Can Blue Jays bag big game at winter meetings? Time will tell
NASHVILLE — It has the potential to be a franchise-changing time for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Or it could simply be another ho-hum winter meetings, where talk tends to outweigh tangible transactions.
That will happen on occasion, and it’s important to remember two things: The first is it takes two to tango when it comes to free agency, and the second is that trades can come together or fall apart forever in one phone call.
A desire to make big splashes and actually doing it are two very different things, and each year multiple teams walk away from MLB’s annual winter meetings in disappointment, failing to execute the plans they’ve spent two months putting in place.
Will that be GM Ross Atkins and the Blue Jays front office group when things wrap up at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville later this week?
The next 96 hours or so will tell that story, but there’s no doubt the Jays are big game hunting and dreaming of bagging a unicorn in Shohei Ohtani.
The chase is very real, and the pitch revolves around winning a ring and the multi-cultural city that Ohtani has enjoyed over his six seasons when the Los Angeles Angels came through town.
Money will have something to do with it, too, but the 29-year-old phenom has already proven that his bank account is well down the list of priorities when he came to the U.S. as an amateur free agent rather than wait in order to strike it rich way back in the winter of 2017.
It’s an overused term, but it’s perfect for this team, in this situation after two straight years of postseason disappointment: The Jays are all-in on 2024.
“We have such an important window that we want to lean into that and we’re spending a lot of time on the urgency of that roster construction to complement it the best way we see fit (for this season), but we cannot lose sight of the future,” Atkins said leading into the winter meetings. “This very good team that we want to lean into, we want to lean into any possible way. 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’re 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.”
Realistically, that comment boils down to two players — Ohtani, and the prize of the trade market, Juan Soto.
On the flip side of that coin, it’s a team ready to win and if a Soto trade puts them over the top for one lone season, that’s where the franchise sits and they’re willing to mortgage a bit of the future to get over a hump that could feel like a mountain this time next year.
A pandemic followed by large-scale renovations to Rogers Centre each of the last two off-seasons hasn’t affected what Atkins & Co. can spend on the roster, and it’s expected the Jays will cross the luxury tax threshold once again in 2024 after wading into those waters for the first time ever as a franchise last season.
“What I can tell you is we’re in position to present those opportunities and always have the access and authentic interest (from ownership) to listen and hear and we go from there,” Atkins relayed.
“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 and that has been very attractive over the last several years and we expect it to be. On the creative front, we have incredible opportunities with the economy and diversity and the strength of this city that is celebrated by a country so that is something we lean into and make (free agents) aware of.”
If the Jays end up as bridesmaids for Ohtani — and they’re not considered the favourites at this point, with a decision expected within the week — it will likely have come down to a very personal decision of where he wants to play baseball.
“All cities, all markets have different challenges,” Atkins said. "I think that the Toronto Blue Jays have more opportunities, more strengths than challenges. Having said that, we’ve missed out on players. We’ve come in second, we’ve come in fifth, we’ve come in in between and sometimes we haven’t been 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 have missed out.”
And if he ultimately chooses Toronto, there will be no other way to describe it other than a franchise-altering day, even if the inevitable opt-outs are expected to provide some long-term uncertainty.
As the Ohtani chase enters the back stretch, here are five pertinent questions facing the Blue Jays front office group as the winter meetings get underway in Nashville.
Will the Jays be able to convince Ohtani to come to Toronto?
Shohei Ohtani Los Angeles Angels
It’s the question all 30 teams were asking themselves a couple months ago and the fact the Jays are in the mix with only a small group of teams left says a lot about how players around the league view this club’s ability to win over the next couple of years.
Ohtani’s presence has slowed down the market considerably already, so many teams are eager for a decision.
“Every year there are one to five players that the impact is so significant that it impacts the way the market moves,” Atkins mentioned. “Separating out from a marquee player this year and just pulling back and how that influences things, it’s certainly a factor this year specifically. Things are moving a little bit slower.”
