With a story from Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (subscription required) that the Toronto Blue Jays met with superstar free agent Shohei Ohtani at their Dunedin player development complex on Monday - which might explain the whereabouts of general manager Ross Atkins - the front office continues to walk a razor’s edge of building up massive fan expectations and severe disappointment.
Despite claims this is a weak free agent class, a number of MVP-calibre players are available this offseason: two-time AL MVP Ohtani, 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger, two-time Cy Young winner Blake Snell, plus two-time Nippon Professional Baseball Pacific League MVP and Sawamura Award (Japan’s version of the Cy Young) winner Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
The trade market also offers MVP-type talents like three-time All-Star and four-time Silver Slugger Juan Soto, three-time Silver Slugger and 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich, 2019 RoY and three-time All-Star Pete Alonso, as well as 2021 NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes.
Players like those listed above are transformational talents who could help to elevate a competitive team from playoff irrelevancy to World Series contention. For a team like the Blue Jays nearing the end of their current competitive window, one such player could change the narrative from regression and an 0-7 playoff game losing streak into an AL East pennant and deep postseason run.
And the money from ownership is available to go ‘big game’ hunting, as noted by general manager Ross Atkins in his recent comments to the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America: “We've always had incredible support from ownership to make this team better. We’re one of the few markets, I believe, that has the ability to be nimble.”
In comments to beat reporters Monday at the Winter Meetings via a last minute Zoom call due to “a scheduling conflict”, Atkins said, “The fact that we’re in a position to attract marquee free agents, to be in a position to potentially trade for really good players is a very, very good starting point and one that we are embracing,”
With ownership committed to a top payroll and one of baseball’s best pitching staffs, it isn’t a stretch too see any of those potential MVP winners wanting to join a club that includes Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., George Springer, Kevin Gausman, Chris Bassitt, José Berrios and Jordan Romano to help bring a World Series championship back to Toronto after a 30 year wait.
However, in the context of the World Series expectations of a long suffering fan base, should the front office fail to acquire any of the players above, that miss would likely be viewed harshly. It could get worse if the division rival Yankees acquire Soto for package of players and prospects that Jays fans felt Toronto could have outbid them on.
The possibility of this team regressing further in 2024 and beyond cannot be ignored after losing Matt Chapman, Brandon Belt, Kevin Kiermaier, Whit Merrifield, Jordan Hicks, Jay Jackson and Hyun Jin Ryu to free agency.
If they are only able to acquire players like Joc Pederson, Gio Urshela and Isiah Kiner-Falefa this offseason, would that qualify as a “failure”? Especially after building up excitement among the fan base by not dispelling fantastic dreams of Ohtani, Soto and Bellinger? Would the fan base then balk at higher ticket prices in 2024 and beyond to pay for ongoing stadium upgrades at Rogers Center?
The Blue Jays already saw their win total decline from 92 in 2022 to 89 in 2023, when the team featured a mediocre and flawed offense despite one of the best defensive lineups and pitching staffs in baseball. They finished 12 games back of the Baltimore Orioles in 3rd place in the AL East and were swept out of the AL Wild Card series for a second consecutive year.
Toronto is 0-6 in wild card games since Bichette and Guerrero were called up, and to the fan base it feels like both want to test free agency after the 2025 season. That means the current competitive window has two years remaining.
None of the young, homegrown stars have signed long term extensions beyond their arbitration years, which means Danny Jansen will be a free agent after 2024, followed by Bo, Vlad, Cavan Biggio, Romano and Tim Mayza after the 2025 season, when Chris Bassitt and Erik Swanson will also be free agents.
Time to reload with proactive roster management?
Unlike his predecessor Alex Anthopoulos, who has locked up eight of his core players to contracts through 2027 and beyond in Atlanta, Atkins only has starters José Berríos and Alek Manoah, along with top rookie Davis Schneider here through 2027 among notable players; Berríos has an opt-out on the final two years of his contract after the 2026 season.
With an aging roster, a poorly ranked farm system, and a likely $200M+ payroll again in 2024 after adding back the projected $58.2M for salaries of arbitration eligible players, this is not a rebuilding team. But with the clock ticking on those key free agent departures, prudent roster management might call for a roster reload with younger players with more team control.
According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (subscription required), “The Blue Jays are getting calls on first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as well as Bichette, according to major-league sources who were granted anonymity in order to speak freely. However, it makes little sense for the Jays to move either star when they are under pressure to win and believed to be pursuing Shohei Ohtani. Granted, neither Bichette nor Guerrero has signed a contract extension, and both are two years away from free agency.”
Assuming they can’t sign a big name(s) like Ohtani, Bellinger, Chapman or Jeimer Candelerio, or acquire Soto or Alonso via trade this offseason to fill big holes in LF, 3B and left-handed slugging, could the Blue Jays extend their competitive window by acquiring top-tier young talent for Bo, Vlad, Romano and Mayza, who all have two years of team control, or Jansen and Yusei Kikuchi, who will be free agents after 2024?
Could they add a center fielder like James Outman from the Dodgers or Pete Crow-Armstrong from the Cubs? A young outfielder with power like Canadian Owen Cassie (Cubs) or Jackson Chourio from the Brewers? Young starting pitchers like Ryan Pepiot, Emmet Sheehan and Gavin Stone from the Dodgers, or Cade Horton and Jackson Ferris from the Cubs?
They could also consider acquiring one year rentals like Corbin Burnes, Shane Bieber and Willy Adames to give top prospects Ricky Tiedemann, Orelvis Martinez, Arjun Nimmala, Leo Jimenez, Alan Roden, Connor Cooke, Addison Barger, Damiano Parmegiani and Josh Kasevich another year of development.
Regardless, the hopes and dreams of Toronto’s fan base are sky high as baseball’s Winter Meetings progress this week. Hopefully the hard work the front office has been logging pays off with some big free agent signings or trades (or both!). They’ve certainly proved adept at spending Rogers’ money in the recent past on stars like Ryu, Springer, Gausman, Berríos and Bassitt.
But with the competitive window closing, things get trickier from here as they walk the razor’s edge between being a favourite to win the 2024 World Series if they can add Ohtani or Soto, or a team that could regress further next year should they miss out on the big, available names.