SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — A pair of Japanese imports are ready to test their skills in the major leagues, and they just happen to come with resumes that match up with exactly what the Toronto Blue Jays need.
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo is a left-handed hitting power hitter who can play first base. That’s without a doubt an item on GM Ross Atkins’ shopping list.
There’s another gaping hole in centre field, and that’s the spot Shogo Akiyama has patrolled for nine seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball with the Seibu Lions.
Both are intriguing options, and they’re expected to generate a whole lot of interest from major-league clubs.
There will be competition, but Atkins is interested and the front office has done their homework on the pair, as well as light-hitting infielder Ryosuke Kikuchi.
“Interesting talents that we’ve spent a lot of time on,” Atkins stated. “(Director of pro scouting) Ryan Mittleman has done a great job and (vice-president of international scouting) Andrew Tinnish has spent time on them, as well. We’ll continue to engage with their representatives and understand if they are potential fits or not. Both ways.”
Positionally, they both fit.
Budget-wise, they all should fit, as well, with none of the trio expected to break the bank.
Tsutsugo, who has mostly played corner outfield while also dabbling at first base and third base over parts of 10 seasons in Japan, will be the most expensive since he’ll have to be posted by the Yokohama DeNA BayStars by Dec. 5, meaning an MLB club will have to pay the release fee as well as the contract.
In addition to a touch of positional versatility — the prevailing thought, however, is that Tsutsugo will be below average no matter where he plays — there’s a lot of power in the bat and his ability to get on base (.382 carer on-base percentage) is especially intriguing for a Blue Jays club looking to improve its approach throughout the lineup.
He also fits in nicely with the young core at the age of 28.
“He’s an impressive hitter,” Atkins said. “A lot of fun to watch and an exciting talent. He’s an interesting player, for sure.”
Kikuchi is in the same boat, as the 5-foot-7, 152-pound second baseman is expected to be posted shortly by the Hiroshima Carp.
A top-notch glove, Kikuchi’s .261/.313/.406 slash line in his age-29 season this past year leaves a lot to be desired and he seems destined for a utility role, which isn’t necessarily a need for the Blue Jays.
Akiyama, on the other hand, is eligible for straight up free agency as a 31-year-old, and comes with an interesting blend of pop, speed and defence, slashing .303/.392/.471 with 55 extra-base hits and 12 stolen bases this season.
The markets for all three players could take a while to develop, and that might be exactly what Atkins is hoping for, as the 46-year-old general manager has clearly stated his preference is to take care of the rotation before moving on to position players and bullpen help.
“The more we talk about our strategy publicly, the worse it is for our strategy or our ability to execute it,” Atkins said Wednesday at the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia. “I think the good thing about our situation right is the flexibility we do have to be agile.”
Despite some believing teams will try to get out ahead of things and set the market in certain areas, this off-season seems to be shaping up similarly to the past couple of years as teams are content to investigate trades and wait out free agents.
“It’s hard to say,” Atkins said. “I think if I had to pick one of two it’s probably closer to the last few years that we’ve seen. A lot of teams are focused on trades because of how many GMs are in this room over this week and there are a very large number of agents here, as well, but not to the same level of the winter meetings. I think there’s some pattern to it, but that also creates opportunity to think about creative ways to potentially find value in different ways.”
ROLES STILL BEING DEFINED
Versatility is en vogue in today’s game, and the Blue Jays have one player that will allow them to do different things in free agency if they wish.
That’s Cavan Biggio.
When he arrived in the big leagues in May, the Jays tried to make things simple for the 24-year-old by keeping him at second base as much as possible.
Biggio held his own at the keystone, posting a minus-1 Defensive Runs Saved mark in 84 starts.
Generally seen as a potential super-utility type while coming through the system, he’s made a case to be the everyday guy at second base, rather than bouncing around.
But his ability to play the outfield and first base gives Atkins some flexibility and the option to add a second baseman and shift Biggio around.
