As Blue Jays ponder big names, gamesmanship begins at Winter Meetings

Sportsnet's Hazel Mae is joined by MLB insiders Shi Davidi and Ben Nicholson-Smith from the MLB's Winter Meetings as they weigh in on the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, how high the stakes have been to court him and a potential Juan Soto trade.

NASHVILLE — Depending on your perspective, the gamesmanship that takes place this time of year can be a source of excitement or stress. And as baseball executives arrived at the sprawling Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center for the 2023 Winter Meetings on Sunday afternoon, there was plenty of both.

In the absence of significant movement in the free-agent and trade markets, there are plenty of rumours circulating, with the Toronto Blue Jays very much in the middle of it all, connected to everyone from Shohei Ohtani and Juan Soto to Cody Bellinger and Yoshinobu Yamamoto. 

Evidently they’re aiming high, and the next three days give Blue Jays execs a chance to make some real progress on their off-season goals. According to rival agents and executives, they’re working on multiple fronts to secure the bats they need. But as the stakes ramp up, the gamesmanship can, too, leading to exaggeration and misinformation that benefits some and impedes others.

Take the Ohtani sweepstakes, for instance. Teams have been asked not to leak anything as they pursue the reigning American League MVP, creating an environment where executives are extremely cautious about saying anything that could seem like gossip. Instead, information seems to be circulating on a need-to-know basis, even within the front offices of interested teams. The fewer people in the know, the better.

Relatively speaking, it’s been quiet on Ohtani lately, which is remarkable considering select teams met with him and his representatives with CAA Sports in Los Angeles this weekend. Industry observers see the Dodgers as leaders, while the Blue Jays and Cubs are believed to be involved and even the Angels haven’t been ruled out. That those meetings didn’t lead to more gossip shows how seriously teams are taking his agency’s request for silence.

[brightcove videoID=6342033622112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

But while the Ohtani front stayed relatively quiet, there was much more buzz about Soto, the 25-year-old slugger who’s drawing ample trade interest one year away from his turn at free agency. And not only are the Yankees interested, the Blue Jays are talking to San Diego, too, according to Ken Rosenthal, Dennis Lin and Brendan Kuty of the Athletic.

Like Ohtani, Soto makes tons of sense for a Blue Jays lineup that struggled to score last year and has since lost Matt Chapman, Brandon Belt, Whit Merrifield and Kevin Kiermaier. With a lifetime .421 on-base percentage, Soto’s eye is as sharp as his swing is powerful. If the Blue Jays can get him, their lineup would look legitimately scary again.

But as ever, there’s room for interpretation here. Did the Padres leak word of the Blue Jays’ interest to put pressure on the Yankees, who seem highly motivated to land a big name? Did the Blue Jays make their interest known in the hopes that it would show Ohtani how serious they are, while also putting pressure on the Yankees? Or maybe that’s overly conspiratorial and there’s no subterfuge going on whatsoever.

Either way, the return for Soto would likely be massive, with the Padres requesting a seven-player package from the Yankees headlined by Michael King, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today. Given the Padres’ need for pitching, it stands to reason they’d ask for a group of players from Toronto that included Alek Manoah, who’s drawn interest from at least four teams this winter, according to sources.

One way or another, Ohtani’s decision is holding the market up to some extent. For instance, top free agents like Cody Bellinger, Yamamoto and Blake Snell might have an easier time gauging their own markets once Ohtani signs. Because, while a small group of teams seems prepared to hand out nine-figure deals this winter, signing multiple deals valued at $100 million or more isn’t necessarily realistic for anyone but the Dodgers.

Plus, bat-first players like J.D. Martinez, Rhys Hoskins, Jorge Soler and Joey Votto will gain some clarity on the DH market once Ohtani chooses his next team. When that decision happens is anybody’s guess, as Ohtani appears to be as good as anyone at keeping his circle small.

In the meantime, the gamesmanship continues, with teams seeking to gain any advantage possible in the chase for baseball’s best.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.