TORONTO – Last week, following post-game handshakes in beer-league hockey, an opponent circled back and skated toward me, rather than back to his bench. What’s this all about, I wondered, before he leaned in, all serious, and asked, “So, are the Blue Jays going to get Shohei Ohtani?”
It’s far from an isolated incident. Everywhere I’ve been in the days since, not to mention in a steady stream of text messages, I’ve gotten some variation of that very question. The unicorn free agency of a once-in-a-century talent has clearly triggered the imagination of Blue Jays fans unlike anything in recent memory.
Ohtani’s decision-making process appears to be moving toward an end game, as colleague Ben Nicholson-Smith reported, and the Blue Jays have told agents representing other players that they’re waiting for a resolution there before acting on other fronts.
Given all that, and with the winter meetings looming next week, it’s a good time for another instalment of Blue Jays FAQ.
Q: Come on, is this Ohtani stuff actually real?
A: Listen, I get the skepticism. To some degree I even shared it. But two things can be true at the same time and I believe that’s definitely the case here. One, the Blue Jays’ intent to get him is legitimately real. Two, who knows exactly how much that interest is reciprocated by Ohtani.
That they’ve lasted this deep into the process clearly means the Blue Jays keep clearing the barriers-to-entry, and that’s something. But assessing odds beyond listing them at non-zero is impossible, as a challenge all interested teams face is that they can’t be certain what elements Ohtani most values as they work to tip the scales in their favour.
Blue Jays executives have been especially tight-lipped about Ohtani. But during an availability with the BBWAA’s Toronto chapter this week, GM Ross Atkins, speaking in general terms, shared what could have been interpreted as an elevator version of their pitch.
How it lands is conjecture, though, as Ohtani is notoriously private, with an incredibly tight circle of trust, which makes getting into his head difficult, if not impossible. But as I mentioned in early October, there was industry chatter that the two-way superstar had taken notice of the Blue Jays’ player resources and was intrigued by the idea of adding a third country in Canada to his fanbase.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are still considered the consensus favourite to land Ohtani, but as one agent put it, “I keep saying to everyone Dodgers, but he did pick the Angels last time, so who really knows?”
Fair point. So the Blue Jays are shooting their shot, just in case they land it.
Q: Don’t get my hopes up for nothing. Are my hopes up for nothing?
A: Not to answer a question with a question, but probably? The financial piece is interesting in that all teams involved will likely come up with a similar contract valuation, as Eno Sarris of The Athletic detailed in this smart piece, but each is likely to offer a different premium over and above that, based on their individual business cases.
Should they want to, the Dodgers could just blow everyone away, and the opportunity for sponsorship money in Southern California is significantly higher than elsewhere in North America. The safe assumption is that ultimately forces the issue.
The Blue Jays do offer a national market in Canada, but there’s also the currency gap, something that makes being high bid more difficult for them, too. Still, given that they’re in the midst of a $300-million-plus stadium renovation and need to sell their new premium offerings, they have incentive to stretch in the hopes the total package they offer along with the money gets it done.
Beyond that, since no one outside Ohtani’s very tight circle definitively knows what he wants, speculate wisely and manage expectations accordingly.
Q: Why spend so much time on a low-probability possibility? Shouldn’t the Blue Jays chase the bird in hand instead?
A: In theory, sure, but not exploring an opportunity to land a franchise-transforming talent like Ohtani to the fullest, even if the odds are overwhelmingly against it, would be total negligence, even if it’s only a one per cent shot. As well, the position-player market this year is sorely lacking in impact talent beyond Ohtani and, in case you hadn’t noticed, it isn’t exactly moving while his free agency is resolved.
The Blue Jays, then, can quickly shift to their subsequent plans if he ends up with the Dodgers or somewhere else having not missed out on other players on their preference lists. And, according to agents who have spoken to them this winter, they’re planning to shift quickly if needed.
Q: So what are their fallback plans? Can they trade for Juan Soto?
A: Their fallback plans are far murkier, but there are plenty of options. Cody Bellinger is the clear No. 2 bat available, and as a left-handed hitter with discipline and pop, he’s exactly what they need. But if the bidding for him goes where some expect it to go, nine figures beginning with a two and perhaps beyond that, the Blue Jays will be out on that. Similarly, San Diego’s price for one year of Soto is going to be prohibitively high and likely require players off the current Blue Jays roster plus top prospect Ricky Tiedemann. Can’t see them doing that.
Two other clients of super-agent Scott Boras, however, fit their need for middle-of-the-lineup power in Rhys Hoskins and J.D. Martinez, both of whom are likely to be short-term deals.
Justin Turner, whom the Blue Jays have pursued in the past, could also fit that primary DH role and handle some third, as well, where they have a clear opening with Matt Chapman a free agent. The book isn’t closed on him returning, but his market should surge past where the Blue Jays seem to be at with him. They remain engaged with Jeimer Candelario and are looking at versatile players who can fill the role Whit Merrifield played last season, with Isiah Kiner-Falefa, someone they pursued at the trade deadline, among the possibilities.
Kiner-Falefa played every position but catcher and first base last season, meaning he could be used occasionally in the outfield, as well, an area where the Blue Jays are also seeking additions. They’ve re-kindled their every-time-available-interest in Joc Pederson and Michael Brantley and could turn to someone like Jorge Soler as their power add, depending on how the other pieces fall.
As always, the Blue Jays will look to make their adds through a suite of complementary moves, rather than as individual transactions.