Three Blue Jays issues worth watching heading into 2022

MLB insider Jeff Passan joined Tim and Friends to discuss how close the Blue Jays were to landing both Corey Seager and Noah Syndergaard, and how and why many people around baseball see Toronto as a really desirable place to be right now.

TORONTO — Amid the onset of winter and baseball’s deep freeze triggered by Major League Baseball’s lockout of its players, there are still happenings afoot for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Here’s a look at three issues — the incoming Canadian border measures, a possible renovation of Rogers Centre and what on earth was that Carlos Baerga Instagram post on Freddie Freeman all about — worth watching:

The Jan. 15 Border Rules

The Nov. 19 obtained by ESPN, NBA teams must provide the league office with a list of unvaccinated players by Friday, and The Athletic reported that unvaccinated players who miss games in Toronto will be subject to fines, suspension or reduced pay.

All this is relevant to the Blue Jays and, even more so, the 18 teams scheduled to visit Toronto in 2022, since how the NBA copes with the new rules is in many ways a leading indicator for MLB. (Let’s insert a caveat here that lots can change before the April 4 home opener against Tampa Bay, both for better and worse, so this is really no more than a snapshot of the current trendlines.)

As of now, the new rules won’t impact anyone currently on Blue Jays roster, although the club has had to factor whether someone is, or is willing to get, vaccinated into their now paused off-season pursuit of players. For that reason, the looming restrictions on arriving travellers are more of a problem for other teams and MLB, which will have to decide how players unable to enter the country will be handled.

Will MLB follow the NBA’s lead by fining, suspending or reducing the pay of affected players? Will visiting teams be allowed to place affected players on the COVID-19 injured list and recall replacements from the minor leagues without impacting the 40-man roster?

MLB finished the season with 24 of its 30 teams at the 85 per cent threshold for easing health protocols, and nearly 88 per cent of all Tier 1 personnel fully vaccinated. The six teams not to hit the mark are reported to be the Red Sox, Mariners, Cubs, Mets, Royals and Diamondbacks after the Phillies reached the threshold in September. Five of those clubs are scheduled to be in Toronto for a total of 22 games.

Of those clubs, the Red Sox are first in town April 25-28, and the Blue Jays have little incentive to spend political capital with Ottawa on seeking another National Interest Exemption (similar to the one used last summer, creating a modified-cohort quarantine for those unvaccinated) so rivals can field a full roster against them. Figuring that out is an issue for other teams and MLB.

The matter is at the moment largely lost amid the collective bargaining agreement discussions, but should the current trajectory continue, entry restrictions on unvaccinated players will undoubtedly become an issue for most, if not all visiting clubs, with the potential to affect next season.

Smaller-Scale Dome Reno Coming?

The longer-term future of Rogers Centre and the adjacent property is yet to be determined but expect the Blue Jays to pull off a smaller-scale renovation of the dome in the interim.

A detailed plan, likely to include a redesign of the lower bowl, is in the works, a step to help increase revenues while a bigger project that would include a new stadium and some sports-anchored real estate development, as first reported by Andrew Willis of The Globe and Mail last year, is mapped out.

Such an endeavour would require years of planning to simply sort through the multiple layers of government with a stake in the land, and perhaps need 8-10 years to complete. The pandemic paused initial studies and a lobbyist registry with the City of Toronto tied to the project that included senior officials from both the Blue Jays and team owner Rogers Communications, Inc., chair Edward Rogers among them, is currently closed. The city has a leasehold interest in the site, while the dome itself is on Canada Lands Company property that is zoned exclusively for a stadium.

Back in October, team president and CEO Mark Shapiro revealed that the dome will have a new scoreboard in place for next year but added that “the biggest capital project that’s left for the Blue Jays to consider is how do we either address Rogers Centre through a significant renovation or a new stadium at some point.”

“That’s not immediate,” he added, “but it’s one when you think about the long-term horizon of the Blue Jays, we’re going to need to address that at some point.”

That point may come sooner rather than later.

The Carlos Baerga Post and Freddie Freeman

Remember this?

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Carlos Baerga (@carlosbaerga09)

Carlos Baerga suggesting just before the lockout that the Blue Jays could sign Freddie Freeman sure caused a stir, never mind that his claim that they had never had a Canadian all-star was off the mark (respect Russell Martin in 2015 and Michael Saunders in 2016).

Freeman, obviously, didn’t sign before the shutdown and his fate won’t be decided until there’s a new CBA, and the expectation remains that he ends up back in Atlanta. But, the Blue Jays did meet with his representatives prior to the lockout and as they do on virtually every player who fits a need, checked on the first baseman.

While positionally he isn’t ideal, Freeman certainly hits every other mark the Blue Jays are looking for, especially as an elite left-handed hitter to help balance out a predominantly right-handed lineup.

Still, had there been meaningful talks, the Blue Jays would surely have raised the possibility with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the club’s current MVP finalist first baseman whom Baerga suggested would move to third. According to one industry source, no conversation about a position change happened, which suggests the Freeman inquiry was, to this point, tire-kicking and nothing more.

Still, their look at him is once again reflective of how the Blue Jays approach their off-season, gathering information on any and all players of interest before pursuing what they believe are their best options.

That Freeman is a part of their script, then, shouldn’t be a surprise (the same applies to Corey Seager, who obviously was an ideal target for them, but also an unrealistic one with shortstop occupied by Bo Bichette). On the other hand, if the star first baseman becomes a significant part of the Blue Jays’ script coming out of the lockout, it very much would be.

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