Blue Jays off-season FAQ: Rogers Centre replacement far from a done deal

Eric Thomas is joined by Sportsnet's Shi Davidi to discuss the potential plan of tearing down the Rogers Centre and what effect the multi-year long project could have on the Blue Jays.

TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays are turning out to be a team of intrigue this off-season for more than just what they’re trying to accomplish with their roster.

As they continue to be connected to every available player of consequence – “They are being very flirty,” is how one agent put it – a story by the Globe and Mail’s Andrew Willis on Friday revealed team owner Rogers Communications Inc. is looking to build a new stadium, rather than renovate the 31-year-old Rogers Centre, as part of a wider property redevelopment.

The part about creating a sports-anchored real-estate project – a business model for team owners that’s becoming the industry’s new regional sports network – is not brand new. Discussions on that front have been ongoing for the past few years.

What is intriguing about Willis’ piece is that the thinking within Rogers (which also owns this website) and project partner Brookfield Asset Management Inc. seems to have settled around tearing down the dome to build a new stadium, rather than trying to refurbish it.

The possibility immediately sparked excitement, but a statement from Rogers sought to tamp expectations: “Prior to the pandemic, we were exploring options for the stadium but through this year our primary focus has been keeping our customers connected and employees safe, so there is no update on the Rogers Centre to share at this time.”

So, what’s up with all that? Oh, and like George Springer, D.J. LeMahieu, J.T. Realmuto, Michael Brantley, Francisco Lindor and all that fun stuff? Good time for a wide-ranging Blue Jays FAQ:

So, the Blue Jays are getting a new stadium then?

Definitely Maybe is the name of an old Oasis album and also an apt description of the situation.

Two of the people I spoke with today insisted that there was nothing new here, that this file has been largely dormant since last fall. A check of the City of Toronto’s lobbyist registry supports that, as there’s been no documented meeting since Oct. 17, 2019 when a staff member for Councillor Joe Cressy, whose ward includes the dome site, spoke with Jodi Parps, Rogers’ manager of government relations, provincial and municipal. That followed a bigger meeting July 10, 2019 that included Cressy, two staff members, Edward Rogers, the RCI chairman, Tony Staffieri, RCI’s chief financial officer, Parps, Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro and Ben Colabrese, the club’s executive vice-president, finance.

The discussions centred around the dome’s future, the surrounding area and the city’s relevant leaseholds. COVID-19 arrested the progress, but that doesn’t mean the entire project stopped. Modelling for the project likely continued between Rogers and Brookfield during that time, and they likely settled on a vision for the site, floated in broad strokes in the piece by the well-connected Willis.

Beyond what he outlined, the project is expected to entail some building out of the Rail Deck Park idea that’s circulated for years. That would create more greenspace that can be used year-round and will be an important piece of the entire plan.

Makes sense. It’s done then?

Far from. All three levels of government have a piece of this, each will need to be satisfied, and it’s complicated.

While Rogers owns the stadium, the land beneath it belongs to Canada Lands Company, a crown corporation which issued a 99-year lease that runs through 2088 and is zoned for stadium usage only. That’s a primary reason why the building sold for only $25 million in 2004 – how many companies in the city need a domed stadium? Right, one.

A plan of the nature being discussed would require substantial rezoning. In the process of examining a renovation, the sports-anchored development trend began taking hold, and a series of interests began to align, turning it into a much bigger project. In a statement Friday, Cressy said he’s ready to re-engage, underlining the city’s interests in the venture:

Other partners would likely be needed to pull everything off, too, especially the recreational and public-space components. Bottom line, a lot of elements still need to fall into place, so don’t expect shovels in the ground any time soon.

Cool, cool, cool. But what would happen to the Blue Jays if they demolished the Rogers Centre?

Before you start mapping out the drive to Buffalo or prepping your liver for a couple of seasons in Montreal, remember what the St. Louis Cardinals did when they went from old Busch Stadium to new Busch Stadium, which opened in 2006. The Cardinals broke ground on the new place on Jan. 17, 2004 and spent the next two years building the guts of the new park before razing the old one to finish things up. This photo essay from the St. Louis Post Dispatch nicely illustrates the process of what turned out to be a seamless transition.

