Ohtani possibility looks open as Atkins addresses Blue Jays off-season buzz

Ken Rosenthal joins Evanka Osmak to discuss whether Shohei Ohtani has real interest in joining the Blue Jays, why the Dodgers are still the frontrunners for his services, and why Bichette and Guerrero Jr.'s contract talks have been put on hold.

TORONTO – In the two-plus weeks since the GM Meetings ended rather unceremoniously, the Toronto Blue Jays roster has barely changed, yet there’s still been a steady stream of rumours and speculation about what Canada’s lone MLB team might do next.

That’s standard operating procedure this time of year, as everyone from front office officials to fans knows all too well. Given the Blue Jays’ position as a big-market team intent on winning now and willing to spend, it would be more surprising if they weren’t linked to big names.

Still, there’s a big difference between preliminary interest and genuine traction, and Ross Atkins’ comments to the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America Tuesday afternoon offered some hints as to what’s real and what’s not. Bo Bichette, for example? Staying put. Trading for a rental? Definitely on the table. And Shohei Ohtani?

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Actually, let’s start there. So much of the off-season hinges on Ohtani’s decision, not only for interested teams like the Blue Jays, but for the various players and teams who will be impacted by what’s expected to be a record-setting deal. When asked about luring top free agents like Ohtani to Toronto, Atkins kept his answers general without ever dispelling the notion that the Blue Jays could be serious players for the sport’s most intriguing free agent in decades.

“We have an incredible opportunity here. The city, the country, the support of ownership, the winning environment, the renovations that have occurred,” Atkins said. “We have incredible opportunities with the economy and the diversity and the strength of this city that is celebrated by a country.”

A commitment to winning is seen as a prerequisite for Ohtani, but Toronto’s a more diverse place than many MLB cities, which could appeal to various players, including the reigning American League MVP. Atkins also pointed to the Blue Jays’ player development facility in Dunedin, Fla., which he called the best in baseball.

Now, interest in Ohtani only matters so much if you aren’t prepared to pay him, but Atkins spoke like someone confident in the spending power of ownership at Rogers Communications, Inc., which also owns Sportsnet.  

“We’ve always had incredible support from ownership to make this team better,” Atkins said. “We’re one of the few markets, I believe, that has the ability to be nimble.”

All of which reinforces the idea that the Blue Jays can be legitimate suitors for Ohtani. To be clear, they’re far from alone in that department and even an optimistic reading of this situation would position the Blue Jays as dark horses behind the likes of the Dodgers, Giants, Cubs and Rangers but ahead of teams like the Red Sox, Mariners and Padres. Hold off on buying those jerseys.

Ideally, the Blue Jays would get the chance to personally pitch Ohtani on the opportunity Atkins calls ‘incredible,’ but it’s unclear if he’s among the free agents with whom the Blue Jays have met this winter. Some free agent recruiting meetings have already occurred, Atkins said, while others are still to come.

But again, while industry observers do view the Blue Jays as a team to watch in the Ohtani sweepstakes, they’re seen as an underdog with ambition, still trailing the Dodgers by a significant margin. More likely, Atkins will have to pivot and find another way to augment a core that’s badly in need of offence following the departure of four free agents.

It appears likely the Blue Jays will consider a trade for Juan Soto, with Atkins saying he’s “absolutely open” to acquiring a rental player like the 25-year-old outfielder. While the Padres will rightfully expect a significant haul in return, the Blue Jays believe they have enough in their farm system to pull off a significant move.

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“It really comes down to the impact,” Atkins said, speaking in general terms. “There’s no aversion to (rentals).”

The GM spoke of the “urgency” to augment the Blue Jays in the short term while adding that “we cannot lose sight of the future.” With that in mind, it’s no surprise the Blue Jays are showing interest in younger free agents like 25-year-old Yoshinobu Yamamoto and 28-year-old Cody Bellinger.

It’s for that same reason that any Bichette rumours must be understood within proper context. Already down four bats, does it really make sense for the Blue Jays to trade away their best offensive player? Sure, other teams may inquire, especially at a time that the free agent market is light on hitters, but that doesn’t mean the Blue Jays have any real interest in completing a deal.

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“He’s a really good player, we’re very fortunate to have him and he’s our shortstop moving forward,” Atkins said.

As for Alek Manoah, the Blue Jays have had some trade talks involving the right-hander this month, sources said. But again, that doesn’t mean a deal is likely. Manoah’s throwing again and feeling strong and excited, according to Atkins. Under those circumstances, it’s more likely the Blue Jays keep him and focus on augmenting their lineup.

Where that search lands remains unknown, but based on Atkins’ comments Tuesday, it’s fair to assume it starts at the very top.

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