You don’t need me to tell you that Ohtani’s 40-plus homers would fit perfectly in the No. 2 or No. 3 hole, sandwiched in between Bo and Vladdy.
It’s just unfortunate that he can’t pitch in 2024.
If it’s not Ohtani, how do the Jays pivot and still make a big splash?
Juan Soto San Diego Padres
Looking for impact bats, the obvious pivot from Ohtani is straight to Soto, but the San Diego Padres are asking for a king’s ransom for the elite left-handed hitter.
The catch with Soto is that he’s a free agent at the end of 2024 and it doesn’t really make sense for him to sign for a discount long-term with the open market less than a year away.
Like Ohtani, Soto fits perfectly in the Jays lineup.
The question, however, is what they’d have to give up. So far, the New York Yankees are already balking at the hefty asking price.
“It really just comes down to the impact,” Atkins said when asked if he’s open to trading for rental types. "There’s no aversion to that for us. We have a very good team and we have to open to those types of acquisitions.”
Who are the best trade chips the Jays have to peddle?
Orelvis Martinez Toronto Blue Jays
It started at the 2020 trade deadline in the shortened season and really ramped up at the 2021 trade deadline when they acquired Jose Berrios, but the Jays farm system has been used in a different way the past couple of years.
While Davis Schneider was a blessing that popped up to help last summer, it’s now a middling farm system at best with one clear blue-chip talent in left-hander Ricky Tiedemann.
It doesn’t seem smart to consider trading their best shot at developing a top-of-the-rotation arm, but flags fly forever and it’s a gamble they might have to at least weigh.
Atkins is confident there’s more than enough in the system to make a big trade if he wants to.
“We have the inventory to make a significant trade, there’s no doubt about it,” Atkins said. "Our farm system has taken hits over the last three years as we’ve been aggressively trading for players, but we are still in a position to add an impact player via trade.”
After eyeing the package the Padres are asking for in exchange for Soto, it’s going to be very interesting to see how the Jays can engineer that type of trade with far less chips than some of their rivals.
How about those Bo Bichette trade rumours?
Bo Bichette Toronto Blue Jays
Atkins did his best on the record to shoot down rumours of Bichette being shopped, but a number of outsiders say that was definitely the case early in the off-season.
Even Atkins mentioned the fact that the lack of elite position players in free agency may have made Bichette even more attractive to teams this winter.
With all that said, two more years of Bichette is almost impossible to replace and it sounds like the due diligence has gone nowhere up to this point.
“He’s a really good player in a market that doesn’t have a great deal of position players,” Atkins said of Bichette. “We are very fortunate to have him and he is our shortstop moving forward. That happens, rumours, speculation and there’s usually something to speculative reporting or even just rumours that start. In our case, what I can tell you is that Bo Bichette is our shortstop moving forward.”
What holes need to be filled this month and which ones can wait until mid-winter and beyond?
Ross Atkins Blue Jays
The hunt is on for bats, and impact ones are the early priority.
Left field, third base, second base and DH are the four spots the Jays could add in various ways.
But as always, there are opportunities and alternatives at each spot.
“The most obvious areas are the areas where players have left,” Atkins said. “Actually, maybe not quite as obvious because we feel very good about Daulton Varsho playing centre field, but with that it points to left field and with Matt Chapman not under contract with us that points to third base. But the depth we have on the 26-man and the 40-man and even beyond the 40-man at second, left field, third base positions and 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.”
On the pitching side, there’s much less to worry about and Atkins will likely allow that market to play out and then look for some depth bargains down the road this winter.
A fifth starter and some overall depth will be needed.
“We’re not just going to ignore a portion of the market and not do the work on starting pitching, but we’re in a position now where it might be best to subtract unless that acquisition was an optional starter who clearly hasn’t already earned his stripes to be a major-league starter,” Atkins said.