The Lookahead: True path to improving Jays runs through Guerrero Jr., Pearson

Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. leaves the on deck circle. (Mark Blinch/CP)

Look, I get it. You’re all tired of hearing how the Toronto Blue Jays “finished second” on this free-agent or this trade, about how they were “in” on this guy or being “aggressive” with this player.

Francisco Lindor. Liam Hendriks. Kevin Gausman, if that floats your boat (doesn’t mine, but whatever). Now, D.J. LeMahieu, who as expected has decided he’s waited long enough and can’t see much more reason to squeeze out a few more pennies from the New York Yankees. He’d have been perfect for the Blue Jays: a terrific defensive second baseman. Solid dude. Knows the Bichettes from his early days with the Colorado Rockies when Dante was their hitting coach. One of the very, very best hitters in the game. But settling for six years and $90 million suggests to me he wanted to be with the Yankees all along. I’m willing to bet he left money on the table to make that deal.

And here sit the Blue Jays with… Robbie Ray? A.J. Cole?

Let’s set the usual caveats before I present you my reasons for not joining the madding crowd. First, the fact that both Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins said they were positioned to be aggressive and the fact that sources have repeatedly told national reporters that the Jays are in here and in there and serious about this guy or that guy… yeah, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the case.

I mean, what’s aggressive? It’s not a criminal offence to let people know you’re interested in improving (although I’ve always liked the notion of under-promising and over-delivering). Either you make a deal or sign the guy or you don’t. In the end, the value of your players is what the other team thinks it is. In the end, it’s the free agent who decides where he wants to sign. Agents use teams to gin up a market. Teams use other teams and other free agents to sow concern in the market. This is baseball’s version of the ‘fog of war.’

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I’ve been pretty consistent on this front, even though I realize it’s not what fans like to hear: I want to see the 2021 Blue Jays be an improved team, and there are ways to do it beyond simply adding the highest-profile hitters available. Don’t get me wrong: I’d buy a freaking George Springer jersey the second his signing was made official. Trevor Bauer… yeah, I’d have to think about it. But, whatever, you get the drift: It’s only money, and it’s not mine or yours.

This is entertainment. This is fun. And like my friend Jeff Passan always notes: it has become a ‘thing’ for a lot of us in this industry to become slaves to fiscal prudence, to go along with a front office because, well, the numbers guys are waaaaay smarter than we are and because there is often an irrefutable logic in their approach. We all like to be on the side of the smartest people in the room.

And let’s be clear: We’ve all seen teams let their head rule their heart when it comes to dealing with players. We’ve all seen contracts that just don’t seem to make sense. We’ve all seen what happens when, say, an agent like Scott Boras does an end run around a general manager like David Dombrowski and goes directly to an owner like the late Mike Illitch and – knowing that the time is running out for the owner – sells him on a big contract for Prince Fielder.

So we’ve kind of re-calibrated, maybe a little too much, to the point where we accept the logical argument while losing sight of the fact that, dammit, these aren’t widgets we’re talking about. They’re baseball players that we love, hate, lust for or can’t get rid of soon enough. For a baseball person, losing the likes of Carlos Delgado and Josh Donaldson in the manner the Blue Jays lost these two players… it just flat out sucks. It should always end happily.

Still. As I sit here on Jan. 15 and take a 360-degree view of the Blue Jays, I feel a need to look back on two things I’ve written and said for the past three years: that it will be the development of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Nate Pearson that ultimately determines how fast this team becomes its best because they are potentially transformative pieces that are going to be relatively cheap. Bo Bichette is a given, in my mind. He’s going to win a batting title and this will be his team this season and for much of the decade, but Junior and Nate need to come good.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

I can’t tell you that signing Springer and J.T. Realmuto and Bauer wouldn’t make the Blue Jays a World Series favourite: it would. Sweet Jesus, would it ever. But failing that Hail Mary… I’d feel a lot better about the Blue Jays’ spot in the universe, about their ETA, if I knew whether Junior is a third baseman or a first baseman, and if Pearson had had a better debut. Truth is, you can’t count on Pearson in 2021, so there goes the No. 2 pitcher on slightly above Major League minimum salary upon whom you were counting.

Two things to remember: The American League is in a weird place right now. The Yankees have kept their powder dry. So, too, the Boston Red Sox. The Tampa Bay Rays aren’t ‘raysing up,’ they’re just ‘raysing.’ The National League seems to be where the action is. If your focus is making the playoffs, not much that has happened so far has negatively impacted the Blue Jays. Second: There is a real chance that the Blue Jays will be playing away from home once again and could be facing a 162-game schedule without ticket revenue. Yeah, I know, there’s the money stuff again. Still, it needs to be acknowledged.

Know what? I just want the Blue Jays to be better. I want better centre-field and second-base defence and a deeper starting rotation. I want more contact in the lineup. Fewer strikeouts. How or why we get there – Springer or Jackie Bradley Jr. or Tommy LaStella or Kolten Wong, Jake Odorizzi, Realmuto and, yes, Bauer. I’m OK with it. Arden Zwelling makes a terrific argument in this piece that the Blue Jays’ focus should be on pitching. You can still do that in this marketplace. Easy. It’s about getting better where you can.

