TORONTO – There’s a downside to the obvious upside of going all-in for a player that captures the imagination the way only Shohei Ohtani does, and it’s the magnitude of the loss if you happen to go bust.
After all, missing out on players, from middling to marquee, is far from new for the Toronto Blue Jays. Just last year, for instance, they aggressively pursued free-agent lefty Andrew Heaney for a second straight off-season only for him to end up with the Texas Rangers. They needed three tries on the open market to land 2023 Cy Young Award finalist Kevin Gausman. Gerrit Cole was locked in on the New York Yankees when the Blue Jays tried to engage him in the winter of 2019. And remember the mania around Yu Darvish when he was first posted under the old blind-bid system?
No other player pursuit, however, compares to losing out on Ohtani, who on Saturday agreed to terms on a $700-million, 10-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, thought to be the richest contract ever in professional sports. In industry jargon, the two-way superstar is a singular opportunity, a transformational force, not just on the diamond, where it matters, but also on the business end of the game, where it matters just as much, or in this case, maybe even more.
Hence, there are no alternatives even remotely comparable to Ohtani, no places where the Blue Jays can pivot to find someone who can provide a similar level of impact to the lineup, ticket sales and competitive window.
The disappointment, then, is raw, infuriating, gutting, especially for a fanbase that’s already endured a season-and-a-half with their team stationed elsewhere, the one-game-short dagger of 2021, the blown 8-1 lead of Game 2 against the Seattle Mariners in 2022, plus the pulling-Jose-Berrios debacle of Game 2 against the Minnesota Twins during the silent-bat season of 2023.
Now there’s this, too. It’s really a lot in a short time span.
The alternative, however, is for the Blue Jays to not have tried, to not have poured all their efforts into what was all-along a low-probability shot at keeping Ohtani from the Dodgers, for two years the industry’s consensus pick for his landing spot. Whether playing it safe on the sidelines is better than taking the chance and failing is for everyone to decide themselves, but from this vantage point, the latter is far preferrable to the former.
At minimum, they seem to have done enough to force the Dodgers to ante up well beyond the half-a-billion dollars it had been expected that landing his services would require (even with an unprecedented set of deferrals, included at Ohtani’s behest to help keep the team competitive).
Their pitch brought Ohtani on a visit to the Blue Jays’ Player Development Complex on Monday, which depending on your point of view, is a sign of his genuine interest, or a trek he made that was strategically leaked to ensure the Dodgers believed they had a true stalking horse.
Either way, the Blue Jays exhausted the opportunity, as they should have, just in case.
The fallout though, beyond the immediate emotion of it all, is significant.
While the market is still relatively untouched for early December, the pathways to adding core position players that extend the current competitive window is far more complicated. Reupping with third baseman Matt Chapman or free-agent centre-fielder Cody Bellinger, at 28, would fit the bill, but barring a sneaky and costly trade, they’re likely looking at shorter-term adds.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it punts the longer-term questions the Blue Jays are facing – the looming free agencies of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette after 2025 – down the road at a time they’re selling the premium seating being created by the current $300-million-plus renovation.
A high-end, core-extending play on the pitching side would be starter Yoshinobu Yamamoto, 25, who would create rotation surplus that could be used to acquire offence in trade, but his market may be more competitive than Ohtani’s and is especially deep.
Whichever route the Blue Jays pursue, agents may read their bid for Ohtani as a sign they have money to spend and negotiate accordingly. That will test the club’s discipline, as will a desire to flip the page from the Ohtani pursuit with a quick addition to recast the off-season.
GM Ross Atkins made clear Tuesday at the winter meetings that the Blue Jays have planned for this possibility, saying they’d “made some progress, a little bit more on the trade front,” on non-Ohtani moves.
“We have a lot of information on players that we’re interested in, that are interested in us,” he added, “a decent framework for expectations and timing and fortunately feel that we’ll be in a position to pivot if need be and see a lot of avenues to make our team better.”
He and the front office have little time for mourning the heartbreaking whiff on the biggest free-agent swing the Blue Jays have ever taken. The work toward a different ending in 2024 restarts now.