TORONTO – Working from home during these virtual winter meetings, Ross Atkins’ frenetic days offered his family a first-hand look at the madness inherent to baseball’s annual swap meet.
“My wife has said to me, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever experienced the winter meetings,’” the Toronto Blue Jays general manager said Thursday, after the Rule 5 concluded the makeshift Zoom-and-phone-only gathering. “She said to me, ‘I've never seen you on the phone so much in my life.’ I’m on the phone a lot.”
To this point, all that talking didn’t produce anything tangible beyond a pair of waiver claims that, temporarily, have filled up the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster.
In summing up the week’s progress, Atkins delivered the usual platitudes on his pursuit of the market’s top-end players, saying he feels “there is momentum,” that transactions don’t feel “like we’re weeks away,” and that there are “more concrete offers occurring” all around.
Asked if he believes the Blue Jays remain in the hunt for all their top targets, Atkins replied, “I do.” Asked if what they’ve learned to this point has changed their approach to addressing the roster, he replied: “We have prioritized targets and we’ll start with those before we make multiple offers. We have not eliminated anyone.”
Perhaps sensing the growing eye-rolls of fans whose expectations have been raised by the club’s bold, at least by its standards, talk of adding impact this winter, Atkins added: “Just like the fans we would certainly prefer to have clarity as soon as possible, as that impacts the next move that you can make, that impacts the shaping of all of your preparations.
“But we do feel like we're prepared and have done the work for when that time where we have to make a decision,” he continued. “We're ready.”
Why hasn’t more happened then? It’s a fair question, especially given that several agents describe the Blue Jays as being very active on the market.
In part, the industry as a whole isn’t moving, a short run on one-year pitcher deals started by the signing of Robbie Ray is still the biggest burst of activity.
The Texas Rangers swung a pair of deals this week, acquiring Nate Lowe from Tampa Bay in a six-player deal while sending ace Lance Lynn to the White Sox, who also signed Adam Eaton. But a logjam remains atop the market and it is trickling all the way down to players who will be signing minor-league deals, as they don’t want to commit until they better understand how the bigger pieces at play this winter will fall.
One of them, George Springer, appeared to be moving toward a resolution this week with reports out of New York about a push by the Mets for the outfielder, but those quickly died down, and little else shifted publicly. The lingering effects of the pandemic, uncertainty over what 2021 looks across all realms of the sports and a reluctance from both teams and players to jump first and establish markets are other dynamics in play.
“It’s fair to say that you would typically have seen one of those high-end players probably at least be making some news today, that a deal is nearing or getting done, and we didn’t see any names attached to any teams,” Atkins said. “I think you probably would have seen that a year ago.”
Intuitively, you’d think fortune would favour the bold, and that a team determined to get something done could simply force the issue by bringing its best offer to the table early to trigger the end game.
Atkins insisted it’s more complicated than that.
“We’re not forcing things on players. We’re not putting our timelines on players to make sure they get back to us,” he explained. “We want to be very respectful of having earned the right of free agency, and we're not in a position where we have to do that. We feel like there's enough opportunity at different junctures for us to be disciplined and patient.”
To that end, Atkins said the Blue Jays haven’t made a final offer to a prime free agent since a deal that didn’t come to fruition earlier in the off-season, believed to be an attempt to sign right-hander Kevin Gausman.
The Blue Jays have told agents that their current focus is on free-agent targets that include Springer, DJ LeMahieu and J.T. Realmuto, whose market outlook may suddenly shift dramatically with the Philadelphia Phillies’ pending addition of Dave Dombrowski as president of baseball operations.
Star shortstop Francisco Lindor is a potential trade option, although lining up a deal with Cleveland and sorting at least the parameters of an extension is a difficult task.
Whatever the Blue Jays do on that front won’t preclude them from other significant adds and they’ve been active on other fronts, including on the top end of the relief market, as industry sources told colleague Ben Nicholson-Smith and I on Wednesday.
The Blue Jays are simultaneously exploring ways to backfill the roster, too, should need arise based on other moves. And they have several plans beyond Plan A should that, whatever it is, fall through.
When they, or any other team, start turning the groundwork into actual transactions is unclear, although it feels like a slew of moves are percolating under the surface and will soon push through the ground.
Maybe if the winter meetings had taken place in person, that burst would have already happened.
“There's an unspoken pressure that occurs when we all are under one roof,” Atkins said. “When [media] ask us these questions in years prior, did we feel pressure to get something done, I think most executives say no. But there is something unspoken about the time as one day goes by and you're feeling like this opportunity is one for you to optimize and maximize and you try to discipline yourself, to make sure not to do something [just] to do something.
“Different opportunities just are created from the human nature of that unspoken, very soft deadline of Thursday after the winter meetings. But it's also just the opportunities that occur to meet after 9 p.m. at night or meet at 6 a.m. in the morning for coffee with a team. Every front office, every agent, all of you are all thinking about how do we maximize these 16 hours in a day before we just lay our heads on the pillow and we don't do that as well virtually, probably.”