TORONTO – As we bid good riddance to 2020 and hope for significant strides toward normalcy at some point in the new year, it’s a good time to check in on the Toronto Blue Jays and the still largely dormant baseball off-season, no disrespect to the ever-active San Diego Padres.
So far, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins and his front office posse have re-signed lefty Robbie Ray to an $8-million, one-year deal, claimed right-handers Anthony Castro and Walter Lockett off waivers, the latter of whom is reportedly close to signing with the Doosan Bears in the KBO, and added Tyler White, Forrest Wall and Richard Urena on minor-league deals.
Attempts to land Kevin Gausman, who accepted the $18.9-million qualifying offer from the San Francisco Giants, and Ha-Seong Kim, who has agreed to a four-year deal reportedly worth $25 million with the Padres, fell short, and everything else they’ve tried to accomplish is in stasis.
The slow-burn winter to this point means all the business that usually would have been done by Christmas should pop off in a big way once 2021 hits, in a January with the potential to make heads spin. Or perhaps the pseudo-leverage tug-of-war could drag into February or beyond, especially if the start of spring training gets pushed back due to the pandemic, or in the wait for wider access to the vaccine.
With that, let’s delve into this calendar-flipping edition of FAQs:
OK, what exactly has everyone been doing the past two months that, Padres exempted, so much of baseball is idle? Why isn’t more happening?
This is really the question of the off-season so far, and it seems absurd that Kim is the only top free agent to reach an agreement, spurred along by the looming expiry of his posting. There are lots of theories on this, all probably a little bit true. The New York Mets are without doubt a big part of this, as their revamped front office under new owner Steve Cohen is still settling into place and key free-agent pieces like George Springer, Trevor Bauer and perhaps DJ LeMahieu are all waiting to see how forcefully they enter the market. Already the Mets have signed catcher James McCann for $40.6 million over four years – a move that pulled them out of the J.T. Realmuto mix – and the Springer and Bauer camps, at minimum, will want to see what their max out bids look like.
The plans of the crosstown-rival Yankees, meanwhile, remain opaque and their awkward dance with LeMahieu – they want him back, he wants to return, but no deal yet – is another wrench gumming up things. Right now it seems like the two are playing chicken, each holding to their number, waiting for the other to blink.
The Blue Jays are there lurking, waiting to pounce on a breakdown, but with uncertainty over when the season starts, the pressure to get a deal done isn’t there, so everyone can stand on their number for a longer period. On the player side, the hope is that more information and perhaps a clearer pathway to more fans in the stands this summer pulls more teams into the bidding, while some executives are on ice waiting for more budgetary information. Or maybe procrastination is simply a side effect of lockdown fatigue.
Ugh. You mentioned that the Blue Jays are lurking. Where do things stand for them with the Big Four?
As best as I’ve managed to glean, the Blue Jays remain in play for Springer, LeMahieu, Bauer and Realmuto. A report from Deesha Thosar of the New York Daily News this week suggested the bidding for Springer was down to the Mets and Blue Jays, although my sense is it’s not clear that the end-game there is nigh.
Same with the Yankees and LeMahieu, and an interesting question is whether big moves by the Mets would spur a counter in the Bronx and waiting for that to play out could be keeping the infielder from signing. Bauer is a unicorn on the free-agent market as the only elite starter available, which should make landing him all the more complicated, although Realmuto’s market may have closed off once the Mets shifted to McCann, perhaps creating a better pathway to him for the Blue Jays.
Well then, why haven’t they done it yet? Why don’t they force the issue with one of those primary targets?
That’s an approach I’d advocate, but my guess is that the Blue Jays are reluctant to set the market and forcing the issue for them probably means going at least a year longer than other clubs, for more dollars per season. They were willing to pay a premium for Hyun-Jin Ryu last year when they gave him $80 million over four years, but the tariff on cutting Springer off from the Mets before he gets their best offer would be far more significant. And since no other team is jumping the market, the Blue Jays can afford to let things play out, allow someone else to establish the going rate and react accordingly.
