The Lookahead: Blue Jays' well-planned signings could lead to happy ending

Check out all the best sound bites from George Springer's introductory press conference with the Toronto Blue Jays.

There is a tendency to assume that the modern history of the Toronto Blue Jays began on Aug. 3, 2015, when Troy Tulowitzki and David Price appeared in the same game for the first time, and that not much happened between Joe Carter touching ‘em all and that year's trade deadline and eventual playoff run.

Just as there is a sign that Blue Jays ownership has “finally” ponied up big money to invest in one player: $150-million over six years for free-agent outfielder George Springer. That is understandable, even though Springer’s deal isn’t the longest in club history (more on that later) and it hasn’t made him the highest-paid player in the game the way Rogers Communications made Carlos Delgado the game's highest-paid player just weeks after buying the team. More on that, later, too.

There is an apples and oranges part to this comparison, I will admit. First, it can be argued that of the 10 other extensions or free-agent deals worth more than $40 million that have been handed out by the team since Rogers purchased it in 2000, none seemed as aggressive as Springer’s deal or even as timely. None came with this type of young core; none went to players considered one of the three best available position players in their class; and, of course, none came in the middle of the economic uncertainty of a pandemic after a surprise playoff appearance for a team that didn’t play a game at home in a season of tiny sample sizes.

Still, for comparison’s sake, let’s examine the other occasions where this ownership group — admittedly, with different chief executive officers and boards in place — opened its pocketbook:

• Vernon Wells, seven years, $126 million: Dave Stieb’s 11-year, $16-million contract -- the longest in team history -- was handed out by the team's original owners in 1985, but Wells signed the longest contract under Rogers ownership. When the deal was struck on Dec. 15, 2006, it was the sixth-highest in average annual value and was the 13th $100-million contract in baseball history.

Wells was 26, coming off an All-Star and Gold Glove season in which he hit .303 with 32 home runs and was a 6.2 WAR player. Alas, those turned out to be career highs. The deal came out of a three-year, $210-million payroll kitty that owner Ted Rogers pledged to general manager J.P. Ricciardi and president and chief executive officer Paul Godfrey in February of 2005. Wells was a home-grown guy, a terrific teammate and citizen, and the deal also had to be viewed through the lens of a franchise that let Delgado walk away as a free-agent without compensation after 2004.

• Russell Martin, five years, $82 million: I’m not certain everybody believed Ricciardi when he kept saying the Jays could only lure players north by offering more money or longer term or both, as was the case with B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett. It sounded like an excuse until it became clear that the Blue Jays and Canadian-born general manager Alex Anthopoulos were the only club to offer Martin -- born in Toronto and raised in Montreal -- a fifth year. I mean, if a Canadian won’t cut you a hometown discount... well, you know.

Hyun Jin Ryu, four years, $80 million: This is a deal that seemed smart when it was signed last off-season, smarter after seeing Ryu up close and even smarter now that Springer is on board and both ownership and management seem set for three to five years of aggressive spending. Plus, it allowed the organization to finally make nice with Scott Boras.

• Alex Rios, seven years, $69 million: Woof. Rios signed this contract in 2008 after an All-Star Game and Home Run Derby appearance at what was then known as AT&T Park in San Francisco. Just a few months earlier, he came this close to being traded to the Giants for Tim Lincecum in a deal that was nixed by Giants ownership. If only, right?

• Carlos Delgado, four years, $68 million: Delgado’s deal, signed six weeks after the purchase of the team, made him the highest-paid player in the game and was taken as a statement by new ownership -- a statement that rankled commissioner Bud Selig so much that he went off on Godfrey and ownership at the World Series.

Delgado had signed a $36-million deal the year before on the heels of the organization's trade of Shawn Green, but it included an opt-out clause that would have allowed him to enter free agency after the World Series. Then-general manager Gord Ash said it took “half an hour, maybe” to get the deal done after Rogers gave approval to proceed.

Delgado didn’t hold top perch for long: about six weeks later at the winter meetings in Dallas, Alex Rodriguez signed a 10-year, $250-million contract with the Texas Rangers and Manny Ramirez inked an eight-year, $160-million contract with the Boston Red Sox.

