As market moves, a test of patience emerges for Blue Jays – and their fans

FILE - Toronto Blue Jays interim manager John Schneider looks on from the dugout during the first inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Blue Jays rewarded Schneider for his strong performance as their interim manager, agreeing to terms with him Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, on a new contract. Schneider agreed to a three-year deal as manager with a team option for 2026, the Blue Jays said. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

SAN DIEGO – This time of year can be a test of patience, as the Toronto Blue Jays and their fans know well.

Consider these developments at the Winter Meetings, none of which would be considered positive from a Blue Jays standpoint:

• Andrew Heaney turned down more guaranteed money from Toronto to sign a two-year, $25 million deal in Texas.
• Cody Bellinger, who was at least somewhat intriguing, took $17.5 million from the Cubs.
• The free agent starting pitching class thinned out, with Taijuan Walker (four years, $72 million from the Phillies), Jameson Taillon (four years, $68 million from the Cubs) and Jose Quintana (two years, $26 million from the Mets) agreeing to terms. As one agent observed: “The pitching market is stupid right now.”
• The St. Louis Cardinals signed catcher Willson Contreras, effectively removing an intriguing bidder from the sweepstakes for Toronto’s young catchers.
• The Red Sox improved, adding Kenley Jansen on a two-year, $32 million deal and outfielder Masataka Yoshida on a deal that’s reportedly valued near $85 million.

• And let’s not forget the biggest move of them all. Aaron Judge, the best free agent to hit the open market in years, returned to the Yankees on a nine-year, $360 million deal.

Put simply, nothing obviously good has happened for the Blue Jays. Some intriguing options are now off the table. Their biggest rivals got better. And look – if you want to descend into despair, go for it. If you’re fighting off visions of nightmare scenarios where the Blue Jays come up empty, you’re not alone.

“How are they in my dreams?” Blue Jays assistant GM Joe Sheehan joked Wednesday. “How are they getting in there?”

Sheehan then offered some perspective that may help some fans breathe a little easier.

“There’s a lot of good players that are still free agents,” he said. “There’s a lot of good players that are available in trade. We’re in a fortunate position where we don’t have 16 holes to fill. We’ve got a good team returning.”

Right, they’ve been here before. This isn’t the first off-season other teams have moved more quickly than the Blue Jays, but each time the Toronto front office has found meaningful upgrades in the end. Recent history should tell us that many pathways to a successful off-season still exist even if their time at the Winter Meetings was underwhelming (it was).

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Granted, that in itself doesn’t make the Blue Jays a better team. They still need to convert those possibilities into concrete moves. But the presence of those options should be noted, especially considering how much shopping the Blue Jays have typically done late in the winter. Remember, it wasn’t until after this time of year that the Blue Jays added Hyun-Jin Ryu, George Springer, Marcus Semien or Matt Chapman, all of whom produced at a star level or better.

“Letting it play out, learning more and trying to identify what’s there and what’s the best way to move forward,” Sheehan said. “Then, once one of those things becomes more of a no-doubter, becomes something to act on, go do it.”

Of all the players who signed at the 2022 Winter Meetings, it’s Heaney who came closest to joining the Blue Jays. Now that he’s signed, there’s a case to be made for adding a higher floor pitcher to complement the existing top three of Kevin Gausman, Alek Manoah and Jose Berrios. The Blue Jays continue working toward deals with the expectation that they’ll be able to add.

“There’s still a lot of really good pitchers out there and we’re engaged with – hopefully – the right ones,” Sheehan said.

While Bellinger was intriguing, there are questions about performance (rising strikeout rates, declining exit velocity) and health (shoulder). Plus, interesting options remain available in that market. The Boras Corp. alone represents various intriguing left-handed hitting outfielders beyond Bellinger with Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto and Joey Gallo each of interest.

“The Blue Jays have raised interest in all of them,” Boras told Sportsnet’s Hazel Mae and I on Tuesday. “They’re evaluating the market for fits so they’re definitely having discussions since the trade of Teoscar (Hernandez) to try to improve their offence.”

Nimmo would be the best baseball fit of the three, though he’ll also be the most expensive free agent outfielder not named Judge. While Gallo has intriguing power, his strikeout rate – 39.8 per cent in 2022 – creates some hesitation for front office types across the game.

But Conforto, a 29-year-old with a career OPS of .824, appears legitimately appealing to the Blue Jays even after a season lost to shoulder surgery. He’s likely to command a one-year deal – a framework the Blue Jays are again open to having enjoyed mutually beneficial one-year deals with the likes of Semien and Robbie Ray.

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Beyond the Boras group, other left-handed hitting free agents worth watching include Michael Brantley, in whom they’ve expressed interest, and Kevin Kiermaier.

While Boras described the Blue Jays as more motivated on hitters than pitchers, other industry sources have a different read on the Blue Jays, who are often described as an active team in the starting pitching market. If nothing else, the agent’s comments strongly suggest they’re not among the leading teams on Carlos Rodon, the left-hander who’s now the top free agent pitcher available.

For teams like the Blue Jays, the rising cost of starting pitching does complicate things. But as the pursuit of Justin Verlander shows, the Blue Jays don’t have to cut themselves off from anything either. Team president Mark Shapiro said Tuesday that MLB’s competitive balance tax – set at $233 million for 2023 – is ‘not an obstacle’ for ownership at Rogers Communications Inc., which also owns Sportsnet.

What exactly that looks like is another question. As intriguing players sign elsewhere, more creativity will be required from the Toronto front office. That’s never easy, especially at a time that prices are rising. And while we wait, feel free to panic. Every fan has that right. But if the Blue Jays add meaningfully to their roster a little later in the winter, it wouldn’t be a first.

“We’ll be keeping at it,” Sheehan said. “There’s not a deadline today. There’s not a deadline tomorrow. So really we’ll just keep the momentum going.”

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