The Rogers Centre footprint is tighter, but there’s some land to the south of the building, as well as some on the west side, and a bit less on the east that could be used in a similar process. That’s a possibility that has been raised, according to multiple sources, with the aim of ensuring the Blue Jays aren’t left homeless, even if briefly.

Phew, that’s a lot to digest. Exciting as all that is, what’s happening with getting this team more players?

Work continues on that front, and boy is what I’m hearing interesting. To build on the analogy made by the agent who said the Blue Jays are being flirty, it sounds like they’re legitimately trying to put some rings on it, too. D.J. LeMahieu was described to me as “the perfect fit” and that he didn’t immediately re-sign with the New York Yankees suggests he’s seriously considering his options in more than a cursory way. The New York Mets, under new owner Steve Cohen, are probably gumming things up there after making it clear they’re in it to win it on multiple fronts. While the Blue Jays may be willing to set the market, agents will probably want to wait for the Mets to drop the gauntlet.

That impacts the market for another Blue Jays target in George Springer, with whom they’ve progressed beyond just talking. Same thing with Michael Brantley, but while his left-handed bat and offensive profile are perfect for the batting order, how he fits defensively is less seamless. Since he’s limited to left field and DH, that means pushing Lourdes Gurriel Jr. out of a spot in which he just started settling in. The Blue Jays don’t mind creating redundancies – good luck keeping everyone happy, Charlie Montoyo! – but that also creates surplus to trade.

Speaking of surplus, what’s going on at catcher and the report on J.T. Realmuto? Don’t they have a bazillion catchers already?

Craig Mish, who does a fine job covering the Miami Marlins, dropped this tidbit earlier in the week:

Intriguing, and not entirely surprising, as the Blue Jays also checked in on Yasmani Grandal last winter, even if they do have enviable depth behind the plate (bazillion might be a bit hyperbolic). Certainly they hope that one of Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk, Gabriel Moreno, Riley Adams and Reese McGuire eventually becomes an impact backstop like Realmuto. But if they want to advance their program, well, Realmuto is an all-star right now.

People are being really quiet and guarded around this chatter, which lends credence to Mish’s tweet. Such a move would be reminiscent of the Blue Jays signing Russell Martin to an $82-million, five-year deal ahead of the 2015 season to push the team forward. Adding a sixth catcher to the 40-man now would definitely be suboptimal, but again, surplus creates opportunities to trade and they could use some of their young catching to get pitching help.

What about pitching? Are they done at re-signing Robbie Ray?

No. The Blue Jays need someone who can win a playoff game for the rotation if they’re going to be for real.

Trevor Bauer is the obvious big ticket, but right now they seem more fixated on position players than pitchers. Not to get repetitive, but my sense is they’d like to nail down their lineup adds, figure out what’s staying, and then trade to get pitching help. They must feel like some teams will need to off-load arms eventually (Texas with Lance Lynn, or Cincinnati with Sonny Gray, perhaps).

The Asian market is another opportunity here, with right-handers Tomoyuki Sugano of the Yomiuri Giants and Kohei Arihara of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to be posted. The signing of Shun Yamaguchi last off-season was done partly to build a bridge into the Japanese market, with an eye towards the class of players available this winter. Sugano and Arihara are both intriguing, but the real prize could be Kodai Senga of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, if he’s posted.

Lastly, what about Francisco Lindor?

I’ve had several people tell me that the Blue Jays really want him. Well, duh. Who wouldn’t? As perfect as LeMahieu is for them, Lindor is even more perfect, even if he pushes Bo Bichette off of short. This one is complicated, though, both because of the acquisition cost in trade, but also with his pending free agency. The ongoing lack of clarity about what it would take to re-sign him is a big yellow light here and my sense is the Blue Jays won’t meet Cleveland’s price without knowing if they can extend him.

Maybe that forces the acquisition cost for Lindor down, but Cleveland could also wait for the impact free agents to sign and then work with any teams left on the sidelines.

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