TORONTO – Now that George Springer has donned a Toronto Blue Jays cap and jersey in public for the first time, with Marcus Semien soon to join him, let’s put the persistent narrative about players not wanting to come here to bed for good.
If the situation is right from a baseball perspective and the money is there, the Blue Jays have a legitimate shot at any free agent they want.
Toronto may not be a glamour destination like California, or home to a historic franchise like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers or Cubs, or native to wide swaths of the major-league populace, but let’s stop acting like the front office has to sell players on Milwaukee.
This is a great place to play, and arms don’t have to be twisted to get guys to stay once here, as evidenced by the club’s strong history in retaining players that have been prioritized. Tired whinges like the border and customs and taxes are weak crutches that are convenient when the Blue Jays are struggling, or can’t compete on the baseball front.
The signing of Springer to a club record $150-million, six-year deal, and the looming arrival of Semien, who agreed to an $18-million, one-year contract pending a physical, reinforces what’s possible when the Blue Jays build an enticing core, and are willing to pay market rates.
They have plenty to work with, and GM Ross Atkins has effectively leveraged that.
"One that was most important is that they were themselves," Springer said of how, beyond dollars, the Blue Jays swayed him to head north. "They were honest about where they wanted the team to go, about what they believed in, about how much they believe in their players now, the guys already in that locker-room, the plan, the direction they saw these guys going. When you have a young, talented group that’s already in place, it’s obviously very, very attractive because you know what they can potentially do. All the conversations I’ve had, not one person has said that they don’t want to win, that they don’t go out there and play as hard as they possibly can. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most, getting down to it and playing hard every day with these guys."
To be clear, the Blue Jays’ decision to offer an extra year at a higher average annual value than what the New York Mets reportedly had on the table is ultimately what tipped the scales – in free agency, money almost always trumps all.
But it’s the other parts of the package that have allowed the Blue Jays to overcome the usual excuses that come up in their pursuit of players.
To wit, Springer cited the presence of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio as being a key part of the attraction, and augmenting a team coming off a playoff berth is a strong marketing tool.
In his opening comments, Atkins shouted out Shannon Curley, the club’s senior manager, player relations and community marketing, for her role in the courtship process, and the dedicated work she does in assisting players and their families is essential in building comfort.
The tax hits here, meanwhile, aren’t much different than in New York and California, and the Blue Jays must do more to kill the imbedded perception of excessively onerous clawbacks. From a tax perspective, it’s really no worse joining the Blue Jays than the Yankees or Dodgers.
None of that means the Blue Jays will get every player they want – no team does. Gerrit Cole spurned aggressive pursuit from the Dodgers and Angels to play for the Yankees. Mookie Betts wouldn’t sign an extension with the Red Sox so they traded him to the Dodgers, who locked him up. Some players have a destination in mind, no matter what, a right they’ve earned in free agency.
But former Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi – whose fall 2005 signings of A.J. Burnett ($55 million over five years with an opt out) and B.J. Ryan ($47 million, five years) remain the fourth and fifth largest free-agent commitments in team history – was bang on when he told me last year that, "most free agents want three things."
"They want the most money they can make; they want to be as close to their home as they can be; and they want to be on a winning club," added Ricciardi, now a senior advisor to San Francisco Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. "Sometimes, you just can’t get as close to their home as they want, so you’ve got to try and create the other two things."
In other words, it might be harder to sign free agents and it may cost more, but it can be done.
That’s why marketplace perceptions matter, underlining the importance of president and CEO Mark Shapiro describing Springer as a step, not the destination.
If his plan to build a sustainable winner is successful, upper tier off-season additions like Ryu last year and Springer this year are going to become the norm, rather than outliers. Ryu’s $80-million, four-year contract last winter was viewed by some in the industry as an overpay by a team spurned by other free-agent pitchers, but it also established a credibility that’s been bolstered by the moves this winter.
One agent in regular contact with the Blue Jays is impressed with how aggressively they’ve pursued such a wide array of players in recent months, believing it demonstrates a real change in direction.
Making that view more widespread is critical with Shapiro indicating the team’s payroll has the potential to exceed record highs in the $165 million range during the 2016-18 window if the wins keep coming, and the revenue increases commensurately once the pandemic passes.
"There is no limit to what that can reflect from a revenue perspective" if the team grows into a consistent contender, said Shapiro. "(The) plan is to continue to win. And as we win, the revenues will increase. And where those dollars go, I think there’s no limit to what this market can be. It’s a behemoth and we’re going to continue to get better and continue to add the players and keep the players that we have necessary to be a championship team year-in, year-out."
Those are bold words and when asked if the Blue Jays could be a team that spends to or beyond the $210 million competitive balance tax threshold, Shapiro hedged around the uncertainty with the collective bargaining agreement expiring in December.
"Whatever system is going to be in place after this year, we’ll have to consider it and adjust," said Shapiro. "But beyond this year, there is no system in place. So that’s not a concern right now."
Fair enough, but it’s refreshing to think in those terms about a franchise that for too long has constrained itself.
Fading into forgotten history is that the Blue Jays led the majors in payroll during the World Series years of 1992 and 1993, when nobody cried about the difficulty in luring free agents.
Hall of Famers like Dave Winfield, Jack Morris and Paul Molitor signed with the Blue Jays as free agents because they believed this was a place they could win. And thanks to the brilliant framework Hall of Fame GM Pat Gillick put in place, that’s exactly what they did.
The ensuing drift into an extended playoff-less wilderness steadily eroded the organizational derring-do, and when combined with some player abandonments of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, a deep insecurity settled into the local sporting psyche.
And it’s lingered since, even after Masai Ujiri, the Raptors president, sought to pull everyone from the malaise during Kawhi Leonard’s introduction in September 2018, telling a questioner that, "the narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone. I think that’s old and we should move past that. Believe in this city, believe in yourself.
Those words should resonate again after seeing Springer in a Blue Jays uniform Wednesday and hearing him respond to a question about if playing in Canada gave him pause by saying, "No. To be honest, no."
There’s no better proof that the narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone, is old and that we very much should move past that. The Blue Jays have reason to believe in themselves and they’ve started to make star free agents believe in this city, too.