TORONTO — There was a time, not so long ago, that it would be hard to envision the Toronto Blue Jays as off-season heavyweights in the American League East.
Usually, the big splashes were reserved for the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, with the Jays just happy to pick through the leftovers, hoping to win 85 games and make a surprise run.
Not so much anymore.
For the second year in a row, general manager Ross Atkins and the Mark Shapiro-led front office have made a huge splash, one that will not only change the dynamic of the AL postseason race in 2021, but the way the franchise is viewed in the all-important lens that is the "power player" landscape.
They may not be the Evil Empire, but a strong player development system and a newfound ability to flex their financial muscle is both resonating with free agents and leaving the traditional AL East powerhouses with something to think about.
Thirteen months ago it was $80 million for Hyun-Jin Ryu.
Late Tuesday night, Atkins followed through on the front office’s promise to spend this winter by going the extra mile to secure the services of George Springer for the next six years, handing the 31-year-old centre fielder the biggest contract in franchise history at $25 million per year for a total of $150 million.
Anyone still doubting whether the Shapiro regime will spend Rogers’ money to win ballgames has all the proof they need, and there’s expected to be another payroll level coming next winter as the Jays are, philosophically, a year behind the Chicago White Sox and San Diego Padres’ all-in efforts this winter.
"A part of (last year’s) plan was this off-season and nothing has changed about that plan and our ability to make this team better, even with going through the pandemic," Atkins said at the outset of the off-season. "We obviously realize that the best way to recovery and getting back to full steam is winning. We are united on that front."
The contention window is fully open and the Jays are expected to pour significant resources into building a winner around the young, cheap core of Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio.
Springer fits perfectly into that puzzle.
As far back as a year ago, it was obvious centre field was not only a hole on the big-league roster, but within the organization, and they’d likely be on the hunt for an outside solution.
Springer, who the Astros took 11th overall in 2011, has a seven-season history of consistent production — trash cans or no trash cans — and can get on base at an above average clip, something the Jays front office has coveted.
The blueprint they used to lure Springer was the exact same as Ryu: Add an extra year at market value and force the player to say no to more money and term than he’d find anywhere else.
As usual, that didn’t happen.
With a career .270/.361/.491 slash line, 174 career homers and centre field defence that has graded out as above average in three of the past four seasons (per Defensive Runs Saved), Springer simply helps round out what could be one of the most potent lineups in the American League.
In 2020, the Jays already finished eighth in baseball in runs scored, crossing the plate 4.9 times per game.
Insert Springer’s power and his 11.1 per cent career walk rate into the middle of that lineup — or at the very top because he’s spent the majority of his Astros career leading off — and it suddenly becomes even more of a problem and a top five offence in baseball is not out of the question.
An outfield of Teoscar Hernandez, Springer and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. would give the Jays the Nos. 12, 13 and 15 outfielders in baseball if ordered by wRC+ at 146, 146 and 138, respectively.
If you’re not familiar with that stat, just know that 100 is a league average offensive output, so the Jays would have some serious outfield pop and production on their hands.
The odd man out would clearly seem to be Randal Grichuk, but there are ways to find him at-bats as a fourth outfielder if that’s what it comes to.
The more likely scenario now is that one of Gurriel or Hernandez is used as trade bait to upgrade a rotation that’s currently Ryu, maybe Nate Pearson for a innings-capped half-season, and then a grab bag of Robbie Ray, Ross Stripling, Tanner Roark and unprovens.
The lineup is postseason calibre, but the rotation decidedly is not.
Overall, however, the talent accumulated by the Jays through various means over the last few years now looks like a carefully manicured plan that has left them in an enviable position.
"We feel that we’re on a good path towards having one of the stronger rosters in baseball," Atkins said. "We’re not there yet, but we’ve made some steps towards that."
And with pitchers and catchers scheduled to report next month around Feb. 18, the Jays aren’t done, either.
Impact in the rotation, more bullpen depth, and a versatile infielder who can handle second base, third base or both are all still on the shopping list.
But no matter who they end up with from here, patience has paid off for the Blue Jays and for the second straight winter they were able to close on a marquee free agent target.