NASHVILLE — One of the most fateful decisions in Toronto Blue Jays history appears to now rest in Shohei Ohtani’s hands, a breadcrumb trail of clues around the two-way superstar’s free-agent courtship pointing to the process entering an endgame.
To say the stakes are high undersells the turning-point nature of this moment, a yes catapulting the franchise to an international sporting relevancy unlike anything in its previous 47 years, a no forcing an uneasy pursuit of rental Juan Soto or other challenging trades to avoid a consolation-prize winter.
That the Blue Jays are in play for Ohtani, a once-in-a-century talent who is a business signing as much as a baseball signing, is an achievement in and of itself, given that the Los Angeles Dodgers have for the past two years been his assumed destination.
But the Blue Jays have cleared all barriers to entry, including any financial ones on what’s expected to be a half-billion-dollar-plus deal, to reach this point, where it’s thought to be down to them and the Dodgers.
Working hard to avoid any last-minute slips, both Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins and manager John Schneider were at their Johnny Tightlips best during media availabilities Tuesday, responding to queries about Ohtani with a polite version of The Simpsons character’s “tell him to suck a lemon.”
“Anything that we share about meetings that have occurred or haven’t occurred only hurts our chances to acquire talent,” Atkins said during an interview with Hazel Mae and me. “So we’ll follow the lead of the stakeholders in cases of free agents on what’s the most comfortable, what is best, what gives us the best possible chance to make our team better. And so the nuances of negotiations, meetings that have occurred or haven’t occurred, don’t help our chances to make this team better and acquire the best talent.”
To be fair, that’s reasonable, even called for under the circumstances. And Atkins made the same point during roughly 30 minutes of questioning from reporters at the Gaylord Opryland, where he arrived late Monday night after what was supposed to be a clandestine meeting with Ohtani at the club’s Player Development Complex.
Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported late Monday night that sides were “believed” to have met earlier in the day, and while Atkins and Schneider refused to confirm, word is that the Blue Jays sent a message out Sunday saying that the facility would be shut Monday for a corporate event, a first since it opened.
If a willingness to keep Ohtani’s biz off the street is a potential difference-maker, both Atkins and Schneider delivered a MasterClass in how to stay on message in the field of obfuscation.
Did the meeting happen?
“We meet with a lot of players. I’ll leave it at that,” Schneider replied to the first query on the topic. “It’s kept between the club.”
Were you at the meeting? You look tanned.
“I live in Florida,” he said to the second. “Who we meet with and where we meet with them, we keep to ourselves.”
When you did meet with him, did he give you an idea of when he’s making a decision and if the Blue Jays are under serious consideration?
“Again, we talk to a lot of different players,” Schneider answered to the third. “And I wouldn’t know anything like that, where he’s leaning or anything like that. But again, we deal with a lot of different players.”
Did you come out of the meeting feeling good?
“Again, it’s a lot of players we’ve talked to over the course of this off-season,” he replied to the fourth. “I’ll keep that between me and the organization.”
Now, the only reason to work so hard to not answer a question is to avoid lying, and if there was no meeting, there’s no downside to quashing potentially damaging speculation.
Intriguingly, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts took a far different approach moments after Schneider finished his availability, starting a non-answer when asked if he’s able to say if the club had met with the two-way superstar, only to shift gears.
“Am I able to say that? It’s a good possibility… yeah, we met with him. I would like to be honest, and so we met with Shohei and we talked and I think it went well,” he said. “I think it went well. But at the end of the day, he’s his own man and he’s going to do what’s best for himself, where he feels most comfortable.”
The meeting, Roberts added, was at Dodger Stadium a couple of days ago, the forthrightness negating the need for people to try and identify possible corresponding travel itineraries using online flight trackers, as one Blue Jays fan on Twitter cleverly did.
Amid all the clandestine manoeuvring lay angst across the industry, agents and executives all waiting for the Ohtani decision to drop and trigger a market largely at a standstill due to the limbo.
Asked if he had a timeline on when the call might be made, Atkins replied, “not one that I’m comfortable sharing. There are many people that have a decent feel, that are closer to the negotiation, and we’re fortunate to be one that’s being considered and have a better sense than some, but not something I’m comfortable giving specifics on.”
In spite of that, the sense around the industry was that the pitches had been made to Ohtani and unless he had follow-up questions, the time for final deliberations had come.
As tension-filled as the wait is for fans, it’s even more anxiety-inducing for the teams involved, with such a wide divergence in what the next steps are for them depending on whether it’s a yes or a no.
Atkins indicated that the Blue Jays would be in position to remain “agile” in plugging holes if they made one high-salaried add and the groundwork is in place down that path.
There are plans in place for what comes next if there’s a no, too, with no time to mourn the outcome as an avalanche of moves is expected once Ohtani is off the board.
“Just making one big move is enough of a challenge in itself and one that we’re not banking on and laying our head on the pillow that we have a move to make that will happen, then we will adjust,” said Atkins. “There’s the potential that we don’t have what would be seen as one big move. So we have to be prepared to make our team better in any possible way. We see different avenues to do so.”
Like baseball, the Blue Jays are in the middle of the intersection, waiting on Ohtani to decide in which direction they go.