“He’s proven to us that he can be an everyday second baseman,” Atkins said. “Nothing’s ever done, etched in stone, he’s got a career ahead of him and a lot of things could transpire, but we’re confident in saying we feel he has the ability to do that. He also is extremely confident in playing other positions and going into the outfield. That just gives us more opportunity.”
Atkins also mentioned outfielder Teoscar Hernandez could potentially work at first base this winter, and stated the club hasn’t ruled out left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. returning to the infield from time to time.
The GM also noted shortstop Bo Bichette, who cleared concussion protocol on the final day of the season back in September, and Gurriel, who had his appendix removed, are both 100 per cent and working out fully this off-season.
BULLPEN DEPTH NEEDED
Bullpens are always in flux and the Blue Jays’ relief corps is no different.
With teams focusing on starting pitching, there hasn’t been much Ken Giles trade talk at the GM meetings in Scottsdale, and a trade does not seem imminent.
The Blue Jays would be completely comfortable going into the season with Giles as their closer once again, giving them a shutdown arm at the back end of the bullpen.
Aside from Giles, right-handers Sam Gaviglio, Anthony Bass, Wilmer Font and Derek Law, Justin Shafer and Jordan Romano are all on the 40-man roster, but more proven depth will be needed.
“We’re going to need to add there,” Atkins said. “What we do feel good about is the depth of our 40-man roster, the number of guys that could potentially help our major-league team that will potentially be in Triple-A. We feel like we have a number of guys that will stabilize our bullpen a bit, but we’ll be looking to increase that level of execution with higher-leverage arms that have experience doing that. The starting pitching acquisitions that we, hopefully, make will have some impact on that at the same time.”
With Tim Mayza (elbow) out for the entire 2020 season, there could be a need for a left-hander, but Atkins doesn’t believe it’s a priority since you can find right-handers who can get lefties out.
“We haven’t been big on situational left-handed relievers,” Atkins said. “We like guys that can get multiple outs and we’ve, for the most part, deployed even our left-handed relievers that way. I think the industry, really, is using the situational reliever less and less.”
CATCHERS DRAWING INTEREST
One area of depth at both the major-league level and within the system for the Blue Jays is behind the plate.
Rival teams seem to realize that, as well, and Atkins has been fielding calls on Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire, while also hoarding prospects Riley Adams, Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno in the minors.
That depth could be used to add a starter in a trade at some point this winter.
“Yeah, we do feel that we do have some depth and other teams have let us know that by talking to us about those areas, our outfield as well,” Atkins said. “It could be an area that creates opportunities for us.”
Gurriel and, to a lesser extent, Hernandez would be the outfielders Atkins is talking about.
Other than that, there isn’t much outfield depth to speak of, but there’s an abundance of corner outfielders on the free-agent market that could be intriguing if Atkins deals one away.
MONTOYO MAKES A VISIT
With his first year as a big-league manager in the books, Charlie Montoyo showed up at the GM meetings on Tuesday, making the two-hour drive from his home in Tucson.
There was no real reason for the visit, other than to listen in on some conversations, provide input, and have a presence.
“A big factor is we want to spend as much time as we can together, and we’re a team,” Atkins said. “Any opportunities that we have to do that, we will, and him living in Tucson made that a bit easier. I think there’s a couple of other managers that are here, actually. But we’re doing this together. That’s the biggest reason.”
Much more at ease in his role now, Montoyo is confident the front office will be busy this off-season.
“Talking to agents, talking to players,” Montoyo said of what he’s been doing. “We met with players (Tuesday). We've been really aggressive talking to people, to teams, and that's been fun for me to see and I appreciate Ross wanting me to be part of this process.”
It wasn’t a shocking development to hear Montoyo say they’re prioritizing starting pitching and despite being a big supporter of the opener as a way of getting through a long season, watching the playoffs gave him a reminder of how important it is to have arms that can pitch deep into games.
“The teams that got the horses, the starters that can take you deep in games, they win in the playoffs most of the time — and that's what we saw,” Montoyo said. “The two teams that were in the World Series, they had those horses starting games and so they have a chance to win every game, every day. So that's what I saw. Something that you all know. At the end of the day, you need those guys to win games. The starters that take you deep in games.”