With market poised to shift, Blue Jays ready to move

Ross Atkins, Toronto Blue Jays general manager, speaks to the media at the year end press conference. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – For now, it’s all still in play. Nearly four weeks into the MLB off-season, all of the elite free agents are available, most mid-tier players remain unsigned and the biggest trade chips can still be had.

That doesn’t mean baseball operations departments around the game have been idle – far from it. But the work they’ve done so far is designed to pay off later, maybe as soon as next week, when baseball’s biggest off-season gathering resumes in-person for the first time since 2019.

“I would expect that there will be some news coming out of the Winter Meetings,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins told the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America Wednesday.

“Having said that, there is no deadline (next) Thursday and I think 10, 15 years ago there was a little bit more of a (self-imposed) deadline. Even maybe five years ago … it doesn’t feel like something needs to get done by Thursday. But I would expect across the industry there will be some significant moves.”

Aaron Judge to the Yankees? Trea Turner to the Phillies? Justin Verlander to the Dodgers? Any of those moves would have major implications across the industry, including in Toronto. And at some point, the Blue Jays will drive their share of the action, too.

Their needs are clear: add a starting pitcher, maybe two; add a position player, probably an outfielder and ideally one who bats left-handed or switch hits; weigh offers on their three young catchers; and remain open to further upgrades to a bullpen that’s already added Erik Swanson (if the Blue Jays add here, it would likely be a high-end option with a subsequent trade possible to free up space).

In other words, there’s a lot for the Blue Jays to consider. But if nothing else, they’re prepared to spend with Atkins saying the team’s in a great position” financially because of support from Rogers Communications Inc., which also owns Sportsnet.

While the Blue Jays are actively pursuing both trades and free-agent acquisitions, Atkins said there’s now “probably more” focus on free agency compared to trade talks. Of course one call can change that and there continues to be substantial interest in catchers Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno. On that front, the Blue Jays will have plenty of choices, and may be able to time things as they please.

Meanwhile, in free agency, players and agents can control the pace, which contributes to the slow-developing market so far.

“We’re just looking for good players,” Atkins said. “It’s not definitely a left-handed hitting right fielder to fill the role of Teoscar Hernandez. Would that work? Sure. Can we consider centre field as well? Sure. Can we think about it a completely different way, depending on the potential of trades? How do we think about run prevention? Is it just a starter? And then thinking about complementing the bullpen? Is it some other combination of run prevention? We have had a lot of dialogue about a lot of different permutations of how we can make our team better and see a lot of opportunities to do that and feel like our starting point is as good as any other teams in baseball.”

Granted, there’s still a lot of work ahead for a team whose splashiest off-season addition yet is bench coach Don Mattingly. In fact, the current edition of the Blue Jays is undeniably a lesser version of the team that finished the 2022 season, as Hernandez, Ross Stripling, Jackie Bradley Jr., Raimel Tapia and David Phelps have all departed. Many moves will be needed, and the same can be said for the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays.

At this point, being open-minded makes sense. Push for Verlander, as they did last winter. Explore the possibility of a deal with Cody Bellinger, who Mattingly knows from Los Angeles. Engage with Stripling and Andrew Heaney, with Brandon Nimmo and Kevin Kiermaier, with the Cardinals and the Guardians. See where it leads.

And sometime soon, it’ll be time to narrow the focus and shift from possibilities to concrete moves.

“We don’t have the full picture painted on exactly how to do A, B and C to make our team better,” Atkins said. “But we do have a very clear understanding of where we could take our next strategic step.”

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