TORONTO – Kevin Gausman expected to hear from Ross Atkins once free agency opened last month. After all, the Toronto Blue Jays general manager had pursued the ace right-hander not just the previous winter, as has been widely reported, but the one before that, too. When a front office really likes a player, they tend to keep trying.
“We almost reached a deal two years ago and even last year, too,” Gausman said during an introductory Zoom call Wednesday hours after his $110-million, five-year deal with the Blue Jays was finalized, and hours before an impending lockout of players. “It was kind of a matter of, I think they’re going to call again.”
Atkins quite obviously did, saying he “couldn’t wait” to contact Gausman’s agent, Brodie Scofield, on the first day of free agency. Still, each courtship of the 30-year-old, who uses excellent fastball location and a stupefying splitter that’s one of the best pitches in the sport, became more challenging for the Blue Jays, as he progressed from rebound candidate after a rough 2019 to clever-foresight buy after a strong 2020.
Gausman could have accepted a multiyear deal from the Blue Jays then, but instead bet on himself by accepting the San Francisco Giants’ $18.9 million qualifying offer and returning to free agency without the restraint of a qualifying offer. That allowed him to max out in his third trip through the open market, sliding into a top of the rotation vacancy created when talks with American League Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray seemingly hit a wall.
Ray agreed to a $115-million, five-year deal with the Seattle Mariners on Monday, a day after the Blue Jays and Gausman settled on terms pending a physical, and the similarities between the deals raised questions about whether the team preferred one over the other.
Worth keeping in mind is that the gap is wider than it appears between the value offered by an opt-out Ray has after three years, the compensatory draft pick the Blue Jays get for his departure, and the difference in taxes between Washington State and Ontario. All are believed to have played a role.
Atkins didn’t delve into any details when asked about the competing timelines, but in many ways, the Blue Jays got a pitcher who profiles very similarly to Ray. Gausman relies on the splitter rather than an elite slider like Ray as his fastball complement, while both have realized their potential as top-tier starters after overcoming short periods of struggle.
“Shout out to Robbie Ray,” said Atkins. “The impact he had on the organization and where we are sitting today I would imagine influenced others and their potential of being attracted to come here. Our process with Kevin was a smooth one. Never easy to close a deal, but very clean lines of communication, really. We were blown away with our interaction with Kevin and (his wife) Taylor as we talked about the potential relationship.”
Pivotal in that regard was a Zoom call in which Gausman said he and Taylor, parents of two, felt the same way about how the team “bends backwards for the families and the kids of the players, really just everything first class.”
He spoke to his former Baltimore Orioles teammate Steve Pearce and Giants reliever Dominic Leone, both former Blue Jays, and got positive reviews of their experiences with the club. He did some background work on pitching coach Pete Walker, asking pitchers “how much they thought he helped them,” and then the two chatted Sunday, before an agreement was struck.
“All those building blocks came together, then it was just a matter of us working towards a deal,” said Gausman. “Like I’ve said a bunch of times, I’m just super, super thankful for Ross and everybody that it took to get this deal done. I’m just super excited to get it started.”
Nearly simultaneously, Ray and the Mariners began making headway, too.
The Blue Jays’ expansion cousins, whom they could have met in a one-game playoff had the final day of the 2021 season played out a bit differently, began the winter focused on offensive players. But they shifted last week when the pitching market began “moving pretty quickly,” Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto told a news conference.
At that point, he reached out to Steve Veltman, Ray’s agent, was told the ace lefty had interest in Seattle, “and we reciprocated.”
“We got together for a series of Zooms, first with myself, Scott (Servais, the manager), Justin (Hollander, the assistant GM) and then with our pitching group and some of the coaching staff,” Dipoto continued. “And from that point, it came together pretty quickly. I would say within 72 hours, we struck a deal, which was fantastic.”
So just as the Blue Jays were finalizing things with Gausman, the Mariners were locking down Ray.
“It just seemed like a really good fit and we were ready to move forward,” said Ray. “It happened really quickly, but we were glad that it did.”
Gausman’s deal, which pays the right-hander $21 million in 2022-23, $22 million in 2024 and $23 million in 2025-26, doesn’t include an opt out but has bonuses for winning the Cy Young Award ($150,000), all-star, Gold Glove and World Series MVP selections ($50,000) and league championship series selections ($25,000) plus an eight-team no-trade clause.
It’s a very manageable contract for a front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, especially one known for being dependable, reliable and an excellent teammate. One coach who knows him well described Gausman as being “so driven, cerebral with a really great personality and consistent,” while a former teammate called him “dependable and professional.”
All those elements will be needed to thrive in the American League East, a grind Gausman knows well from his time with the Orioles.
Rather than shying away from the challenge of routinely facing stacked lineups in bandbox fields, he embraced it, determined to help the Blue Jays make up the gap between them and the post-season.
His experience this past season with the NL West champion Giants, who went 107-55 only to lose a five-game division series to the 106-56 Los Angeles Dodgers, only whet his appetite for the next step with the Blue Jays.
“That kind of left a bad taste in my mouth and I’m hungry for (a championship),” Gausman said of the post-season. “As a player looking on the other side and taking a step back, there's a lot of youth here, a lot of guys who are going to be here under team control for a long time and a very talented group, too. Out of all the other teams that were involved, I felt like this was the best place to go and win now and the future. And after talking to Ross, he made it apparent that they’re going to do everything they could to put a winning product on the field.”
There will be more to come for the Blue Jays, all of which will now take place once Major League Baseball and the players association agree on a new collective bargaining agreement. An important piece of their work got done beforehand, however, when after years of trying to land Gausman, Atkins finally got his man.