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Jays’ front office must quickly pivot to Plan B and beyond

Ross Atkins Mark Shapiro Toronto Blue Jays Ross Atkins Mark Shapiro - Getty Images

Shohei Ohtani is taking his talents to the Los Angeles Dodgers. There’s no question that it’s a difficult outcome for the Blue Jays organization and their fans.

What a gut punch, especially after Friday’s rumours about a private jet heading to Toronto from Anaheim and restaurant reservations being made in Yusei Kikuchi’s name. All that chaotic speculation built fan expectations to bat-flip levels, which made Saturday’s news even more painful. 

Despite losing out to the Dodgers, Jays fans should feel good that they were in the battle to acquire the game’s best player and considered extending him a historic contract. There is no shame in coming in second in this pursuit. Plus, it points to a commitment from the organization to winning and a willingness to spend.

It will take a while for the fans to recover, but the Jays’ front office staff doesn’t have the luxury of taking time to lick their wounds. It is time to pivot to Plan B, C, D, E and F. There is a lot of work to be done.

General manager Ross Atkins has been having parallel negotiations with clubs and agents while courting Ohtani. He knew that getting the two-way superstar was a bit of a longshot, but well worth a try. 

Atkins can’t let himself get caught up in the emotions of the loss in the Ohtani pursuit. He has to remain disciplined to his plan. Chasing fan approval will lead to making bad personnel decisions or bad deals. He can’t appear, sound, or act desperate because he will be manipulated by other general managers or agents.

Toronto’s Plan B after Ohtani was Padres outfielder Juan Soto, but he came off the board last Thursday when he was traded to the New York Yankees. This is what can happen when teams are involved in a pursuit of their top choice.  Sometimes, Plan B comes off the board while you are waiting for Plan A to make a decision. 

In fact, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman did a masterful job getting San Diego to make the deal before Ohtani made his decision. Cashman knew that the Jays, Giants, and Cubs would all pivot to Soto if they didn’t land Ohtani. So, now it’s on to Plan C for the Jays.

Free-agent outfielder Cody Bellinger is an obvious option. He isn’t Ohtani, but he is an athletic centre fielder and first baseman who had a bounce-back season in 2023 and was recognized as the NL Comeback Player of the Year. He would make the Jays exceptional defensively and add a potential big bat in the lineup.

Another possibility is Korean outfielder Jung Hoo Lee. He is just 25 and a fleet-footed contact hitter. He rarely strikes out while still earning walks. In 2022 he hit .349/.421/.575 for the Kiwoom Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization, and followed that up in 2023 by slashing .318/.406/.455 over 86 games before an ankle injury ended his season. He hits from the left side and will be a nice addition to a major-league team. Both of these players are options for the Giants, Cubs, and Mariners as well.

The Jays need to also address third base. Davis Schneider and Cavan Biggio are internal options, but I prefer both of them as utilitymen. Matt Chapman is known to the Jays, and he is certainly still an option. He can really play defence and he is a better hitter than what he produced last season. The Giants are also very interested in Chapman as he played across the bay in Oakland previously and his former manager in Oakland, Bob Melvin, is now at the helm in San Francisco.

I would consider infielder Justin Turner, 39, on a one-year deal.  He is a professional veteran hitter and leader. He could play some third base, first base, and DH for the Jays. His versatility would fit nicely with Schneider and Biggio, giving Jays’ manager John Schneider solid options for matching up with opponents.

There have been reports that the Tampa Bay Rays would consider trading third baseman Isaac Paredes, who hit 31 homers with an .840 OPS in 2023. It isn’t clear whether the Rays would want to trade within the division, but it is worth a call.

The Jays need to replace Brandon Belt as the DH if he isn’t an option to return. Toronto had to hold off on negotiating with Belt because the DH role would have been filled by Ohtani if he had signed in Toronto. If Belt isn’t coming back, J.D. Martinez, who just lost his spot as the DH in L.A. to Ohtani, could be a target. Martinez had a huge bounce-back season with 33 home runs and 103 RBI in just 113 games. 

Former Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins is coming off a torn ACL, but I don’t have any concerns that he will return to form and could DH for the Jays. In fact, because of the injury he will come cheaper in both dollars and term. Former Astros outfielder/DH Michael Brantley (36) has been a consideration in the past and would be a nice fit as well.

There are still plenty of options available to the Jays. They can sign Bellinger or Lee, Turner or Martinez, or Hoskins or Brantley for less than $60 million per year. These players would add maturity, athleticism, and professionalism, which is what the Jays need. 


Other Ohtani thoughts

I know losing out on Ohtani is devastating to many fans, but let me see if I can ease that: I would not have pursued Ohtani at all if I was a general manager. I wouldn’t have made a deal at $500 million, let alone $700 million. The risk is far too great.

Ohtani the hitter is one of the best players in the game, but his value is diminished a bit by being a DH and not playing in the field.

Ohtani the pitcher is so unpredictable. Sure, when he has pitched, he has been amazing, even dominating, at times. But he has now had two Tommy John surgeries. He has been the most-protected pitcher in baseball. The Angels had to utilize a six-man rotation because of him. He was pitching once a week, and he still broke down. If his body couldn’t handle pitching in a six-man rotation, what is a team to do? Go to a seven-man rotation?  That is not practical. Plus, managing Ohtani that way means that the whole rotation has to buy in and adjust. Most pitchers repel at the notion of that much rest between starts.

Plus, Ohtani’s body was rejecting the two-way player structure this past August. He dealt with cramping in his side, hands, forearm and legs. Then his elbow blew out again. I have real fear about whether he will be able to pitch the last five years of the deal.

It’s also very difficult to put together a competitive roster with one player making such a high percentage of the payroll budget. It is unclear if the Jays would have separated his salary out of the normal budget. If not, then the club would have to thread the needle to mix young players with veterans within a reasonable budget around his astronomical salary to remain competitive.

I still believe 2024 will be a very good season for Toronto – even without Ohtani.