THE LOOKAHEAD

Things I might check out this weekend:

• Orlando Magic at Brooklyn Nets, Saturday, 6 p.m. ET: Unless James Harden turns in a positive COVID-19 test between now and tip-off, the Nets are targeting this game as Harden’s debut following Wednesday’s mega-deal with the Houston Rockets and coat-tail riders Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers. Still don’t know who’ll plug the middle for the Nets or play some perimeter defence… never mind Kyrie.

• Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET: It’s the quarterbacks, isn’t it? The Bills faced more blitzes than any team in the NFL. The Ravens blitzed more than any other team. Cue Josh Allen. Cue Lamar Jackson, who will likely need to become the first QB to rush for 100 yards in back-to-back playoff games for the Ravens to win. The Bills defence has had its wobbles, but it knows how to handle running pivots.

• Toronto Maple Leafs at Ottawa Senators, Saturday, 7 p.m., CBC, Sportsnet. Our first look at the Leafs in the first of 10 scheduled back to backs as part of the NHL’s compressed schedule. The second game in the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers back to back was kind of ‘meh,’ with little of the added juice expected.

• Manchester United at Liverpool, Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET. It was 2008-09 when these two clubs last battled for the Premier League title and the last time the Red Devils held down top spot this late in the season was 2012-13. Nobody much trusts Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team and even if a win here moves them a full six points ahead of Liverpool and answers some nagging questions about Solskjaer’s tactical nous, their cross-town rivals – Manchester City – will still be more fancied to win the title.

FAIR OR FOUL?

• Fair: Wondering how much food for thought Cyle Larin is giving Canadian men’s national soccer coach John Herdman. Larin, who despite his relatively young age of 25, has become something of a spare part for the Canadian team with the emergence of Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, has been a revelation playing for Turkish league-leaders Besiktas. At a time when the Canadian men are gathered in Bradenton, Fla., for their first camp since the pandemic shut down sports in March – and with matches now just a little more than two months away – Larin is in the middle of a run in which he has scored six goals in three matches, is second in the race for the Turkish version of the Golden Boot with 10 league goals and has 14 goals in all competitions.

The Brampton native has been treading water since being named 2015 MLS rookie of the year but if this rich form continues, it will substantially increase Herdman’s options. I don’t think he’s consistent enough or durable enough to be the focal point of attack, but Larin coming off the bench in a wide role has to be a tantalizing thought for a team that will always be searching for finish, and if he can hit the ground running with the Canadian team in March, Herdman could find himself with the most offensively gifted lineup the program has ever had. By far.

• Foul: Expecting the Canadian division (Scotia North Division) to be a thing next season. Look: I love the notion in the abstract, especially if it increases the chances of a Canadian team advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. But the television schedule would be a challenge: It would cover four time zones, and in the case of the Maple Leafs – stop your whining: they drive ratings, they just do – it would increase the number of games played outside of their preferred prime time window. Conversely, it would take western teams out of their windows whenever they came east. So, yeah, it’s a nice dream but a business disaster. Deal with it. In the meantime, enjoy it this year.

• Fair: Agreeing with Sportsnet’s Brian Burke that we’ve all seen enough of this nonsense about Auston Matthews killing penalties, thank you very much. I mean, I’d essentially seen enough when, with Shea Weber winding up in the first period on Wednesday, the Maple Leafs forward chose self-preservation over the heroics of blocking a Weber shot in the first period of the teams first game.

Matthews is a different player now than he was before the NHL returned in the bubble this summer – he’s a willing combatant in the nasty areas and as we saw in that first game, he’s going to be targeted by opposing defencemen if the league decides cross-checking is no longer a penalty. I’m sure there’s a nifty analytical reason for it, but I’m not certain with a compressed schedule that our guy needs a steady diet of playing short-handed. Speaking of which…

THE ENDGAME

One game. One 5-4 overtime win over the Canadiens and the target on the Maple Leafs back grew exponentially. Josh Anderson of the Habs sniffs, shrugs, and offers the opinion that his team was the better one on the ice that night. Beauty. Connor McDavid’s agent Jeff Jackson – of whom I’m a big fan – says that the NHL needs to do a better job of protecting its star players after seeing Matthews’ kidneys worked over by cross-checks from the Canadiens’ Ben Chiarot and Weber late in the game.

Matthews is represented by the same agency as McDavid. Fair play to Jackson: If I’m a player, I’d rather have my agency pushing my case on social media – knowing they have my back, pardon the pun – which allows the message to get out and puts me in a position where I can take it as far as I want. Matthews did just that by turning it into a matter of officiating consistency and that, too, is fair play. But one game into this whole Scotia Bank North Division thing and it sure seems more than ever as if the Leafs are going to have to get used to being Public Enemy No. 1. Oh, it’s on all right. Make no mistake about it. Embrace the hate, Leafs Nation. Embrace the hate.

Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan as well as Canada’s only national radio soccer show, A Kick In The Grass with Dan Riccio on Monday nights across the Sportsnet Radio Network.

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