• Jose Bautista, five years, $65 million: Signed in February of 2011, this deal was good value for a player who averaged roughly 5.0 WAR over its lifetime. Yeah, there was drama -- good and bad -- but Bautista was the face of this franchise as it re-established itself nationally, starting with the campaign to get him voted in to the 2010 All-Star Game.

Joey Bats will forever be the player who brought fun back to the Rogers Centre. From a broader perspective, he set the table for other players who would have late-career power surges in a game that was still learning to trust its drug-testing plan regimen.

• A.J. Burnett, five years, $55 million: You could write a book on the negotiations leading up to this deal signed at the 2005 winter meetings (or, at least seven pages as I did in Full Count) because it was a piece-of-work contract for a piece-of-work pitcher -- whether it was the opt-out clause after three years, the limousine rides from Maryland to Toronto for Karen Burnett or the extra year that the St. Louis Cardinals wouldn’t give him but his agents pitched to the Blue Jays as an 11th-hour deal-breaker.

It was all about “building value and uniqueness” into the contract, Burnett’s agent Darek Braunecker would later say. It was also the first five-year, free-agent contract offered a starting pitcher since Chan Ho-Park’s five-year, $65-million deal with the Texas Rangers in 2001. Yep, there go the Blue Jays, setting the market again. Speaking of which...

• B.J. Ryan, five years, $47 million: Remember that pay-roll guarantee? That bankrolled the Burnett signing -- and, later an extension for Roy Halladay -- but not before Ricciardi inked Ryan to a backloaded, contract on Nov. 29, 2005, a few days before the Burnett deal. Ryan was a bulky, short-arming left-handed closer who had registered 36 saves for the Baltimore Orioles, and he ended up getting one more year than free-agent closer Billy Wagner would get from the New York Mets.

The deal was also more than the New York Yankees were paying Mariano Rivera, who was on the verge of being a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Rob Manfred, who was then commissioner Bud Selig’s chief labour lawyer, reportedly called Godfrey to ask him if they knew what the hell they were doing.

• Roy Halladay, four years, $42 million: Halladay had two extensions with the Blue Jays. The four-year, $42 million deal signed in 2004 was topped up in 2005 with a three-year, $40-million extension that would begin in 2008 and cover him through to 2010.

In and around all these would be the odd multi-year deal to the likes of Lyle Overbay, Aaron Hill, Frank Thomas -- Frank Thomas! -- Corey Koskie, R.A. Dickey, Edwin Encarnacion or Josh Donaldson and, in the case of Donaldson, a pair of $20-million one-year deals in arbitration. But these other deals were by and large the most significant big-money transactions and -- this being Toronto -- they didn’t all end happily. (See: Mats Sundin, Vince Carter, Delgado, Halladay... Kyle Lowry, perhaps?)

Delgado left for the Florida Marlins and the Blue Jays had nothing to show for perhaps their best home-grown hitter; Wells never lived up to expectations and his reserved on-field demeanour -- which belied a staggeringly high pain threshold -- contributed to a sense the marriage with the Jays was over even before Anthopoulos suckered the Los Angeles Angels into picking up the $81 million remaining on the contract in 2011.

Halladay was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies after turning down another contract from the Blue Jays; Bautista came back for a sourish victory lap and played out the string elsewhere; Rios was waived in 2009 and picked up by the Chicago White Sox with $58.7 million left on his deal; Burnett opted out, left $24 million on the table and signed an $82.5-million free-agent contract with the Yankees; and Ryan was cut by the team, collecting $18 million as he walked out the door.

Which brings us to now.

President and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro views the Springer deal and the deal given out to Marcus Semien as part of a continuum, with suggestions another significant add could materialize this week and that the team will have enough flexibility to be active at the trade deadline and next winter. As someone who has chronicled the materialization and expiration of these deals, this really does feel different. It feels more assured. More planned. Who knows? It might even end happily.


Some stuff that’s caught our eye this week:

Vancouver Canucks at Montreal Canadiens, 4 p.m. PT, Monday: The first of a back-to-back set between the teams is a chance for the Canucks to eke out a little revenge after the Habs scored 17 goals against them and won two of those three games. Those losses set off alarms in Vancouver because, well, it's Vancouver, and because there is a sense that the Canucks misplayed their hand during the off-season. No such worry about the Canadiens. Viewers in B.C. can catch the game at 4 p.m. PT on Sportsnet Pacific.

Dallas Stars at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7 p.m. ET, Tuesday: John Tortorella makes his debut as Patrick Laine’s head coach.

Los Angeles Clippers at Brooklyn Nets, 7 p.m. ET, Tuesday: James Harden missed the Nets 147-146 loss to the Washington Wizards on Sunday with a thigh contusion and here’s hoping he’s back because this will be fun. Remember all that concern about Harden’s commitment and all that worry about his tummy in some of those early-season photos from the Houston Rockets? Harden’s 38.1 minutes played leads the NBA. He’ll be fine. The Nets? Probably.

Toronto Raptors at Nets, 7:30 p.m. ET, Friday: The Raptors might as well be playing on Mars these days, because there is something bland and, well... annoying about the way they’ve gone about their business. This game and a Saturday meeting against the up-and-coming Atlanta Hawks might serve as a reminder of when stuff counted, and whether this 2021 season is going to amount to anything.


• Fair: Thinking Semien made a smart career move by signing a one-year deal with the Blue Jays -- a team that at least initially views him as second baseman.

Despite the fact that Fangraph's crowd-sourcing model predicted a three-year deal at $16.8 million per year and as a projected 3.5 WAR player, $18 million seems like a team-friendly deal. But let’s take a step back: one year away from a free-agent class that (labour stoppage aside) could include shortstops such as Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and Javier Baez, and that could see the transformational Francisco Lindor off the market if he re-signs with the New York Mets, Semien has signalled a willingness to shift positions as he attempts to rebuild value after an injury-plagued 2020 shortend season. Seems like a smart decision and if he stays healthy, it might set him up to be one of those players who sign shrewd short-term deals that carry them through the end of their careers.

• Foul: You think this Hall of Fame vote was a train-wreck? You’ll need a hazmat suit for next year's voting, when David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez are up for the first time and Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling are in their final year of eligibility.

Schilling’s support for the seditious attack on Capitol Hill guarantees he’s going to see a shocking fall in votes seldom seen by a player once considered on the cusp of selection. The Hall shouldn’t give in to his request to be dropped from the ballot -- and I have some news for ol’ Curt: the committee process involves a small group with no transparency and lots of politicking, and the latter is something that hasn’t always served him well. Look, the entire voting process for the Hall needs to be overhauled soon and taken entirely out of the hands of the BBWAA. You know it; I know it. But in the meantime? Hell, I’ll gladly wallow in it.

• Fair: Wondering if Montreal’s loss could be a big gain for Toronto, as the province of Quebec has announced that it is pulling out of its funding commitment for the 2026 World Cup, claiming it has ballooned from $50 million to $130 million.

If that means the city of Montreal does not get to host games as part of the Canada/U.S./Mexico-based event, it could open the door for Toronto to pick up even more matches. Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton are the Canadian cities tentatively planned as host sites (Vancouver wanted no part of the bid, although there have been rumours its status might be re-visited) and it is believed site inspections are planned for this summer.

There is no indication yet that any of the participating countries will choose a Canadian site as their training base for the event, although I’m told at least three centres are interested in serving as hosts.


The NHL may feel as if it has breathing space at the end of the regular season, but at this stage it’s hard to find anybody who thinks every scheduled game will be played, such is the continuing impact of COVID-19. Luckily, Sportsnet's Brian Burke said that “knowing (commissioner) Gary Bettman, I’m sure he has a plan B, C and D.” Burke is clear: not everyone will play 56 games given the impact of the virus, which raises the possibility of using winning percentage to determine final standings.

Every league is dealing with this, of course: the Premier League has talked about using average points per game as a determinant. Burke is also right about something else: it is vital that whatever path the NHL chooses, it gets back on what Burke calls “our own schedule.” No more January starts. As Burke notes, other leagues depend on the NHL schedule to set their schedules, especially the junior leagues. Major League Baseball had issues getting their 2020 season in the books, but the one thing it did allow the game to do was maintain a semblance of normalcy to its off-season -- if only to allow players and owners to screw it up.

Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan as well as Canada’s only national radio soccer show, A Kick In The Grass, with Dan Riccio on Monday nights across the Sportsnet Radio Network.

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