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Shapiro: Jays had belief Ohtani signing 'could really happen'

Mark Shapiro Toronto Blue Jays Mark Shapiro - The Canadian Press

Toronto Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro told reporters Thursday he felt the team had a legitimate chance at landing superstar Shohei Ohtani before his decision to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers in December.

“As far as the excitement goes, there were moments, particularly when he was here in this facility, that you started to [believe that] ‘well, this kind of feels like it could really happen,’” Shapiro said. “Up until the last night … I never said this guy’s coming. I just don’t do that. It’s not my nature. A deal is not done until the deal is done.

“He knew neighbourhoods, he had spent time [there], he was thoughtful. He appreciated what was unique about Toronto, the same things that we all feel are unique,” Shapiro said.

“He appreciated the diversity, the international nature, the progressiveness. He appreciated the safety, some of the differentiation from big American cities.”

Ohtani visited the Jays’ spring training complex in the days before he made his decision, and a mix of reports and social media speculation had many thinking Toronto was the front-runner late in Ohtani’s free agent process clouded in secrecy. But after a private plane fans were tracking landed from L.A. without Ohtani on it, confusion ensued, and the two-way star ended up joining the Dodgers the following afternoon on Dec. 9.

While the Blue Jays did not land Ohtani and he ended up signing with the team many thought he would at the start of the off-season, Shapiro said being one of the finalists for the biggest free agent pursuit in the history of the sport proved top-flight players would consider signing in Toronto. 

“Nine years ago, I was told free agents wouldn’t sign here. You got to pay a premium,” Shapiro said. “It’s clearly not the case right now. I’m sure there are still some [who won’t sign in Toronto], but I think for me it was like, okay, that’s definitely not the case. We’re having a conversation with the most pre-eminent free agent in the history of modern baseball, and we are among the few teams he’s considering.”  

Ohtani’s 10-year, $700 million contract with the Dodgers includes $680 million in deferred payments. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported in December that the Jays were willing to match that figure and contract structure.

Shapiro said that after Ohtani was off the table, the team pivoted to believing in the core they’d already assembled.

“We’ve got a strong core in place, so we doubled down in the belief of our players. That’s the bottom line,” he said.

“Last year was an outlier and also bad luck,” he said. “It’s a belief in these players and also a belief that there are some core guys who are going to have much better years this year.”

 The Jays finished the off-season by signing a handful of veterans, including infielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa on a two-year, $15 million deal, first baseman Justin Turner on a one-year, $13 million contract and first baseman Joey Votto on a one-year, $2 million contract. The Jays also brought in Cuban right-hander Yariel Rodriguez on a five-year, $32 million pact.

“The core of this off-season, without a doubt, was built upon the belief in our players,” Shapiro said. “I do understand and sympathize that from maybe some media and from a fan perspective, core avid fan perspective, off-seasons are won or lost by sensationalism, by big names. 

“In my career, teams that win the off-season don’t often or sometimes don’t win the regular season. We just took the best strategy we could build based upon the players in place.”
Toronto opens the 2024 season next Thursday in Tampa against the Rays. They will play their first 10 games on the road before heading to Toronto for the home opener against the Seattle Mariners on April 8.