Blue Jays have chance to go against the industry grain in frugal off-season

Toronto GM Ross Atkins joins the show to discuss being one of the most talked-about teams in the MLB offseason, their priorities heading into next season, and Vlad Guerrero Jr. admitting he was out of shape heading into Spring Training 2.0.

TORONTO – Whether economic uncertainty is the driving factor, or that teams are just using the pandemic to extend the drawn-out leverage plays inherent to recent winters, a slower-moving off-season remains the expectation after the virtual GM meetings wrapped Thursday.

Even in the absence of the usual formal talks at a swanky resort, informal chatter during happenstance run-ins, and clandestine conversations in secluded alcoves, the game’s business trudged along via text, phone and Zoom. Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said he was pleased with the amount of groundwork laid with agents and teams, and intriguingly said, “We've actually been close on another deal,” that didn’t come to fruition.

Then, tellingly, he added: “I do expect the value of discipline to be real.”

There’s truth to that, as clubs sweating out free agents has proven to be an effective strategy in recent years. The impact on the market has been so drastic that the players union has suggested free-agency is under attack and hinted at collusion among owners.

Coupled with the industry-wide flux created by COVID-19’s ongoing fallout, there’s an opportunity for a team like the Blue Jays – on the rise, with money to spend, in need of impact – to separate itself from the pack by being aggressive.

If the majority of clubs are content to be passive, why not jump the market and force the issue?

“If we can, we will,” Atkins said on a Zoom call. “The discipline part comes into understanding value, our internal assessment of those values, what are early-strike prices for us that we would be willing to move on. We worked through that process and have been exhaustive in thinking about every opportunity that that will present itself, and not just the ones that will present themselves later.”

To be fair, the Blue Jays were the first team on the board this off-season with the re-signing of Robbie Ray to an $8-million, one-year deal last weekend. Then there’s the near-miss Atkins declined to detail, and Sportsnet colleague Arden Zwelling had an interesting thought when he wondered if Kevin Gausman, whom Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported mulled multi-year deals before accepting the $18.9-million qualifying offer from the San Francisco Giants, might have been their target.

The Blue Jays pursued Gausman in free agency last winter, so they’ve liked him in the past. Whether it was him or someone else, that the well-regarded righty took the qualifying offer – as did fellow free agent Marcus Stroman – is indicative of the anticipated frugality in the market.

Now, spending recklessly just to get things done is bad business. But so too is grinding down free agents for savings that might be negligible, especially when there’s value to the bird in hand amid the current circumstances.

Complicating matters for the Blue Jays is that while they’ve mapped out an ideal set of moves this winter, no team gets its complete wish list and they have multiple ways to upgrade a versatile roster. They also must weigh what making a move now could cut them off from later -- and how to end up with the best package of upgrades for a team with needs in the rotation, bullpen, infield and outfield.

“That is a significant challenge for us, making sure that there aren't missed opportunities that are stabilizing,” said Atkins. “What we're focusing on is the impact being larger earlier in the market at this point. If we were to move earlier, that the impact would be significant and that doesn't take us out of significant impact later.

“We’ll continue to have opportunities to move the needle further,” he continued. “We just always have to balance that, what that means for us to have a substantial impact over the course of the off-season. Earlier in this off-season, what we’ll be focused on is bigger impact, at the same time thinking about opportunities that could present themselves later.”

That kind of talk will continue to raise expectations for the Blue Jays, who have an opportunity to go against the industry grain, potentially to their great benefit.

Some other highlights from Atkins’ Zoom call:

• The Blue Jays have largely built their bullpens through internal options and value-play free agents, but head into the winter without an established closer as both Ken Giles and Anthony Bass hit the market. Rafael Dolis finished out the season in the role, but is this the time for a splurge?

“We do believe strongly in the importance of having at least one individual, and ideally, you have several individuals who have the mindset to handle extremely high leverage and being the individual on the mound that is out there when you win or lose,” said Atkins. “It’s not just a matter of who can get outs and who can't. The ability to turn the page is a significant one. The characteristic traits of those individuals is certainly important. We feel that Jordan Romano has those attributes. We feel that we have several individuals that could potentially handle that type of leverage and that type of situation. But we will be looking for other individuals that also have those character traits, and also could potentially be in that role.”

• Despite enviable depth behind the plate, the Blue Jays kicked the tires on free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal last winter, and J.T. Realmuto and James McCann are now available this one. Even in a down year offensively, Danny Jansen was worth nearly a half-win above replacement, as calculated by FanGraphs, while Alejandro Kirk very much impressed during a brief stint. So, is Atkins satisfied with the teams catching situation?

“Extremely satisfied,” he replied. “but are you ever good enough? You're always thinking about getting better. There are several ways to do that. You could acquire talent. You could trade away talent. Or you can get better. Jano actually finished really strong, he's working out already down in Florida. … What he's done thus far has been more than enough for us to be extremely encouraged. Alejandro Kirk has obviously exceeded our expectation thus far. (Prospects Gabriel) Moreno and (Riley) Adams are extremely exciting prospects. Reece McGuire will be better than he was for sure, was fine defensively, and just never got anything going offensively. So it's definitely an area of depth for us.”

• As hopeful news about a potential COVID-19 vaccine emerged this week, Atkins said Major League Baseball is discussing what the expectations would be for clubs and staff in terms of inoculation, if and when they become available. Asked if he’d expect a uniform MLB policy or a team-based one, Atkins replied: “I would think the union would have a lot of say in that.”

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