After an active off-season by Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro, it appears that the Toronto Blue Jays are heading in a positive direction, and some appreciation and apologies may be in order.
At the start at the off-season, I can honestly say that I did not have a lot of faith in the current Blue Jays front office when it came to improving the team via free agency.
I, like most of the Blue Jays fanbase, found the rebuilding process difficult to watch and felt that the team could have used a premium free agent here or there to improve the roster these past few seasons, only to be disappointed when the player signed elsewhere.
It didn’t matter to me if the front office had offered the most money or didn’t even offer a specific player a contract, the bottom line was that the talented free agents wouldn’t be playing in a Blue Jays uniform and some even went on to wreck havoc against them in the American League.
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It’s safe to say that this off-season, I was expecting the Blue Jays front office to follow the recent trend that I had been accustomed to seeing in previous off-seasons: trading for controllable young players and avoiding the big ticket free agents.
While Atkins and co. have signed players like Jaime Garcia and Kendrys Morales, as well as bullpen arms like Tyler Clippard and Joe Smith, I always wanted more and was almost expecting more when it came to the Toronto Blue Jays (it’s the greediness in me I suppose). There were big named free agents on the board every off-season, and I just felt like the Blue Jays counted themselves out and settled for less on basically all of them.
You can obviously argue that going after expensive players when the team is rebuilding or trying to shed payroll is a silly idea and a waste of time/money, but I would have liked to have seen what ‘could have been’ if the front office signed free agents like Patrick Corbin (2018) or J.D. Martinez (2017). These are just a small set of examples, feel free to google and change the names as you wish (I also liked Yu Darvish before he signed with the Cubs).
After the Blue Jays acquired pitcher Chase Anderson from the Milwaukee Brewers to kickstart the 2019 off-season, I honestly believed the front office was going to hit cruise control until the trucks showed up in Dunedin.
Maybe it was my lack of confidence in previous years, but I just kind of assumed that Atkins and Shapiro wouldn’t sign any high profile player this Winter. I thought the front office would probably ‘check in‘ on some of the bigger named free agents, sign a lower tier, 4-5 rotation spot starter who can carve out some innings, and finish off by inviting some players to spring training on minor league contracts.
I was wrong.
Boy, was I wrong.
The Blue Jays front office did go out and sign the inning eater starter that I predicted they would in Tanner Roark (wrote an article predicting this signing as well). Not a flashy addition given who was available at the time, but one that could help the team over these next two seasons with his veteran presence and healthy history (could also be a waste of money, we will have to wait and see).
A great appetizer, but it wasn’t the main course that fans were desperately waiting and hoping for.
They Blue Jays would then go out and sign posted Japanese pitcher Shun Yamaguchi, which at two years and $6.35 million, is the type of low risk, possible high reward player that could really benefit the pitching corps moving forward.
He can be used as a starter or in the bullpen due to his versatility, and at roughly $3 million a year, is not a significant investment for a player who could produce or could falter on the MLB stage.
Following this signing, the Blue Jays dipped their toes into the free agent infield market and added former Brewer Travis Shaw, who is a bounce back candidate after a lacklustre 2019 season but is a player who can hit the long ball when he’s on his game. Also not the most flashy signing this off-season, but a power hitter who has a sub $5 million per year contract is not a bad option to have that doesn’t go against the pocketbook.
He also replaces one of the last remaining fan favourites in first baseman Justin Smoak, who recently signed with, you guessed it, the Milwaukee Brewers. Another first baseman was needed on the team after Smoak’s departure, and Atkins was able to deliver an affordable option who could really benefit from the Rogers Centre home run happy atmosphere.
As the off-season wore on, the front office was rumoured to be looking in on a variety of free agents, but the significant names kept falling off the board and the rumours kept tabbing the Blue Jays as a dark horse with many of the available free agents. I was hoping the Blue Jays would make a run at players like Dallas Keuchel or Zack Wheeler, but both players ended up signing elsewhere.
It started to feel like the previous off-seasons all over again, and I was starting to get really disappointed about the lack of action by the Blue Jays management. I understand letting the kids play during the rebuild, but I am a greedy fella, and I really wanted to see the Blue Jays sign a pitcher who could strike fear into the opposing team every time he takes the mound.
And then it happened.
The Blue Jays front office finally landed a big fish at the free agent pond.
After leading the entire league in ERA last season, Ryu is the free agent that Blue Jays fans had been hoping for to land in the city of Toronto. A battle tested player who has shown that he can pitch in the MLB and could make games difficult for opposing teams in a tough A.L. East division. A young Blue Jays team that lacked a competitive veteran starting pitcher in the rotation got the improvement and adrenaline shot that Atkins said that he was going to go out and sign.
Ryu does come with risk given his injury history throughout his MLB career, but this was the risky, high profile signing that Blue Jays have abstained from since Ross Atkins took over as the general manager, and one that I believe this team truly needed heading into 2020.
Compound Ryu with the front office’s previous off-season acquisitions this Winter and the internal prospects/players already within the Blue Jays organization, and the rotation could become a legitimate threat within the next few years if the prospects develop as advertised (key word being if).
One of the positive side effects about signing a player like Ryu is the general excitement he has brought back to the Blue Jays fanbase after a rough few seasons.
There will always be the diehard fanbase who will support the team even through the tough rebuilding years, but even the casual Blue Jays fan seems to be excited for spring training and seeing the Rogers Centre open up again come late March. All the chatter and positivity on social media makes me think that fans are genuinely excited to see how this team will fair this season, knowing that Ryu and the likes of their young prospects could create a great team in the near future. It could even put butts back into the seats, reversing a trend that has impacted the organization since the playoff run highs of 2016.
What is even more important, is that this high profile signing brings back the fan confidence in the current front office in that they really are trying to produce a winning team even during the rebuilding phase. The “Shatkins” moniker almost seems to be something of the past, and the Ryu signing has brought a wave of admiration that was reserved for fans of Alex Anthopoulos and his playoff goals.
I personally was a cranky diehard Blue Jays fan that was tired of seeing my sports feeds being the same routine over and over; “Blue Jays appear interested in certain pitcher” or “Blue Jays checked in with so and so free agent”. You get the idea. Bridesmaid but never a bride and all that jazz.
For that, I owe Ross Atkins and the other members of the Blue Jays front office a sincere, whole hearted apology.
I did not think they would go out and improve this team via free agency and sign any impactful player worth their salt, and they clearly went and made me eat my words. Not only did Ross Atkins make me look like a fool with my pre-determined skepticism, he also improved the team that sets the groundwork for what will hopefully guide another sports team within Toronto towards a successful rebuild, the potential for future playoff runs, and hopefully, World Series aspirations.
Hats off to you Atkins and Shapiro. This is hopefully not the end, but the start of something wonderful.