Trying to separate fact from fiction in Blue Jays’ off-season pursuits

Joon Lee joins Ken Reid to discuss the rumours surrounding the MLB, including the Bo Bichette trade talks, plus the realistic destinations for big names such as Matt Chapman, Juan Soto, and Shohei Ohtani.

TORONTO — These are days of fiction as much as fact in baseball’s off-season, when the majority of names remain in play, the action is still to come, and the possibilities, ranging from real to imagined, can easily be talked into plausibility, if not reality.

Hence, be careful of what emerges from the spin cycle of whispers, speculation and innuendo-content aggregation that so prominently features the Toronto Blue Jays who, in part by design, are all things to all people early every winter.

You name it, they’re linked to it.

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins deftly dropped some clues while maintaining the haze Tuesday during a meeting with the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s Toronto’s chapter, leaving space for continued speculation about Shohei Ohtani, plus anything else one might conjure up.

He did douse the blown-out-of-proportion Bo Bichette trade chatter – “He is our shortstop moving forward,” he said – reinforced the notion that Alek Manoah isn’t going anywhere and played down the possibility of established pitching adds, suggesting the Blue Jays would have to subtract from their current group to make that happen.

Still, their attack plan with the winter meetings set for Nashville next week remains largely obscured, which is why it’s best to run his comments through an Atkins-to-English dictionary and combine that with what I’ve heard from other industry sources.

COMMENT“Look, the easy answer is both and that’s the honest answer. We have such an important window that we want to lean into, that we’re spending a lot of time on the urgency of that roster construction, to complement it the best way. But we cannot lose sight of the future. So this very good team that we want to lean into, we need to lean into any possible way. And if that means trading for a player that only has one year of control or signing a player to a one-year deal, as you’ve seen we’ve done, we are absolutely open to that. But we’re also willing to get into lengthier deals and trade for players with significant years of club control and that is pricey. We’re in a position where we’re able to do both, fortunately.”

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TRANSLATION: The countdown on the core is the prime current issue for the franchise and this was Atkins’ reply when asked if the Blue Jays were prioritizing players that extend their current competitive window or shorter-term adds that leverage the current group. Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., their two most important position players, along with Cavan Biggio, Jordan Romano, Chris Bassitt, Chad Green and Erik Swanson are two years away from free agency. Danny Jansen, Yusei Kikuchi and Yimi Garcia hit the market next fall, when realistically a decision on which way the franchise is headed will have to be made.

Factor in that the Blue Jays are currently seeking five-year commitments from buyers of their new premium seating – at tens of thousands of dollars per seat, with a two-per-cent bump annually – and there’s a lot riding on who they add in the coming weeks.

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After all, the Blue Jays not only need to entice people to ante up for next summer, but for the four summers beyond that, too.

That’s a difficult needle to thread and why pursuing Ohtani, the sport’s most intriguing player, makes sense. The confluence of those factors makes them need him as much or more than anyone else. They’re certainly engaging with him, but are they in it to win it?

COMMENT“Mark (Shapiro, the team president and CEO) has done an incredible job of working with ownership to ensure that we are nimble and it has only increased our agility, our ability to present opportunities. And we’ve always had a great deal of support. So what I can tell you is that we are in position to present those opportunities and always have the access and (ownership’s) authentic interest to listen and hear. And we go from there.”

TRANSLATION: This isn’t a direct regurgitation of Atkins’ past replies to financial queries, but it’s definitely along the same lines. Notable, however, is his inclusion of the term nimble and suggestion that the team has earned more rope from owner Rogers Communications Inc., which also owns this website, in what it can send up the ladder.

Why do those variations in corporate verbiage matter? Because a pursuit of Ohtani will require agility given how any contract widely expected to be the richest in baseball history ultimately gets done at the ownership level. The first step for Atkins and Co., however, is to get the Blue Jays into Ohtani’s process. As I wrote Oct. 7,  the industry chatter I was hearing suggested Ohtani wouldn’t rule out East Coast teams this time, had noticed the resources for Blue Jays players and was intrigued by the idea of adding Canada to his marketing portfolio. My guess is that he gives them a look this time, unlike when he first came over from Japan and signed with the Los Angeles Angels. How real it gets from there is guesswork.

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COMMENT“We have an incredible opportunity here. The city, the country, the support of ownership, the winning environment, the renovations that have occurred, the buy-in on so many levels for us to continue to build upon something that is very strong. That has been very attractive over the last several years. And we expect it to be. On the creative front, I would say similar things. We have incredible opportunities with the economy and the diversity and the strength of this city that is celebrated by a country. That is something that we lean into and always think creatively about making others aware of.”

“All cities, all markets have different challenges. I think that the Toronto Blue Jays have more opportunities and more strengths than challenges, for the reasons that I mentioned. Having said that, we’ve missed out on players. We’ve come in second, we’ve come in fifth, we’ve come in between. And sometimes we haven’t been heavily in or heavily considered. I don’t think that has been for reasons that we can control. I think it is in large part over the last several years been for very personal reasons if we’ve missed out, but because of the support we have from ownership, this absolutely incredible city and market and fan-base, a winning environment, a winning team, the best resources in baseball in Dunedin, about to be the best resources in baseball in Toronto for a player to improve and grow, this is an attractive destination that we are trying to celebrate, as opposed to overcome.”

