Ohtani sweepstakes end in pain for Blue Jays fans, as front office must pivot

Toronto Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins delivered an optimistic outlook Friday on injured closer Ken Giles. Ross Atkins, general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, speaks to the media during the end-of-the-season press conference in Toronto on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – Recovering from this one will be hard.

The news broke Saturday afternoon on Instagram: Shohei Ohtani has agreed to terms with the Dodgers on a record-setting 10-year, $700-million deal with unprecedented deferrals.

With that, the player who was so clearly the Blue Jays’ top priority is gone, and their off-season needs remain as glaring as ever. The complete organizational effort to land a historic talent got them close enough to be a finalist but despite those efforts, Ohtani chose the Dodgers.

Adding to the pain for Jays fans were the reports from credentialed outlets Friday that placed Ohtani on a plane to Toronto and in agreement with the Blue Jays. Quite understandably, hopes were high at that point. But just 24 hours after tracking the plane that ultimately belonged to Shark Tank‘s Robert Herjavec, a new reality has set in. The Blue Jays didn’t land their target.

The lengths to which the Blue Jays pursued Ohtani were unprecedented in franchise history. They appealed to him personally, with a custom pitch including the likes of Yusei Kikuchi, who went to Hanamaki Higashi High School in Japan before Ohtani and wore the same number.

They appealed to him professionally, taking him on a tour of their Player Development Complex in Dunedin, Fla., emphasizing the health and performance of their pitching staff and their commitment to getting the most out of players.

And they appealed to him financially, with an offer believed to be in excess of $500 million that required involvement from Rogers Communications, Inc., which also owns Sportsnet. How close the Blue Jays came to the Dodgers’ offer is not yet clear.

For a while, it even seemed like it might work. On Sunday, Ohtani flew from Anaheim to Florida to visit the Blue Jays’ PDC – no small undertaking during the week he’s making the biggest decision of his professional life. He could have stayed at home in California and still received a $500-million offer from Toronto. That trip showed he was serious about the Blue Jays, too.

And yet, there are no points for finishing second place in free agency, only the painful knowledge that it felt close and the still-substantial task of remaking the offence that just lost four prominent players to free agency.

Now comes the challenge of regrouping – first emotionally and then tactically. While productive off-seasons are still possible for the Blue Jays, none will be transformative in the way that a deal with Ohtani would have been. This hurts.

It would be completely understandable if the fan base needs some time to recover from this one, but there’s no time to wait for a front office that’s already seen Juan Soto land with the Yankees while they were in Ohtani limbo. Even Jeimer Candelario’s off the table, having landed a three-year deal with the Reds after drawing serious interest from Toronto.

So while the Dodgers can now plan around Ohtani, the Blue Jays are back where they started: with a strong core, yes, but one in serious need of additions. And even if you set aside the optics and emotions here, Ohtani was easily the best hitter available.

A quick pivot will be required, with the likes of Matt Chapman, Rhys Hoskins and Mitch Garver still available in free agency and likely to be of some interest to the Blue Jays. Clearly, none have the ceiling of Ohtani, a two-time MVP who just led the American League in home runs.

Now, could a case be made that it’s more responsible to spread resources around instead of investing $700 million in one player? Sure, especially since any Ohtani deal was expected to leave the Blue Jays without the resources to spend much on further additions.

Still, it doesn’t take away from the pain of losing Ohtani. The Blue Jays aspire to greater heights than small-market teams like the Pirates and Brewers. And look at the mega-deals for free agents like Gerrit Cole, Corey Seager, Bryce Harper and Freddie Freeman. Those are contracts you want on your books. If you can afford Ohtani, get him.

This was the Blue Jays’ chance to join the Dodgers and Yankees as a serious, big market threat. There simply aren’t many opportunities like this one – it’s literally never before been possible to sign a two-way superstar in his prime. “Best player ever,” one veteran baseball person said.

What Ohtani does is historic. Not even Babe Ruth reached these heights. That’s why the entire Blue Jays organization made unprecedented efforts in a coordinated effort to land him. And why it hurts so much that they didn’t.

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