SAN DIEGO – In a lobby featuring multiple 20-foot Christmas trees, even taller nutcracker statues and hundreds of baseball people all back in one space at the same time, hot stove conversations of all kinds unfolded at the Manchester Grand Hyatt late into Monday night.
Along with major free agent signings and rumours of more deals to come, there was chatter about an Aaron Judge appearance Tuesday. It sure beats Zoom. Or a lockout.
“It’s actually kind of nice being back here,” one longtime executive mused, and while far from effusive, that counts as high praise coming from a baseball lifer.
As baseball’s Winter Meetings resumed in-person for the first time since 2019, the biggest moves of the day came from the NL East with Justin Verlander and Trea Turner signing with the Mets and Phillies, respectively.
In this environment, it would be easy to get carried away with emotional decisions – and that’s precisely why the Toronto Blue Jays guard against them. In the two months since their season ended, Blue Jays executives have created a plan. They’ve mapped out some ideal outcomes, some less-than-ideal outcomes they’d still be excited about and the pathways they’d follow if they need to pivot even further. Now, it’s a question of following the roadmap they’ve created for themselves, starting at the top.
“All of that work is done,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said Monday. “As long as you have worked through those scenarios and have a plan that you’ve decided upon, then it’s easier to manage and deal with.”
Of course, each passing move closes off more possibilities for the Blue Jays, narrowing the path ahead further. For instance, they were legitimately interested in Verlander, according to sources, a development that shows they could push their payroll well above $200 million under the right circumstances.
But enough about what didn’t happen for the Blue Jays. This is a team with all kinds of possibilities still open and enough money to upgrade the team’s pitching staff and outfield mix meaningfully.
As previously reported, they’ve made an offer on Andrew Heaney, who may be poised to sign a multi-year deal in the coming days. They’re also intrigued by Kodai Senga, the Japanese right-hander who’s poised to land a lucrative multi-year deal with an MLB team after posting a 2.42 ERA in 11 NPB seasons.
“We’ve done our homework on him and paid a lot of attention to him over the past couple of years,” manager John Schneider said Monday.
At the same time, the 29-year-old Senga may command a four- or five-year deal, a price that may well be beyond the Blue Jays’ comfort zone. Someone like Jameson Taillon would be more of a known commodity, given his MLB experience and the Blue Jays are at least on the periphery of that chase as Taillon’s market develops. While Chris Bassitt is also on their radar, there doesn’t appear to be traction there at the moment.
Of course, there’s also Ross Stripling, whose free agent prospects have never looked better at a time that the starting pitching market’s considered extremely competitive.
“Any team trying to win would love to have Ross Stripling,” Schneider said. “We know very well what he’s capable of, and obviously we’d love to have him back. And he’s earned the right to kind of go through the process he’s going through right now for the first time in his career. We’re happy to be part of that process with him.”
Because the starting pitching market is developing quickly, the Blue Jays are notably active on that front. Yet with dozens of staff members at the Winter Meetings, they’re positioned to work multiple angles at once.
For instance: they’ve shown interest in Alex Reyes, the 2021 All-Star who missed the entire 2022 season recovering from shoulder surgery only to get non-tendered by the Cardinals.
Or, to name another example, they’ve once again shown interest Michael Brantley, whom they nearly signed before the 2021 season only to see him land in Houston. Rival executives certainly anticipate the Blue Jays will add a left-handed bat this winter, though many options remain open on that front with “traction in both” the trade market and the free agent market, according to Atkins.
At this point, some patience may be required. For example, if the Blue Jays were to trade Alejandro Kirk, more DH at-bats would open up, making Brantley a better match. But if they keep Kirk and trade another catcher for an outfielder, the fit for Brantley isn’t quite as clean.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves on that Blue Jays off-season roadmap. Those decisions will come later. First, the challenge of navigating a fast-moving pitching market and ending up as close to “ideal” as possible.
“We’re really excited about the position we’re in,” Atkins said. “And now we’re obviously looking to build upon what we see as a very good core and a really good foundation. We see the opportunities to do that.”