TRANSLATION: Again, these aren’t atypical of Atkins’ past marketing pitches, but remember that when an executive speaks, he’s trying to land different messages to different audiences. These two replies, to questions about how the Blue Jays pitch players and comparing the recruitment process now versus before they signed Hyun Jin Ryu, are clearly aimed at both prospective free agents and enduring fan angst about Toronto as a baseball destination. Let’s focus on the former and what’s intriguing is how many different areas Atkins covers. Cody Bellinger, the top position player free agent after Ohtani, would have heard much of this last year, when the Blue Jays pursued him before signing Kevin Kiermaier.

One of the challenges in pursuing Ohtani is that due to his private nature, nobody outside the superstar and his reps truly knows what will tip the scales. Atkins pointing to the club’s baseball resources and a winning environment is a nod to what lacked with the Angels, but there was also a number of other elements that may appeal to him as well. Those pitches play across the market, of course, with an acknowledgement that sometimes players simply want to go somewhere else, no matter what.

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COMMENT: “The most obvious areas are the areas that the players have left, but actually not quite as obvious because we feel very good about (Daulton) Varsho playing centre field. With that, that points to left field and with Matt Chapman not under contract with us, it points to third base. But the depth that we have, not only on the 26-man, but on our 40-man and even beyond our 40 man, at the second, left field, third base position, middle of the diamond as well, gives us versatility and the options to not just zero in on left field and third base if we don’t have to.”

TRANSLATION: This is relatively straightforward but it’s interesting to hear how the Blue Jays are looking at replenishing their position-player group. They have room for a DH-only type and have precisely the type of opportunity that would make sense for Rhys Hoskins on a pillow deal, but they’ve been creative in thinking of how to cover for Kiermaier and Chapman, should they depart. While they have explored the centre-field market, they have plenty more options in left, but at third base, the market shrinks. They remain engaged to some extent on Jeimer Candelario and have looked into other options, the versatile Isiah Kiner-Falefa, among them.

The Blue Jays pursued Kiner-Falefa before landing Paul DeJong prior to the trade deadline last summer and he could be part of a job-share at the hot corner. Of note is that Seattle netted a minimal return from Arizona for Eugenio Suarez, who in theory made some sense for the Blue Jays. Cleary they feel they can do better at both third and with the roughly $13 million the 32-year-old is guaranteed in 2024 and a 2025 buyout.

COMMENT“Really, really good. The wide divergence has been one year – less than a year. So I feel confident about him being a large part of our success next year, a significant piece in the rotation and I know Alek isn’t thinking about winning the fifth spot. He’s thinking about excellence. He’s thinking about being one of the better starters in the game. And we believe that he can build back towards that. It’s not a light switch, it’s not something that happens overnight. But the work that he’s doing currently and that we’re confident he’s going to do over this off-season gives us a great deal of confidence that he’s going to be a significant piece for us.”

TRANSLATION: That’s Atkins on Manoah and how to project the right-hander next year and before we delve into that, something to keep in mind. Colleague Ben Nicholson-Smith wrote a really smart piece during the GM Meetings earlier this month looking at how many players a team might realistically discuss during an off-season. Hundreds of players, the vast majority of whom aren’t going anywhere, get kicked around to some extent every winter. And execs hunt buy-low opportunities like vultures.

Use that lens to evaluate trade chatter. On Manoah, the description I’ve heard is that the Blue Jays are telling other teams to value him like the 2022 Cy Young Award finalist rather than the 2023 version who struggled badly and was twice optioned. In other words, buy-low shoppers should look elsewhere, especially in a market with so many teams in need of pitching. That doesn’t guarantee the Blue Jays keep him, but they’re not trading him just to trade him.

COMMENT: “We’re in a position now where it might be best to subtract unless that acquisition was an optionable starter that hasn’t already clearly earned his stripes to be a major-league starter. So we’re open to it, but it’s not as as easy to do as it is on the position-player side.”

“Excited about Mitch White. I know he had a very bumpy year. He is off to an incredible start this off-season, finished very strongly for us in triple-A. He could be someone that fills that role. Wes Parsons, I know his major-league Toronto Blue Jays debut didn’t go exceptionally well, but some of the trends that we’ve seen, his trajectory is someone that we’re excited about. Obviously, Bowden Francis, obviously Ricky Tiedemann are pieces of the equation that are already here. And then we have the five starters beyond that, eight really, really solid relievers with guys that aren’t in that eight that have already had major-league success on our triple-A team. So if you’re adding, where is the subtraction and the flexibility of having guys with options needs to be factored in. So if you just work through our 13-man pitching staff right now and look at who has options, who actually would be optioned, it starts to become a challenge, which is a very good starting point. That’s a challenge you want.

TRANSLATION: The Blue Jays aren’t ignoring the pitching market, but it’s not really focal point for them, as their pitching staff is essentially locked in. White, who is out of options, will get every chance to make the team in spring training as a long-relief/swingman role, with Francis and Parsons, who both have an option remaining, depth behind him if needed. Relief depth exists in Nate Pearson, Zach Pop, Hagen Danner, Yosver Zulueta and Brendon Little, while Tiedemann looms as a rotation option at some point.

A potential wild-card is Yoshinobu Yamamoto. The Blue Jays did plenty of work on him. Atkins went over to Japan to see him in person multiple times. He may be the most widely sought after free agent this winter. If the Blue Jays can’t find the offensive impact they want in free agency and trade, they could try going all out for him and then use pitching surplus to gain a bat.

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