All that being said, landing one of the Big Four is going to require a massive leap out of their comfort zone. A statement I’m often mindful is from 2016, when Andrew Friedman, the Los Angeles Dodgers president of baseball operations, said, “If you’re always rational about every free agent, you will finish third on every free agent.” The Blue Jays will probably need to get super irrational. Will they to get a deal done with one of those four?
Hey, we’re asking the questions here. Isn’t this the time to be super irrational?
Personally, I think so, because the clock is running on their young core and the worst thing they can do is not fully leverage every season they have with Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Nate Pearson. Remember that in the late 1990s, the Blue Jays developed a young core featuring Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Alex Gonzazlez, Shannon Stewart, Jose Cruz Jr., Chris Carpenter, Kelvim Escobar and Roy Halladay but failed to sufficiently augment around them. Assembling so much elite young talent and not getting to the post-season with that group is the biggest missed opportunity in franchise history. Especially with the Tampa Bay Rays seemingly taking a step back by trading Blake Snell and parting with Charlie Morton and the Yankees somewhat vulnerable, this is the time to be bold.
That’s what we’re talking about. They should go all A.J. Preller beefing up the Padres, right?
Don’t hold your breath for something that striking. Back at the trade deadline this summer, when Preller made six deals involving 26 players, I asked Atkins why not take a similar approach. This was his answer:
“Look at the Dodgers. It's never all-in at one time – it's a steady growth. They continue to build up their system. They've continued to make their 40-man roster more efficient and obviously very effective. It's important to be measured, and there isn't one juncture where, in our view, that you put all the cards on the table. For us it will be, hopefully, continuing to be able to build and have a system that continues to provide talent for us, and not just trade pieces. That's our goal.”
All of that applies to the winter, too. In an ideal world, my guess is the Blue Jays would want to gradually add pieces to their core in the hopes they develop a team rather than a bundle of talent. Even the Padres did things in stages, adding Eric Hosmer three years ago, Manny Machado two years ago, Drew Pomeranz, Tommy Pham, Jake Cronenworth, Trent Grisham and Zach Davies last year, before topping up with Mike Clevinger, among others at the deadline, and now grabbing Snell, Yu Darvish and Kim. The Padres had a deeper farm system to work from than the Blue Jays, but I wouldn’t expect them to behave as aggressively as the Padres even if they did.
Now that you mention it, what happened with Kim? And why didn’t the Blue Jays snag one of Snell or Darvish?
Media reports from South Korea suggested the Blue Jays offered Kim a five-year deal and that a sticking point was their refusal to include a clause preventing him from being optioned to the minors without his consent. I’m not sure either is fully accurate. The sense I got is that the Blue Jays pushed hard and felt they were right there, but that Kim ultimately chose San Diego. I’ll be curious to see where the final dollars land on his contract.
On Snell, the Rays have historically been reluctant to trade within the division, so there would likely have been a premium for the Blue Jays. They could certainly have matched or beaten the package for Darvish, but he has a 12-team no-trade clause that they were surely on.
Where does all that leave the Blue Jays? And what if they don’t sign one of the Big Four?
In a sense, the Blue Jays aren’t that far from where they started, only they should now know prices all around the market, both for free agents and in trade, and be able to strike quickly once the dominoes start falling. To this point, nothing that’s happened forces them to change their strategy.
If they don’t land one of Springer, LeMahieu, Bauer and Realmuto, there’s a healthy group of free agents in the tier beneath them to choose from. Japanese right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano’s posting deadline is a week away. Francisco Lindor is an option in trade, although the price they’d be willing to pay for him depends on whether he’s willing to sign an extension. With the Cubs dealing Darvish, the Blue Jays could perhaps push on the availability of Kris Bryant or Javier Baez. Sonny Gray and maybe Luis Castillo could be in play from the Reds. The Blue Jays and Pirates talked Joe Musgrove before the deadline and if they sign Realmuto, some of their catching surplus could perhaps be reallocated there.
So, as in November when the off-season began, a bevy of possibilities exist, the trick remains in turning some of them into realities.