect, final, finishing piece.)
Back to Berrios: At the end of the day, money will talk with Berrios and every other potential free agent. True, the landscape may change with the new CBA. Will there be an overhaul of free agency towards restricted and unrestricted status? Arbitration?
In the meantime, it might be worth thinking about how this organization views itself in 2021 and compare it to the previous couple of decades. There is a measured boldness that speaks volumes about this organization's faith in itself, its ownership, players, country, city — and fans.
The Spring of Santana — when we all took up a collection and prayed in vain for a miracle — seems long, long, ago.
Jeff Blair hosts Baseball Central from 5-7 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan.