TORONTO – From afar, Bo Bichette's 2020 season looks like a success. At age 22, he hit .301 and posted an .840 OPS. If you hit like that while playing shortstop, you’re an all-star calibre player. If you do it at 22, you’re in some select company.
But the year ended in a playoff sweep at Tropicana Field where Bichette committed two errors in the season’s decisive game. It was a frustrating ending to a bizarre, disjointed season postponed by the pandemic and interrupted by a knee injury. Afterwards, Bichette was disappointed he hadn’t done more with it.
“I think it stemmed from maybe the mental energy I had, I don’t know what it was,” Bichette told Toronto-based media Monday. “Last year took a toll on everybody and I think I didn’t handle it as well as some of the guys around the league did. For me it’s about learning from that.”
With that goal in mind, Bichette attempted to channel his disappointment into motivation as he planned for the year ahead. He wanted to improve across the board: become physically stronger, sharpen his focus, refine his defence and take his offence to another level. Based on what others are seeing from him early in Blue Jays camp, Bichette’s last few months were productive.
"I can tell Bo's been working," said second baseman Marcus Semien. "You can tell he's made adjustments and feels good."
Manager Charlie Montoyo sees more arm strength and better hands from Bichette on defence. The power seems to be there, too. After an off-season of workouts, “his legs are huge,” Montoyo said.
In 2021, the Blue Jays will finally get to see Bichette play a full big-league season for the first time. In Montoyo’s view, Bichette has everything it takes to be an all-star at his position. If he reaches that potential in 2021, the Blue Jays’ chances of reaching the playoffs again will improve considerably. And along the way, some intriguing decisions would emerge for Bichette and those in the Toronto front office.
A few minutes before Bichette joined his Zoom call, the San Diego Padres officially announced Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 14-year, $340-million extension. A contract that big is bound to catch the eye of any player, but Bichette has more in common with Tatis Jr. than most. Both are shortstops; both are 22; both are the sons of former big-leaguers.
So Bichette certainly noticed when Tatis Jr. signed his record-setting deal.
“I’m happy for Fernando,” Bichette said. “I’ve always admired the way he plays from the minor-leagues until now. He’s an exciting player. I think it’s really powerful that an organization believed in him enough to put the commitment they did. Obviously he’s probably still not going to get paid what he should have, but I think it’s good for Fernando and I think it’s good for the Padres. It’s good for baseball.”
In theory, Bichette said he’d be open to an extension with the Blue Jays, but he said his focus is on baseball as spring training begins. Asked whether any talks have already taken place, Bichette acknowledged that some preliminary discussions have indeed occurred.
“It was brought up, but no offer,” he said. “I’d rather focus on spring training and the season ahead, but we’ll see what happens.”
If anyone’s familiar with the risks and rewards of extensions for young stars, it’s Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro. As a Cleveland executive in the 1990s, Shapiro worked under John Hart, the first GM to see how beneficial contract extensions could be for small-market teams.
By extending the likes of Carlos Baerga, Charles Nagy and Sandy Alomar Jr. long before they hit free agency, Cleveland found a win-win model. Players got additional security early in their careers while the team would retain star players without having to outbid the Yankees in free agency.
Years later, it was a model the Rays would openly copy with team-friendly deals for Evan Longoria, James Shields, Ben Zobrist, Chris Archer and Blake Snell. By and large, it worked. In fact, those deals were a driving force behind the success of Cleveland and Tampa Bay despite their market size.
But decades later, the landscape has changed. The MLBPA is wary of deals in which players give up too much potential earning power, so it's not as easy to lock up star players quite so affordably.
Thirteen years ago, Longoria signed for $17.5 million over six years despite his status as an elite prospect. Now, the best of the best are positioned to obtain far more and they know it, which is why $340 million is headed to Tatis Jr.
"I think he made the right decision,” said Semien, who’s active within the MLBPA. “He has one of the best contracts in baseball and he's only (22). I know when I was (that age), I was still in the minors, grinding check to check. He's definitely set himself up for life and he earned it. You never know how it pans out and if he would have waited, who knows, maybe he would have got more, but we just don't know so I think he made a great decision for himself."
Evidently, the Padres feel they're making a great deal, too. And while the decision to offer the contract could be debated, there’s zero doubt that Tatis Jr. has emerged as one of the game's best players.
In 143 career games, he has 39 homers, a .956 OPS and 7.0 WAR. His defence has improved and his Statcast numbers – 98th percentile sprint speed and 100th percentile exit velocity – offer the Padres assurances that this is no fluke.
As Semien said, "Step one for them if they want to make a run at it was signing their best player."
Tatis Jr. sets an extremely high bar, and objectively speaking Bichette hasn’t matched it to this point in his career. In 75 career games, Bichette has 16 homers, an .896 OPS and 3.2 WAR. That’s legitimately impressive – since Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s colour barrier in 1947, only two shortstops with at least 75 games played have posted a better OPS than Bichette through age 22: Tatis Jr. and Alex Rodriguez.
But by age 22, Rodriguez was already on a Hall of Fame track. At 22, Tatis Jr. is an MVP candidate. Bichette might get there – he clearly believes he can, and the offensive numbers aren’t so far off. Still, he has yet to establish himself as an MVP candidate like Rodriguez or Tatis Jr. and it’s those players – the ones who go beyond all-star to produce six- or seven-win seasons – who get the massive contract offers.
Until that happens, the Blue Jays don’t need to pay Bichette quite at that level. He’s already theirs for the next five seasons regardless (since Bichette debuted midway through the 2019 season, he’s one year further from free agency than Tatis Jr. was). That allows the Blue Jays to remain patient if they so choose.
In theory, there’s little downside to the Cleveland or Tampa Bay style extensions that Hart and Shapiro’s front office pioneered, but if Bichette looks at the Tatis Jr. deal and points out “he’s probably still not going to get paid what he should have,” he’s probably not the kind of player who’s going to take a low-ball offer. Knowing that, the Blue Jays can simply wait, work with Bichette to help him realize his ambitious goals and enjoy what he offers now.
“For us to be a championship team, we need a shortstop,” Montoyo said. “The best teams in baseball, they all have a good shortstop and that’s a fact.”
Clearly the Blue Jays are a much better team with Bichette on the field at his best. And if his off-season work pays off and he can put together the kind of full season he envisions, the discussion could look much different this time next year.