Blue Jays ponder off-season puzzle as Ohtani’s free-agency holds up market

MLB insider Jon Morosi discusses the latest on superstar Shohei Ohtani's free agency saga, including how the Yankees' acquisition of Juan Soto changes the game for the Toronto Blue Jays as they try to acquire the winter's top free agent.

NASHVILLE — This suspended animation the Toronto Blue Jays find themselves in as they await Shohei Ohtani‘s fateful call is completely understandable. Any player that reaches free agency has earned the right to control his own fate and if they happen to have the ability to control the market at the same time, the more power to him.

Sure, some in the industry are dying for things to get moving. One player agent at the Gaylord Opryland on Wednesday stopped me and colleague Ben Nicholson-Smith as we were walking down a pathway, said a moratorium on transactions from mid-December to Jan. 1 was needed to make everyone work faster and urged us to help speak it into existence.

“Use your platform,” he said with a grin.

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The Blue Jays, as their behaviour during the winter meetings this week showed, are willing to give Ohtani all the time, space and privacy he needs, even as they continue to lay groundwork for whatever comes next, whether the two-way superstar joins them or not.

For example, super-agent Scott Boras, whose clients include Blue Jays free agents Matt Chapman and Hyun Jin Ryu and potential fits in Cody Bellinger, Rhys Hoskins and J.D. Martinez, described his engagements with GM Ross Atkins as, “consistent.”

“They’ve been in contact throughout,” he added.

Still, Ohtani’s decision is taking up so much oxygen “that the volcano is yet to erupt on the position player side, that’s for sure,” said Boras, leaving the market in relative stasis, Blue Jays included.

“Everything is a puzzle. Everything,” Blue Jays assistant GM Mike Murov, speaking in general terms, said about the challenge of waiting on one opportunity before acting on another. “Whether you’re building a department of scouts or whether you’re building a major-league roster, you have to be cognizant of which hires you make, which signings you make, and you kind of have to sequence them to the best of your ability — but that’s not always up to you.

“So it’s always building an entire picture from the ground up and kind of putting the pieces together. Clarity is great, but you don’t always have that. That’s not specific to free agency, as we all know. You’re trying to put the pieces together to the best of your ability.”

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Boras typically exerts significant control over the free-agent market through his stable of elite talent, but this winter he’s being forced to work at the pace set by Ohtani and his agent, Nez Balelo of similarly influential Creative Arts Agency.

So while Boras did the usual stumping for his clients on his way out of the winter meetings Wednesday, he also acknowledged that the industry needs resolution there before other business, his own included, can go down.

“When you’re talking about unique talents in the market, I think teams always want to know certain things before they make certain moves,” he explained. “And in free agency, the process requires you to put your toe in the water with specific players and actually, you only have one foot (to dip at a time), so you have to wait before you move to the next. That’s why I say there are a lot of 1A, B, C, D type players in this market that have not yet done what you’d expect this market to do early because of that, that bit of embargo.”

Chapman and Ryu remain, to different degrees, on the Blue Jays’ radar for the next phase of their off-season, while a pursuit of Bellinger (likely to be priced beyond their comfort zone) and DH-types Hoskins and Martinez hinges on Ohtani.

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Juan Soto, seen by some as a secondary option for the Blue Jays if the Los Angeles Dodgers end up with Ohtani, appeared Wednesday afternoon headed to the New York Yankees, who were closing in on a trade for him with the San Diego Padres, according to Jack Curry of the YES Network.

The acquisition cost for one season of the slugger — as a Boras client he’s sure to hit the open market next fall — was likely beyond the Blue Jays’ reach, as they lack the upper-level surplus pitching needed to satisfy the Padres.

But in taking Soto out of play, the Yankees pushed the Blue Jays deeper into boom-bust territory with Ohtani, an opportunity transformational in every way imaginable if he says yes, impossible to replicate if he says no.

In the interim, this state of suspended animation for them, for the industry, persists.

“Generally speaking on free agency, it’s less like, here is an offer, tell us yes or no, usually it’s a continued dialogue and we’ve engaged with that with a lot of different players,” said Murov. “The feeling isn’t like, stuck in purgatory. It’s trying to figure out what’s the right fit for everyone, whether it’s a free agent on the minor-league side or a more marquee guy. So it’s trying to work through the right fit and the feeling is hopefulness in most cases.”

As it should be for the Blue Jays, who have clearly made a strong enough pitch to Ohtani that the Dodgers, long considered the clear frontrunners for him, are said to be, at the least, worried. Their reported reaction to manager Dave Roberts’ confirmation that the club met with him underlined that.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays have the industry on notice, going from what Boras termed a “Blue Flu” back in 2018 to this hella metaphor: “Their bird-feeder has arrived and they’re spreading their seeds throughout Canada, no doubt.”

“Certainly Ross has been flying around, if you will, a lot,” Boras quipped later. “And good for them. They’re trying to make their team better. We expect they would. And I think they’re very, very excited about what their opportunities are in the American League East.”

Even if the waiting, as Tom Petty once sang, is the hardest part.

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